(Note: This review is for the full Book of the New Sun, no spoilers.)
Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, published in four separate volumes between 1981 and 1984, is much lauded amongst fans who enjoy their science fiction more literary. (The four volumes are The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch.) Divisive for its relative opacity, there remains a very simple formula defining Wolfe’s magnum opus: take the style of James Joyce’s Ulysses, place it in a brilliantly creative sci-fi setting, and motivate with a subtle bildungsroman plot that transcends the material for the spiritual. While potentially disagreeable on a couple of thematic fronts, the resulting tale is a landmark of imagination that proves speculative fiction can be profound literature, if more were ever needed. Thus, those seeking high-flying action, space battles and laser pistols duels, stop reading now: The Book of the New Sun is adult literature.
Not graphic sex or violence, it is the patience, knowledge, and insight necessary to penetrate and fully understand Wolfe’s story that make The Book of the New Sun a mature read. On the surface lies the unusual tale of Severian, an apprentice in the guild of torturers, and his rise into adulthood and beyond. Beneath this, however, exist multiple layers of allegorical and symbolic meaning that not only tie together what are otherwise mysterious events in Severian’s life, but also draw in events and facts from our own history to give the story a strong cultural context. The result necessitating a re-read to unravel the interconnections and hidden messages, readers should beware that the book requires attention and effort to grasp the concepts presented—perhaps Wolfe himself the only one who comprehends its entirety.
Though set on Earth, Severian’s story occurs in the distant-distant future, the sun close to death. The era so far removed from our own, the language Severian uses to describe the world is equally distant; the “signified” may remain the same, but the “signifier” has changed. For example, though it is simply “the guild” to him, Severian’s description of the place he lives hints at the building being a grounded spaceship, unused for such a time its interstellar capabilities no longer have meaning. The result of these and other detached descriptions is a world that feels wholly fantastic, not to mention a delight for the reader to uncover one puzzle piece at a time. (As discovering which elements are futuristic and which familiar can be enjoyable or frustrating, Michael Andre-Driussi published the Lexicon Urthus to help the more ambitious understand some of the book’s tantalizing and frustrating hidden meanings.)
Precisely in the same vein, even dialogue cannot be taken at face value. Like any human, Severian’s descriptions and memories are wholly subjective (despite being presented as quite the opposite). Wolfe applies the device of unreliable narrator and attentive readers will quickly realize Severian is not to be trusted. Told in the first-person, his statements regarding the eidetic quality of his memory do not always line up with his recollection of events as time moves on. Piecing together the truths and the lies is an obstacle to the narrative requiring concentration on the reader’s part, but remains a wholly human aspect to the story for it. Thus, those who prefer stories in which the narrator leads the reader by the hand may withdraw in consternation confronting this aspect of the book.
Beyond literary tropes, allegory, and allusion, often left unmentioned in discussions on Wolfe is the unique quality of the imagined places, peoples, creatures, and otherwise he infuses into his stories. The alzabo, dryads, and fiery salamander are all some of the most imaginative things (for lack of a more descriptive word) that fantasy can boast. For readers unable to penetrate the deeper layers of the book, resting weirdly-horrifically-tantalizingly on the surface are these brilliantly effected creations to propel the story in interesting fashion. One can almost taste the shock of Little Severian’s encounter with Baldanders in The Sword of the Lictor and feel the warm breath of the notules chasing Severian in The Claw of the Conciliator.
The writing basically flawless, it is only in theme that readers can find fault with Wolfe. A member of the previous generation, some of the underlying motifs of The Book of the New Sun are at times difficult to swallow for readers of more liberal leanings. The portrayal of women, for example, either as sex objects or vindictive wenches, is more indicative of the era of Wolfe’s youth than most modern perspectives. While able to be viewed from two angles, Wolfe’s cosmological pretenses likewise present an opportunity for criticism. The first universally spiritual, the second presents a monotheistic worldview—the underlying symbolism and interwoven religious and cultural history leaving no room for guessing which god Wolfe is discussing. And so while Severian’s coming to terms with his emotional and spiritual stance on the world—his rise to self-actualization—is an edifying experience for the reader, there remains a touch of proselytizing that may put some readers off. The bits of chauvinism and misogyny, however, are sure to disconcert more.
In the end, The Book of the New Sun is one of the best pieces science fantasy has produced from a literary standpoint, despite its dissymmetry with today’s ideologies. Comparisons to Joyce’s Ulysses are astute, as reading the four volume book is not a straightforward experience. Allegory, symbolism, along with an unreliable narrator, imbue the story, making it more often a puzzle than a yarn in spite of the linear, first-person narrative presentation. Comprehensible on the surface, re-reading is required to fully understand how background story elements fit together. Thematic leanings not fully in line with the current era’s, zealous liberals may be put off by Wolfe’s beliefs. The quality and quantity of imagination, however, may be enough to satisfy the more principled. The quality of prose, characterization, setting, and the creatures Severian encounters are some of the best in science-fantasy and the reason the book has won the awards it has.