The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
“We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life – they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.”
Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun is one of the key works of Fantasy of the past forty years, a series that shows a staggering breadth of imagination and which reconfigured what the genre was capable of. Over the course of its four books – The Shadow Of The Torturer (1980), The Claw Of The Conciliator (1981), The Sword Of The Lictor (1982) and The Citadel Of The Autarch (1983) – Wolfe tells the story of Severian the exiled torturer and his wanderings in a far future Earth in which our current culture and technology is no longer even a memory. These books demonstrated a new modernist sensibility in Fantasy, with Wolfe’s deft use of the unreliable narrator and heavy use of symbolism creating a text that begs for multiple readings and interpretations, as well as forever destroying the boundary between Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is a powerful and unique work of fiction that deserves to be more widely read today.
In The Book Of The New Sun we are introduced to Severian as a young apprentice of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, the guild of torturers in the sprawling city of Nessus. He is exiled from the guild for showing mercy to a prisoner, and as part of his punishment is sent to the distant city of Thrax. Over the course of his journey, Severian, armed with his trusty sword Terminus Est and the mystical gemstone the Claw of the Conciliator, undergoes a series of deaths and rebirths, interacts with a varied cast of bizarre characters, such as Dr. Talos and the giant Baldanders, the treacherous Agia and Dorcas, a woman who has forgotten her past, fights various monstrous animals, and comes to understand his messianic destiny.
Much of what gives the books their particular flavour is their far future setting. In the tradition of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels and M. John Harrison’s Viriconium stories, The Book Of The New Sun’s medieval-tinged Fantasy world of swords, guilds, apprentices and nobles reveals itself to be set thousands of years in the future, in a time when the Earth, now called the Urth, is so old the sun is dying and much of the technological and scientific advances of our time and the future have been lost or forgotten. Wolfe creates this atmosphere through his use of obscure archaic words to describe the coins, the military and social ranks, and the animals. The unfamiliar yet evocative words create a sense of strangeness and mystery, and they also tell the reader what, say, the animals are similar to and what they are used for whilst subtly reminding them that these are animals bred from extraterrestrial and Earth animal crosses or genetically altered by future science.
As the story’s Fantasy setting is rationalised by its far future setting, so Wolfe implies that everything fantastical in the Book Of The New Sun has a rational, science fictional explanation. Things that the characters believe to be magical, such as Father Inire’s mirrors, which allow communication with and transportation between other worlds, are implied to be advanced technology which people no longer understand. The Matachin Tower, in which the guild of torturers live, is hinted to be an ancient, disused rocket ship. Thus, while The Book Of The New Sun reads like a work of low Fantasy, with its wandering protagonist getting into sword fights with monsters and duels with nobles, it can also be read as a piece of far future Science Fiction, a post-apocalyptic tale with aliens and ancient forgotten technologies.
Crucially, Wolfe maintains the balance between Fantasy’s desire for mysticism and wonder and Science Fiction’s demands for everything to have a knowable scientific basis. The key way he manages this is by showing us the world through Severian’s eyes. As Severian, typically for most of the characters in the book, doesn’t have much knowledge of our time, he doesn’t recognise or understand many of the artefacts from our time which he encounters. This allows Wolfe to strongly insinuate some things, like Matachin Tower being a rocket ship, whilst leaving many other things open to the reader’s interpretation. So while the reader is able to work out that many of the monsters that Severian encounters in his travels are probably aliens, and that Jonas was originally a robot whose damaged metal parts where replaced with human skin when his spaceship crashed, much more easily than Severian is able to, plenty of the other things he comes across, such as the giant moving statues in the gardens of the House Absolute, remain just as mysterious and wondrous to the reader as they appear to Severian himself. Much fan discussion about the series is spent in trying to piece together different interpretations and theories about the weirder episodes of the books, which is of course much of the fun.
The Book Of The New Sun is also filled with symbolism, much of it rooted in Wolfe’s Catholicism. Severian is a messianic archetype, and while the narrative of the Chosen One is hardly new in Fantasty fiction, Severian is notable for how protean he is, how many contradictions he embodies. He is a torturer and an executioner who can heal the sick and raise the dead, a servant of the Autarch and a sworn supporter of his enemy the rebel Vodalus, and, once he consumes Thecla’s flesh in a horrific, bizarre ritual that echoes the communion, he embodies both the male and the female. It is these contradictions that make him such an interesting and compelling character.
However Wolfe’s biggest innovation is in his use of the unreliable narrator technique. In Fantasy, then as now, most books tend to be written in the third person omniscient. This allows the Fantasy writer to switch between multiple viewpoint characters, whilst providing all the detailed worldbuilding beloved of the genre in a consistent, realist fashion. The same is frequently true of Science Fiction. Even when genre fiction does employ the first person perspective, with roguish characters who can’t entirely be trusted, such as Corwin in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, it’s still implicitly assumed that you can trust the character when they tell you about the detailed workings of the Fantastical world or its magical system, even if you can’t when they tell you about their own siblings. Before writing Book Of The New Sun, Wolfe had already experimented with more radical uses of the unreliable narrator technique, in which everything the narrator says is so suspect the reader is forced to unravel the truth for themselves. The Fifth Head Of Cerberus (1972) features sections of a traveller’s diary, in which part of the way through the original traveller is killed and replaced by a shape-shifting alien who steals his identity, and Peace (1975) is framed as the childhood memoirs of an old man who grew up in a sleepy Midwestern town who may be dead without realising it and may also be a serial killer.
Wolfe’s fascination with the technique reaches its apotheosis in Severian, who narrates the whole of the Book Of The New Sun. In the first chapter, his admission that he is incapable of forgetting anything is immediately undercut by him forgetting the way the path goes, and a little while later he confesses that he suspects that he might be insane. We experience the entire world through Severian’s incredibly suspect eyes, which allows Wolfe to ask questions about how perspective shapes reality, and whether or not there can be such a thing as objective truth when we are all subject to how our own perceptions warp the reality we perceive. In a final master stroke, Severian’s fate at the end of the book throws all of what comes before into a new context, with the Severian who is telling us the story possibly altering the story to make things more easy for the Severian experiencing the story. Wolfe reminds us that everyone telling a story has an agenda, and that the story teller is the great unseen but powerful character in every story, shaping what the reader sees and experiences for their own purpose.