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Thoughts on The Book of The New Sun – Proquest #012

It feels like every half-decade or so a new book rises up and takes the number one spot in my list of favorite works. In high school if you’d asked me, I would say it was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Twelve years ago it was Orson Scott Card’s sequel to Ender’s Game, Speaker For The Dead. And five years ago, I would have answered Frank Herbert’s Dune.

The past ten years or so, getting motivation to read has gotten harder. I could say that the instant gratification provided by smartphones and infotainment-based content has contributed to a general shortening of attention span. But, for me at least, I think that’s only half of the problem.

So many of the books I’ve read over the past decade have felt like just another volume amongst a collection of homogeneous titles. Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire stunned readers with its less conventional deployment of realistic storytelling, in place of episodic cookie-cooker plot points that enable fan-favorite characters to retain their plot armor for as long as they need them. This type of writing became so popular that it became a trope on its own, as many writers missed the point by placing their characters in fatal scenarios with abandon, even if the story did not call for it. The content that sought out to be different and unconventional became convention itself.

I came to Dune late, but perhaps that was for the better. Its setting is so other-worldly that it felt a refreshing reprieve from the generic medieval fantasies and dystopian sci-fi futures that abound in modern-day fiction. Not since I first played The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has a setting felt so alien, yet practically inviting with its myriad of curiosities around every corner and enlightening secrets hidden behind tapestries of metaphor and prophecy. I didn’t think that Dune could ever be trumped by another in terms of setting, world-building, or prose. It seemed to be a tale that was written for me, catering to what I want to see in fiction.

Dune ~ Marc Simonetti

Last Fall I started playing Torment: Tides of Numenera. I didn’t finish it, mind you. It was simply a substitute game for me when my roommate and I were unable to work on our co-op save in Baldur’s Gate III. But I was quickly pulled into its ancient setting of earth, detritus, and psyonic miasma. The world, I was told by the game, was earth. It was earth millions of years into our future. As such, it didn’t look anything like an RPG set on earth. There was no monument to any real-world civilization, no recognizable standing structures, no current-day cultural groups, nor any governmental or institutional establishments one might identify with. It was a world more alien than any actual extra-terrestrial settings in fiction. Unfortunately I got distracted from that game, as I usually do, by life and other hobbies and ended up dropping it.

Torment: Tides of Numera

Ever since then, I’ve considered picking up the Numenera player’s manual, the rulebook for the table-top RPG setting that the video game is based on, or one of the novels set in that realm. However upon looking up reviews for the novels, I learned that Numenera’s setting was largely inspired by Gene Wolfe’s The Book of The New Sun series, a set of two novels (or four, depending on which edition you purchase) and that Wolfe’s Solar Cycle setting made Numenera look vanilla in comparison. That helped me make my decision.

I finished up reading the first part of Austin King’s Nimbus series and started the first novel in Book of the New Sun, Shadow & Claw. I thought it a slow burn at first, with most of its early chapters taking place in the rather grim setting of the guild of torturers, the gruesome arm of a justice system that carries out executions by way of torment rather than humane extinguishment.

Instead of being a trope of yet another dystopian government, such systematic acceptance of torture, for me at least, serves to illustrate how foreign this culture is. There is indeed a logic behind its implementation and its intention is to serve justice, misguided though it is. This “Urth” has seen the rise and fall of thousands of different societies and forms of government, each successive one no doubt an answer to the failures of those that preceded it.

This window which this story provides offers a look into a future when earth is witnessing the death of its sun. Forests are dying, the jungles are sparse, and many speak about a warm sunny day as thought it were the type of astronomical wonder that generations wait to see.

Wraparound cover for Gene Wolfe’s The Claw of the Conciliator, drawn by Bruce Pennington (© 1983 Bruce Pennington)

The setting of Urth many times feels more fantasy than science-fiction (though it speaks to the human condition in ways that sci-fantasy epics like Star Wars never attempt to). There are countless times when I find myself reading descriptions of enchanted mirrors, magical spells, and creatures that would feel at home in stories like The Witcher. But I remind myself that this earth has seen the advent and subsequent obsoletion of technologies beyond current comprehending as well as the comprehending of the characters within the book. Urth is a post-history setting. When human progress has encompassed aeons, the retention of its history is nigh impossible for even dedicated scholars to hold. The common people have such a dim understanding of not only their origin, but of their adolescence and maturity. They exist solely within the moment, understanding only that the death of Sol is nigh and that one day, a New Sun shall be their salvation.

The Book of the New Sun never tells that an outcome is prophesied. Rather it shows that such events were fated, though perhaps they were not always so. If the tapestry that I mentioned earlier, made of mystery and metaphor, is hanging in the council houses and towers of settings like Morrowind and Dune, then it is woven here, in the works of Gene Wolfe. Don’t view this as a deterrent to reading his fiction. Much of BotNS’ moment to moment story is easy to follow. But the eagle-eyed and perceptive reader will be rewarded for their analysis.

Urth’s purity was long ago relinquished. Its native ecology has been forever changed and replaced by the introduction species from far-off worlds, the names of which the common people no longer remember. Even foundational species Wolfe refers to, such as dogs and horses are eventually revealed to not truly be the species as we know them, having evolved and changed over the course of millennia, no doubt also adapting to extra-terrestrial additions.

Like Numenera, very little in this world feels familiar. Based on the knowledge that Urth is a far-future version of our own world, it’s easy to figure out where this story takes place based on the geography described, though the reader would not be shocked if their assumption proved to be wrong. Such are the lengths to which earth has changed. Not even the sandy beaches resemble ours. Instead they are multicolored plains, composed of the metals, glass and plastics of past civilizations that have crumbled and been ground into powder. There were times when I even second-guessed that the beings in this book who called themselves human were indeed actually human, though I don’t believe that the author ever intended such an interpretation.

Wraparound cover for Gene Wolfe’s The Citadel of the Autarch, drawn by Bruce Pennington (© 1983 Bruce Pennington)

The story makes many references to both the void of space and the vast ocean of earth, with the narrator often not distinguishing between the two when discussing matters of ships, travel, and sailing. Perhaps it is because the two feel so ancient to us, the latter being the point of origin of terrestrial life and the latter being the origin of everything we can rationally conceive of. To a future race of humans in which humanity has lived and died thousands of times over, when the days of stellar conquest and galactic empires are as bygone as the era of dinosaurs is to us, could there be any distinction between the oldness of the void and that of the sea?

Prose: A literary medium distinguished from poetry especially by its greater irregularity and variety of rhythm and its closer correspondence to the patterns of everyday speech. ~ Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I can’t remember an author whose prose I enjoyed more. It feels classically sophisticated and filled with complexity, but not once did I find it boring or difficult to read. I did notice myself paging backwards many times, not because I wasn’t paying attention but instead because I encountered revelations and declarations so profound I wanted to experience it again or because the writing was so wonderfully nuanced that I wanted to be certain that I understood the depth of it. A search of his name does reveal a great amount of critical praise for Wolfe’s writing before his death. He was once called “the Melville of science fiction“, a statement which has made me realize that I need to investigate Melville’s work. But I am of the opinion that he has been sorely underrated by readers of sci-fi/fantasy.

And this is when I began to suspect why reading had become such a background thing in my life. Aside from competing hobbies, household chores, and life events taking up more of my time these days, I discovered that I hadn’t read a book that challenged me in a very long time. It wasn’t just the vocabulary that was stimulating, but the mechanics employed. Wolfe uses the ‘unreliable narrator’ to its full realization here. There are times when the main character, Severian, describes an event or setting in the way that he currently understands it, only for him to much later provide previously omitted context that elucidates the passage in a new light. To further obfuscate literal truth, Severian’s narration has been passed through an in-universe translator, whom the real-world author has assumed the role of. Words that have no direct translation into our modern day tongue have been replaced by the words of antiquity, most often Greek or Latin and certainly unknown to a great many of his first-time readers. No doubt this was done to reflect the overall “ancient” feeling Wolfe wanted to communicate, but it also lends a sort of natural credence to the world-building. Many times I encountered a word thinking it an original creation of Wolfe’s only to be told by the dictionary on my kindle that it dates back hundreds of years. For this reason, one might be better served by reading the eBook version where they might quickly search any unknown word they encounter.

Wolfe manages to craft his story with words that describe the world in an almost ambiguous manner, yet at no point do I feel like some key information has been withheld from me to protect some revelation, twist, or plot point. Some context may not be revealed immediately, but the face value of the events as they occur is valid within its own right. The true nature of the characters and elements of this world are not hidden outright from the reader. The reader simply projects their own understanding of reality upon the story, never stopping to think that their understanding of reality might not be wholly correct. The modern-day reader of Don Quixote might not fully understand the historical or cultural context under which it was written, so why should they inherently understand that of a work written hundreds of thousands of years into their future? The fact that it is an in-universe work is Wolfe’s biggest conceit here, but it is not an unearned one. He works hard to make such a conceit convincing.

I could continue heaping praise upon the book, but I’ve made the core of my feelings clear. The Book of the New Sun is currently my favorite book and work of fiction, having even edged out Dune, the book that I once believed codified my taste in “weird” stories. Wolfe is simply a better writer than Herbert and the story he has told here speaks to more facets of our existence. This is not to mention how he manages to, on multiple occasions, tie together threads one might have never realized were hanging loosely, leaving the reader slack-jawed and feeling as though they are the ones who have made a discovery, rather than having had it explained to them. I can count on one hand the number of times, as an adult, a book has made me audibly exclaim “No way!” or “Oh man,” to some reveal. I generally don’t react to stories in this way. It has made me hungry for more fiction like it, though I’m not sure where to find a new source. I would grieve to learn that this is the peak of challenging literature.

I must now attempt to divorce myself from my adoration of this work to present a fair accounting. It is foolish to proclaim any work as perfect and so I would not dare to do so here. But if I am to criticize Wolfe at all it must be for the same reason I praise him. His writing is masterfully nuanced and deliberately paced. His descriptions are veiled behind vague statements and archaic prose to the point where it is expected for readers to at first not understand it’s deeper meaning. The story as it is told often feels relevant to Severian’s current state of mind and the narration given expectedly serves to set scenes and characterize the protagonist. This is often just a surface-level understanding, however and there is greater meaning the reader will not realize until later in the story or perhaps not even until they’ve finished it and are trying to sleep at night. But this delayed understanding is no failure of Wolfe’s. He knows what he is doing and he does it purposefully. Instead of viewing this ambiguity explicitly as a negative trait of the work, I feel it more accurate to say it is an element that might turn away readers of a certain preference. The book isn’t for everyone, but anyone could, hopefully, appreciate what it tries to do.

In looking for negative aspects of BotNS, it occurred to me to warn that the narrator and main character, Severian, is oftentimes guilty of stereotyping the sexes. I do not believe this is sexism born from the author’s predilections, but instead a human feature bestowed upon the main character to lend the story a recognizable measure of realism. I would not declare this a flaw of the book; instead I give it as a warning to those who would seek to damn the book for a depiction of characteristics that in other cases authors have infused into their stories due to their own personal beliefs.

There are so many many more things I would talk about, such as the allegories to Jesus Christ, attempts to answer Asimov’s The Last Question, the development of empathy, identity, themes regarding death, and the return to the birthplace of terrestrial life: water…but I don’t want to spoil more than I have. If you enjoy literature and you enjoy being made to think, then don’t dismiss these books out of hand. The story does not end on the final page. It sits in your head and nags at you through the following weeks. Questions that were posed by the text demand answers. And the answers that are given on the page itch at your mind just as persistently as the questions do.

To quote Neil Gaman from his directive on how to read Gene Wolfe: “Trust the text implicitly. The answers are in there“; “Do not trust the text farther than you can throw it“; and finally “There are two kinds of clever writer. The ones that point out how clever they are, and the ones who see no need to point out how clever they are. Gene Wolfe is of the second kind, and the intelligence is less important than the tale. He is not smart to make you feel stupid. He is smart to make you smart as well.

I’m at the beach while writing this. Today, my son and I were playing along the shore, I chasing him and he running. I took a break from playing monster to catch my breath and told him “Did you know that we came from the ocean, buddy? This is where life began.”

“Why,” he asked.

“Because to make life, you need water. Did you know that we’re mostly made of water? And that we were in the oceans before we came to land? That’s why we need water to live. Water is life.”

“Okay, but you can’t catch me!” He said and resumed running.

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