Reading The Urth of the New Sun

I recently finished The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, a coda to his most famous series, The Book of the New Sun (which I wrote about in two halves). This post will contain lots of spoilers, although I’m going to continue beating my drum about how it’s okay to see spoilers for this particular series.

To review: The Book of the New Sun took place in a far-flung post-apocalyptic future, where technology is advanced, but the general populace lacks access and education, so that it plays out like a medieval fantasy. The story followed Severian, former apprentice of the guild of torturers, who is destined for the throne of the Autarch. It is a coming of age story in which Severian comes to reckon with an upbringing that trained him to do something that he could not morally accept.

The Urth of the New Sun follows the events of The Book of the New Sun, but it is thematically completely distinct. It is no longer a coming of age story at all. Instead, it reads like Christian meta fiction.

Severian’s world, Urth, has a major problem. Its sun is too dim, said to be eaten by a black hole at its center. Note this doesn’t really make sense from a physics perspective, but it’s hard to say whether this is sci-fi magic, or if the characters have merely misunderstood the ancient folktales that they use to transmit scientific knowledge. The black hole was placed there by an advanced race of aliens who have put humanity through an epic penance to forge them into a better species. Severian rides on a vast spaceship to reach the aliens and petition for the New Sun.

Severian returns to Urth, bringing with him (by unknown means) the New Sun. He gives everyone the good news and works miracles, becoming the prophet known throughout the earlier books as the Conciliator. He eventually figures out that he has returned to the wrong time, so he has to travel back to his own time, when the New Sun can finally arrive. But the New Sun brings with it a great flood, which kills nearly everyone living on land. The last few chapters show Severian in a state of mourning, traveling through the ages and unable to die.

Severian’s story very obviously parallels stories of Jesus, sometimes down to specific details. For example, when Severian returns, he witnesses his wife deny his own return three times, each time after the sound of bells. This closely parallels the story of Peter, who denied Jesus’ return three times, immediately followed by the sound of a cock’s crow.

Gene Wolfe was famously Catholic, and The Urth of the New Sun was definitely the most Catholic thing I’ve ever read by him. But I would not describe this as worshipful Christian fiction, it’s a bit more critical than that. You might imagine it like if Monty Python’s Life of Brian were a lot more serious and affectionate.

Severian is the subject of worship by many, but it’s pretty clear that he does not actually deserve it. He may be wise, but it isn’t an extraordinary wisdom, it’s just the wisdom that comes from being the protagonist of a coming of age tetralogy. His sense of morality is most certainly constrained by the background he comes from. While he does perform miracles, he has no understanding of his power, and does not necessarily deploy the ability well (e.g. one time accidentally bringing an assassin back to life, directly causing another person’s death). While he does bring the New Sun, this is mainly due to the actions of higher beings. And, since the New Sun kills almost everyone, we might say that it was a mixed blessing.

This story encourages us to speculate, what don’t we understand about Jesus? Many Christians believe that God is vast and unknowable, and yet they don’t seem to consider how the unknowns may significantly alter our perspective. Did Jesus himself really understand any further than we did? Was his morality constrained by his time? Do we give him too much credit?

While I appreciate what the story is trying to do, I feel like it’s not really for me, nor for most of the readers of this blog. The fact is, I am not part of the Jesus fandom, and never really was even when I used to be Christian. For every reference I recognize, I’m sure there are a dozen more that went over my head. And while I agree with many of the criticisms of Jesus that appear in the book (admittedly only by my own interpretation), they aren’t criticisms that I particularly care about. You’d have to like Jesus a lot more than I do to be concerned about whether we really understood him properly.

Who would I recommend this to? Well even though this is an atheist blogging network, I don’t rule out that some Christians may follow my blog. That’s cool, cool, you do you… and maybe that means you’re the kind of Christian who would appreciate this critical yet affectionate meta fic. You know, provided you’re also willing to slog through the dense (but wonderful) Book of the New Sun first.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    As of last night, I’ve made it about 3/4 of the way through Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight English/Celtic/Nordic fantasy duology, which I would recommend to just about any admirer of elegant writing. (Though with a qualifier: the narrator starts out as a fairly typical US teenage boy, with a vocabulary in that range – so the author has tied one hand behind his back, to express subtle concepts and feelings through a limited range of discourse. IMHO, he succeeds.)

    I would even more strongly recommend the New Sun books, which I hope to re-re-read in the semi-near future.

    It also bears noting that much of the best science-fiction-as-concept-exploration writing comes from Catholic (or heavily Catholic-influenced) authors, including Walter Miller, Thomas Disch, R. A. Lafferty, Mary Doria Russell. I have no clue why.

  2. says

    Pierce: Is James Blish good enough to be included in your list? I wouldn’t blame you for saying no. “A Case of Conscience” was a terribly lame book all around, but it did seem to come from a Catholic perspective. (And FWIW it wasn’t his worst novel either.)

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Raging Bee: Is James Blish good enough to be included in your list?

    Absolutely – I had forgotten about A Case of Conscience, and hadn’t known about Blish’s Catholicism (or Catholic-adjacentism) – though I remember Black Easter fondly (mostly for the shock of seeing the phrase “President Agnew” in passing, and the hilarious meltdown of that general on his first sight of Satan).

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