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?