Tag Archives: Gene Wolfe

The Urth of the New Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Urth of the New Sun [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Gene Wolfe, book 3 of the New Sun omnibus series.

Wolfe The Urth of the New Sun

I bought this book in the twentieth century of the vulgar era, and moved it with my library about eleven times over the succeeding twenty-two years before I finally read it. Somehow that seems fitting. The Urth of the New Sun is the fifth of four volumes in Wolfe’s autotheography of Severian the Torturer, a.k.a. Severian the Great, a.k.a. Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, Epitome of Urth, and incarnation of the New Sun. It first recounts his voyage to and from the neighboring universe of Yesod. (Qabalistic Hebrew is strangely conscripted throughout the book.) Then it details his salvific manifestations on Urth and its successor world Ushas.

There are roughly as many plot arcs and riddling enigmas in this book as in the four previous ones put together, and there is hardly a person or a place in the earlier stories that is not subjected to some sort of revisitation in the sequel. These seem to assume their “proper” dimensions so that it is difficult to believe that the author did not secretly understand them this way from the beginning. There is less here than in the earlier books in the way of nested narrative and storytelling set-pieces; for a book chock-full of the vagaries of time travel and transcendence of space, the tale is surprisingly linear, keeping to Severian’s subjective experience of events.

I did not find this volume as difficult of access as I had its predecessors when I first read them in the 1980s. But there were still bits of it that resisted my full understanding, including the unspecified “plausible speculation” with which Wolfe teases his readers in the afterword on “The Miracle of Apu-Punchau.” I expect that a re-read would yield perceptions that were withheld from me on this pass. But my aim is first to proceed on through the seven further volumes of the Solar Cycle.

The Book of the New Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, an omnibus of the New Sun series.

Wolfe The Book of the New Sun

I first read this book (in the four individual volumes) many decades ago in my early teens. In 2007, I picked up this omnibus edition with the intention to re-read it, and quickly acquired most of the other volumes in the larger Solar Cycle, which resulted in a large prospective reading project on which I procrastinated until the thick of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Given my intention to re-read it, I had had a favorable impression of it on my initial read, but I really felt I had not fully understood or appreciated it then. I was correct.

In fact, I am such a different reader now, and so much more capable of grasping what Wolfe has presented here, that most of this book seemed entirely new to me. I remembered the largest plot arc, by which the apprentice torturer ascends to the office of Autarch–and it’s no spoiler to say so, since that framing is well established early on–but I had forgotten the smaller twists, if I ever really appreciated them, and many of the features of the setting seemed entirely new to me on this read.

There is a great contrast in the two literary backgrounds that informed each of my reads. On my initial approach, I came to the work with what I thought was the compatible experience of The Lord of the Rings and perhaps Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. I did appreciate that the described Urth was in our far future, and I had already encountered this sort of conceit in The Sword of Shannara, a highly conventional epic fantasy with various clues to indicate that it was set in a future after our civilization had been effaced by catastrophic warfare. To be fair to my younger self, I think this approach to Wolfe’s books was perfectly in keeping with the publisher’s packaging and expectations, and to some degree I had simply fallen for the author’s intentional misdirection.

On this recent read, I was far more informed by the reading experiences I had gathered from other works in the “dying Earth” subgenre, especially the Viriconium stories of M. John Harrison and The City and the Stars of Arthur C. Clarke. And I was further prepared by reading Wolfe’s own Fifth Head of Cerberus, which offers the sort of elliptical presentation that occurs throughout The Book of the New Sun, without the “epic” framing or red-herring fantasy tropes of the latter.

Wolfe personally adhered to the Roman Catholic confession, and critics have sometimes highlighted this fact as if it supplied a privileged interpretive viewpoint for the work. I remember being a little put off by the possible significance of “religious” elements in my first read–having been burned by the Sunday School allegory of Narnia and the rather dim messianism of Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. But on this recent read, I thought the better comparandum would be the religions, cults, and mysticism of Herbert’s Dune, using the grist of historical religion in the mill of speculative worldbuilding–with some genuine metaphysical rumination. For what it’s worth, Wolfe’s Severian is a lot more diffident about the miracles of his story than Paul Atreides was. The “Claw of the Conciliator” relic that supplies the title of the second book is present through all four, and its demystification in the fourth has the paradoxical effect of enhancing its numinosity. The “One Ring” it is not.

Some other comparisons that failed to occur to me on my initial read: . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The diction of this work is notable for its baroque qualities, archaicisms, and neologisms in an archaic manner. There is a rationale for these stylistic features, which are nevertheless alienating for the reader. Also alienating is the unsympathetic protagonist, who narrates the entire story on the basis of his professedly impeccable memory. A reader might (and I’m sure I once did) miss key details while simply trying to avoid getting stuck on these matters. Wolfe deliberately uses ambiguous language in his nautical and astronautical references. Spacefarers are simply “sailors.”

There are wonderful uses of form and metafictional structure. I especially enjoyed the central play-within-the-play of “Eschatology and Genesis” in the second book, and the Canterbury Tales concatenation of stories told by the convalescing soldiers in the lazaret of the fourth. Despite appearances, these are not digressions from the main work, and they can be understood in part as instruction in how to read the larger text. There is a very rigorous pattern governing the whole, with a strong sense of cyclic completion. The “Citadel of the Autarch” in the title of the fourth book is the place where the first book begins, but its identification with the Autarch is the result of the events of the tale.

The titles of the four component volumes highlight the riddles posed throughout. What is the shadow of the torturer Severian? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . What is the Claw of the Conciliator? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . What is the value of Severian’s sword? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . And what is the Autarch? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Reading The Book of the New Sun is not like watching a Hollywood movie or even reading a mystery novel. If you let it carry you along, you will be left wondering why you bothered. But there are amazing rewards for the reader who is alert to the increasingly distant voice of the narrator and who works to recognize the features of the story that are left tacit. Not only do I hold this work in high regard for its own sake as a literary accomplishment, it has taught me about reading and storytelling.

Pandora by Holly Hollander

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pandora by Holly Hollander by Gene Wolfe.

Gene Wolfe Pandora by Holly Hollander

As a fan of Gene Wolfe’s fantasy and science fiction, I couldn’t pass up a free copy of Pandora by Holly Hollander, which I picked out of the detritus of a folded secondhand bookshop. This book, however, belongs very self-consciously to a different genre: the murder mystery. The titular Hollander is a teenage girl who serves as the narrator. The story is set in a tony Chicago suburb in the mid-1980s, and though it was written as a contemporary fiction, the absence of cell phones and the Internet now marks it as a period piece.

Holly fancies herself the principal sleuth of the story, but she’s not the only one investigating the crime, and there’s no guarantee that she’ll be the one to solve the mystery. She’s an avid mystery reader and a child of privilege, and she seems to get along well with people, but knowing Wolfe’s fondness for unreliable narrators, I had to wonder if she weren’t a “mean girl” or somehow papering over her own faults in the course of the story.

The novel is parsed into short, fast-reading chapters, with frequent asides and reflections on the authorial process by Holly, whose “first book” Pandora is. The foreword also serves well as an epilogue, and can be re-read with the pleasure of context after finishing the chapters. Pandora would serve well enough as YA literature, and my tween daughter is certainly welcome to read it if it takes her interest. [via]

The Devil in a Forest

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe.

Gene Wolfe The Devil in a Forest

This novel is a pretty quick read. The “science fiction” imprint and the “fantasy” label are both misleading; there’s nothing supernatural or counterfactual in the setting or the plot. It’s just a straightforward adventure story set in a medieval village and its environs. The protagonist is a savvy but ignorant fifteen-year-old weaver’s apprentice.

The interaction between Catholicism and the vestiges of indigenous European religion is a major subtext of the story, and it’s no Wiccanish glamorization of the latter. Wolfe’s own Catholicism often informs his fiction, and it may do so here, but in any case, the result is a more realistic treatment of the material than one usually encounters in a novel with this sort of historical setting.

There’s a significant plot-twist that seemed a little obvious to me, but the whole thing was so lucidly written and well-paced that I didn’t mind a bit. [via]