Remember back when I blogged about rereading Shadow and Claw, the first half of The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe? Of course you don’t, that was in 2019. Well, I finally finished the second half, Sword and Citadel. See, I used to read books on my commute and now I work remotely.
This post will contain spoilers for The Book of the New Sun, although for what it is worth, I don’t think this is the kind of book that you need to avoid spoilers for. It’s not that the book doesn’t have secrets. Rather, the secrets are so dense and obscure that it is not possible to spoil all of them, not even by literally reading the book. I think knowing a few of the book’s secrets can teach you how to find even more for yourself. Also, some of the spoilers you’ll find out there are wrong, so you’ll still have the pleasure of trying to differentiate legend from canon. Personally, I freely read spoilers.
Like the previous post from 2019, this post will take the form of a series of observations, mostly focusing on thematic analysis.
The Claw and the bush
I don’t remember much from the first time I read The Citadel of the Autarch (book 4), like a decade ago. But there’s one particular moment I never forgot: when Severian encounters a thorned bush (Bk. 4 Ch. 31).
It feels like the whole tetralogy was building up to this moment. First, Severian finds himself in possession of an invaluable sacred relic, a gemstone known as the Claw of the Conciliator. He comes to believe it has the power to heal people, or even raise the dead. Eventually the gem is destroyed, and Severian is left with a small black claw that (he believes) was formerly at the heart of the gem. Later, he returns the claw to the religious order that originally revered it. Finally, he finds a bush covered in thorns, each identical to the claw he had been carrying.
The natural conclusion is that the claw was never miraculous, it was just an ordinary thorn that Severian believed was healing people. But that’s not the conclusion Severian draws. Instead, he believes that all the things of the world are holy relics. It’s at once a profound spiritual revelation, and a profound error, and I love it.
There’s a popular fan theory that the power to heal and raise the dead does not lay in the Claw, but rather in Severian himself. There’s a lot of textual support for this. The religious order and the Hierodules both tell Severian that the Claw can’t do the thing he believes it does. And, Severian apparently raises a dog from the dead well before ever finding the Claw.
Severian, for his part, comes very close to realizing that the power was in him all along, but instead he discusses the possibility that the claw is powered by himself (Bk. 4 Ch. 34), which is oh so subtly different. As an analytic blogger, one thing I really like about Severian as a character, is his habit of analyzing a situation and failing spectacularly due to a misplaced assumption.
Puzzles and meaning
A long time ago when I was Catholic, I was taught that a miracle is not just a fantastic event. It is a fantastic event that teaches us a deeper truth. The Book of the New Sun follows—or wants to follow—a similar principle. As I discussed in my post about Shadow and Claw, there is the first puzzle of “what is even going on?” but then there is another puzzle of “why is it going on?”
So that’s what I’m thinking about as some of the pieces fall into place to understand what happened. For example, there are a number of fan theories that basically say “X character is actually Father Inire in disguise”. Now that I’ve reread the book, I can see where that’s coming from, because the text definitely says one of the characters is Father Inire in disguise, and why would Inire stop at one disguise? On the other hand, what would it mean if such and such character was Inire in disguise?
There are several other examples like this. For instance, the text very directly implies that Severian’s relationship with Dorcas is incestuous, though the characters don’t know it. This generates a class of fan theories saying that this or that relationship is also incestuous. But why? Perhaps there doesn’t need to be a reason why. After all, I can’t really see much deeper meaning to the Severian/Dorcas incest, it’s just a thing that’s there.
You could say I’m reading too much into it, but that’s exactly the struggle I’m trying to point out. You need to read into the text to solve all the little puzzles scattered everywhere. But for the thematically-focused reader, reading into the text also means trying to understand the deeper meaning, which isn’t always present.
This brings me to another favorite scene in the book, where Severian is guilty of reading too much into the situation. Severian has been hanging out with a soldier that he raised from the dead, who is suffering from amnesia. Based on a certain affectation of speech that the soldier has, Severian concludes that this soldier is actually the return of his old friend Jonas—last seen disappearing into a teleporter. Severian tells this to the soldier, and the soldier says nothing and leaves. All this is based on an affectation of speech, which turns out to be common among sailors.
Punishment and Imagination
One of the running themes of The Book of the New Sun is how we punish crimes. Naturally, this is a matter of concern for Severian, who was trained as a torturer. The torturers carry out sentences to exact specifications, causing criminals to suffer exactly the right amount and no more. What sets off the whole adventure is Severian disobeying orders by granting mercy to Thecla.
The beginning of Sword of the Lictor (Book 3) finds Severian working as a lictor at Thrax, meaning he oversees all the prisoners and execute. During his time there, he at one point delivers a long explanation to his lover Dorcas, explaining why torture is necessary (Bk. 3 Ch. 3). Imprisoning, banishing, simple execution, forced labor, mercy, Severian doesn’t see how any of these could work, he can’t imagine it. Dorcas is, at this point, catatonic, which leaves Severian to only argue with himself. He appears to lose.
When Severian eventually comes into power, one of his first moves is to dismiss the torturer’s guild. At least, he says that he intended to do so; notably he does not describe actually dismissing them. He visits a dozen prisoners of the torturers, but there are only a few whose sentence he commutes. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with the rest of them. He has trouble imagining.
We don’t need to imagine, because we already live in a society without torture. But what is it that we can’t imagine?
Apocalypse and Progress
I suppose it’s easy to jaded about the post-apocalyptic setting, ever since video games decided it was a great stage for environmental storytelling. But, I suppose it was a bit more unusual in the 80s when The Book of the New Sun was published. (Maybe? I’m too young to remember.)
The post-apocalyptic setting of course allows for some neat things, like the blending of fantasy and sci-fi. But one of the important themes of the setting, is an ambivalence towards “progress”. Technology is more advanced than ever, but the common people live like they’re in a medieval fantasy. Scientific knowledge is exclusive to the educated few, and they tend to pass it around like its folkloric wisdom.
And then there’s the Autarch’s deliberate throttling of progress, by closing the roads. Progress encourages sedition. Progress is also associated with the Ascians, who are enslaved by a lovecraftian monster of some sort, and can only speak in Bible verse. The Ascians and their allies want to return to the stars, at the cost of individuality.
It’s not necessarily a compelling vision of progress; it doesn’t make me think “history’s going to play out just like in The Book of the New Sun.” But I think it’s a reminder of how progress can go in strange directions.
Mysteries and Sequels
The Book of the New Sun is a complete tetralogy, but there’s also sort of a fifth book, The Urth of the New Sun. It was published some years later, and could be interpreted as a sort of patch to explain things that weren’t very well explained in the tetralogy. I’ve never read it, although I have some idea of what’s in it, because I don’t avoid spoilers.
Here are a few things that I think weren’t well-explained, that I hope are in Urth. One, I don’t understand what the deal is with the Undines. It seems like they should be Severian’s enemies, but they also save his life that one time, and I don’t even know. Two, Agia does the same thing. Severian is her sworn enemy, but she still saves his life because I guess she wants the chance to kill him properly? I dunno, I think Agia is just poorly written (and I don’t think Gene Wolfe is great at writing women in general).
But will Urth actually explain either of those things? Eh, probably not. Urth is still next on my list though.
And after that? I could read Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, or maybe one of his newer novels? I could also read Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota, which draws inspiration from The Book of the New Sun. As a bonus, I’ve already read the first three books of Terra Ignota, and clearly I like rereading things. Actually I’ll probably stop to read Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun.
Let me know what you’d like to see, and then, I guess stick around until 2028?
Pierce R. Butler says
Don’t overlook Shadows of the New Sun, edited by J. E. Mooney & Bill Fawcett, an anthology of stories by other authors inspired by Severian’s world.
And if you can explain how Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun trilogy actually comprises a sequel, I’d be most grateful.
I’ve actually read Book of the Long Sun. I didn’t like it very much, and I am not willing to read it again. IMHO, it’s a separate story and not really a sequel. However, I’ve heard a connection is made in the third series, Book of the Short Sun, where Horn meets Severian.
Gene Wolfe is one of the few authors where I’ve tried to read everything they wrote. I think there are only three authors I feel that way about; Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gene Wolfe. In some ways the story is less important to me than the use of language and the structure of the books. Like Jon Anderson’s lyrics from the prog rock band Yes, Gene Wolfe’s prose projects an overall feeling without being explicit, and I’m pretty certain what is projected contains the message he indicated.
Wolfe is also a master of playing with styles. I hated Castleview until I realized that Wolfe had written a novel where all the action takes place off-stage. Just before something dramatic happens, he cuts to other characters. When we return to the first characters, the intense action is past and we only hear the outcome. It’s brilliant structurally, even if it’s sometimes a pain to read. Wolfe’s work contains quite a bit of playing with narrative structure, and if I was going for a musical metaphor again I’d say he played with narrative structure like Dave Brubeck played with time signatures.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus is, in my opinion, his best work. Three novellas with very different styles telling the same story about colonialism from different viewpoints. I submit that it’s better than the Book of the New Sun simply because it handles very complex issues in about 300 pages. It is an early work, and not his most ambitious, but there is an artistry in it which suggests how his future writings would evolve.
I need to re-read the Book of the New Sun again soon. When it first came out I avoided it because I have a tendency to discount popular fame, but when I read it the first time I recognized that Wolfe was probably one of the greatest stylists of the 20th century. In my opinion better than Pynchon, who I feel is good but over-rated.
For what it’s worth, a great stylist doesn’t necessarily mean great plots. If you strip away all the detritus surrounding most of Wolfe’s plots they are not particularly inventive, but I find great pleasure in watching the waves of language roll in from the sea of oblivion.
Castleview sounds neat. I’ve never heard of that one. Heh, it seems particularly unpopular on Goodreads, but I don’t take those ratings for granted.
I admit, there were a couple Gene Wolfe books that I didn’t like, and that made me more cautious to just read a bunch. But people say good things about The Fifth Head of Cerberus.
Ketil Tveiten says
Book of the Long Sun is weird, it’s about a third pretty good and two thirds complete garbage. Lots of cool ideas, but also so much stupid. Ultimately, the thing I liked the least about it is that it’s a spin-off from the one section of Book of the New Sun where it’s completely obvious that Severian is just making up the whole thing to explain away why he “lost” that kid.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus: I didn’t like it. It’s very catholic, and mostly doesn’t make much sense. You say you like Terra Ignota though, which I found to be absolute garbage, so perhaps it’s for you after all?
Post-apocalyptic set stories have been a strand of science fiction and of fantasy for as long as I’ve been reading them (a little over fifty years). The popularity waxes and wanes, the kind of apocalypse tends to reflect the dominant fears of the time, although there are also outliers. For most of the fifties and sixties the apocalyse was nuclear, but there was the odd climate disaster too. The Drowned World by J G Ballard came out in 1962, while it got the sea level rise right the cause wasn’t human caused but astronomical.