cn: no significant spoilers
Sci-fi/fantasy author Gene Wolfe died last week. A shame, because I read and liked many of his books. I read nine and a half of his books (about seven years ago, so cut me some slack if I get anything wrong), and I’d like to reflect on them.
Gene Wolfe is best known for his tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, and that is how I was introduced to him. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi universe, but society has regressed so much that most people only understand the world around them through the lens of fantasy. The narrator, Severian, grew up in a torturer’s guild, but he breaks the rules by allowing a prisoner to commit suicide. Rather than punishing him, the guild sends him off to take a position as executioner in another city. After a long string of adventures Severian eventually becomes the Autarch, the nation’s ruler (no spoiler here; Severian says so in the first chapter).
But I think that what makes these books special, is not the plot itself. Rather, what makes the books special is how they invite the reader to pay close attention, make connections, and ponder the nature of narrative.
The Book of the New Sun is very dense, and one thing that makes it dense is that it’s filled with little puzzles. For instance, in an early chapter Severian describes a magnificent painting of a knight, and if you think about it, you realize that it’s not a knight at all, but an astronaut on the moon. Another example is that the tower of the torturer’s guild is actually a defunct rocket ship. Another example is that it’s implied that two of the characters are siblings, and neither knows it. Those last two things totally went over my head, and I learned about them through external sources. I realized that these little puzzles were absolutely everywhere, and very easy to miss, so it encouraged me to read very carefully and attribute meaning to every little thing. It made me believe that for every unsolved mystery in the book, there was an answer hidden somewhere in plain sight.
Of course that’s not actually true. The book has one mysterious scene after another, and some of these have explanations somewhere in the text, but plenty of others are simply unsolvable. And you could ask, what do any of these details matter? They don’t matter, and they’re not necessary to catch in order to enjoy the books. But if you’re a certain kind of reader, it’s very entertaining. And it encourages you to read deeply, trusting that whatever investment you put into it will be rewarded.
We are also rewarded when we reflect on the themes of the books. Severian is sort of a “torturer with a heart of gold” character, but time and time again we reflect on how much or how little a heart of gold really matters. Severian often thinks he’s doing good, but he is severely limited by his understanding. I mean, he takes it for granted that a torturer is an ordinary thing to be. Then you see, all the little puzzles aren’t there just for the sake of having puzzles, but because they build on a character who is perpetually failing to understand.
Another thing I love about the books is all the avant-garde narrative elements. Characters get introduced as if they will be permanent party members, but then they just disappear. Books end on cliffhangers, that the next book never cares to resolve. Severian claims perfect memory, but conceals events that are unflattering to him, and later forgets that he had concealed them. He promises to explain things later but never gets around to it. He has a very distorted sense of which events are important and which are not. And again, this is all good fun on a surface level, but also builds into the theme of a narrator who is limited by his own understanding.
This may all sound rather daunting, and it is, but it’s entertaining whether or not you’re able to solve any of the puzzles, just knowing that the puzzles are there. I recommend reading it at whatever pace you like, and if you think you’d like to understand it better you can just read it again. Talking about it makes me want to read it again myself, when I have time. There’s also a difficult-to-find fifth book in the series The Urth of the New Sun that I never read, maybe I could read that one too.
I said I read nine and a half books, and The Book of the New Sun only accounts for four. I don’t remember much about the others, and I can’t say I recommend them. But I’ll share a personal narrative of how I came to read them and what I thought about them.
I’m a very picky reader. I can’t just pick up a random book and enjoy it, I have to carefully vet books first. One of the easiest methods, is to look at the author of a book I already know I like, and check out what other books they’ve written. I enjoyed The Book of the New Sun, so I looked into Gene Wolfe’s other books. He was intimidatingly prolific, so I just started with one of his then most recent standalone novels, The Sorceror’s House. I liked it, but remember very little about it. It was a light and fun fantasy, in stark contrast to The Book of the New Sun.
Feeling emboldened, I tried another of Gene Wolfe’s epic fantasies. I read The Book of the Long Sun, another tetralogy. I initially liked it, because it had a lot of the same flavor as The Book of the New Sun. It’s set in the same universe (before or after is unclear), although they live on a giant space ship with a “long sun” at its center, and the themes are more… Catholic. But after two books, some of Gene Wolfe’s excesses started to wear on me. In particular, I got tired of the long plot arc where several characters endlessly wander through tunnels, and all the focus is placed on their dialogue, made needlessly difficult by the fact that each character has a unique dialect. I think this sort of book relies a lot on reader trust, and the book lost my trust at that point.
The tenth book I tried, was There are Doors. And unfortunately, I had to put this one down. It was basically pure surrealism, and I was not persuaded that any of the things happening mattered. I was also annoyed that what tied everything together, was a male protagonist chasing after his girlfriend. It made me realize how hetero/male-centric his novels are, at least the ones I read. So I stopped reading, and stopped reading Gene Wolfe altogether.
Perhaps in the wake of Gene Wolfe’s death, it’s inappropriate to highlight aspects of his books I didn’t care for. But I’m just being honest about my impressions. Regardless of any of that, Gene Wolfe had a long career as author that he could be proud of.
Thank you for writing this. I was the sort of reader who just plunged into any book that came to hand. Thus I ended up reading the “The Book of the New Sun” when I was about fourteen. I didn’t really understand it, but I could feel there was a lot going on that I was not catching. I really enjoyed it though, mostly because I could recognize that this was much better writing than most of the fantasy/space opera I was reading.
I then moved on to Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast which held me for some time in the fantasy genre.
I reread “The Book of the New Sun” and the other three novels in my early twenties. I did start picking up on all the “puzzles” and enjoyed them but by the fourth novel I was done. I felt like I was drowning in molasses. Perhap the series should be read one at a time, with a long interval of reading more straight forward novels. I know it didn’t help that I had just read some Russian classic novels for my university course.
But years have past, and thanks to your post, I think I will revisit “The New Sun”. Wolfe is the writer who first showed me that writing can be multi-layered. That what is on the surface may not be the truth, or that whole layers of meaning may lie underneath.
Pierce R. Butler says
You might also check out Shadows of the New Sun,a book of stories by other authors set in Wolfe’s New Sun universe.
Another worthwhile puzzler: Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, about which I will say only that you should try to keep count of the main characters.
I’m interested in trying out The Fifth Head of Cerberus, if I can actually find it in the library. I think I’d need Link+ for that one.
file thirteen says
Not all of Gene Wolfe’s books are worth your time, but the best are absolute must reads IMO. My favourites of his are The Books of the New Sun, as you mentioned. For many years I could pick up book two, The Claw of the Concilliator, open it at any random point and start reading, and I would be too engrossed to stop. The coda The Urth of the New Sun is not flawless, but I still recommend it.
Another worth reading is Soldier of the Mist in which the protagonist (Latro, a Roman mercenary) has suffered amnesia due to a head injury and periodically loses his memory but is able to see the gods and the supernatural. The story is his diary as written on papyrus scrolls. If you like it there are two sequels, although the second was a big disappointment to me.
Lastly I single out the best two (for me) of his short story collections: Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days and The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (sic, one of the stories is called The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories), the latter even if only for the award-winning story The Death of Doctor Island.