The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Synopsis:
In which a journeyman in the guild of torturers becomes ruler of the world.

Review:
I should have reviewed this book in two parts, because it’s published that way, as Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel. Perhaps I would be less intimidated by the prospect of discussing what ended up being an immense, sprawling, daunting work if I took smaller bites. Too late now.

The Book of the New Sun is an epic fantasy with science fiction elements, or perhaps it is the other way around. I’m not really sure how to classify it. One of the blurbs on the back of the book summons Swift, Dickens, Spenser and Wagner, and I saw all of the above influences within the book. More than anything, however, I was reminded of The Brothers Karamazov. As in Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun is guided less by narrative agency and more by outsized moments of grotesquerie, beauty, philosophy and mystery. There is no guiding hand behind Severian’s elevation; unlike in Karamazov, God is not a force with which to be reckoned.

Superfast Toddler is stirring from her nap, and I’m far more interested in hearing what others have to say than in my own thoughts on this book. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment and tell me what you thought!

10 thoughts on “The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe”

  1. > There is no guiding hand behind Severian’s elevation; unlike in Karamazov, God is not a force with which to be reckoned.

    If you really came away with that impression, then you missed out on a lot in TBOTNS. (And I would further venture that you missed out on all the hidden stuff, such as who Dorcas really is.)

    Severian is guided by many, many hands, not least former versions of himself.

  2. Hm… I’ve read some web commentary and I have to say that while I enjoy a complex novel as much as the next person, I don’t have much patience for books or any other story media that needs external speculation to validate its meaning. I don’t like an occult, esoteric approach to reading. I don’t mind working for my meanings, but I’m not into “hidden stuff”–that reminds me of Easter Eggs on DVDs. I don’t want to have to learn a secret handshake to enjoy a book.

  3. > So who is Dorcas?

    His mother.

    > I’ve read some web commentary and I have to say that while I enjoy a complex novel as much as the next person, I don’t have much patience for books or any other story media that needs external speculation to validate its meaning. I don’t like an occult, esoteric approach to reading.

    You can enjoy Wolfe’s stories perfectly well as long as you don’t mind missing a lot.

    It’d be like reading Shakespeare but not taking the time to to untangle the language and just sort of getting the general gist of things.

  4. Hm. I read elsewhere that she was his grandmother. What’s your proof?

    I certainly mind missing out on the pleasures of a book. When I start a novel, I do so with hopes that I’ll be swept away by a story that rewards the time I spend with it, time that is all the more precious now that I am a mother.

    I just want to know if the answers are in the text–tangled or otherwise–or if outside discussions are necessary to the meaning. In other words, an intelligent person can understand Hamlet w/o use of external commentaries/opinions b/c it works as a story. You can go deeper into the allusions in the language to enhance your experience, but you won’t find a new story there.

    Personally, I am not a fan of “puzzle” books where the second meaning is the true meaning. I love to reread and have a book reveal its depths, but I want a full experience on the first read. I did not have that with Book of the New Sun. I’m willing to give it a second chance b/c the language was so beautiful & the set pieces so riveting, but I felt a bit let down when I finished my first read.

    And to your first point–I was consciously looking for the theological aspect to the book, b/c that’s of interest to me. I did not find the kind of theologically expressed cri do coeur that I found in Brothers K.

  5. > Hm. I read elsewhere that she was his grandmother. What’s your proof?

    Ah, you’re right. I got mixed up because I had been reading discussions on who his mother was – the obvious candidate is the woman who plays St. Catherine, but there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive bit of evidence.

    > And to your first point–I was consciously looking for the theological aspect to the book, b/c that’s of interest to me. I did not find the kind of theologically expressed cri do coeur that I found in Brothers K.

    The theology is some of the more interesting aspects. One academic, Wright I believe, finds the New Sun universe profoundly amoral – Severian and the people of Urth are all utter dupes, who are merely part of a reproductive cycle for higher beings; there is no Increate/God, Severian’s strivings to become better are twisted into meaningless, all the miracles are shams and accomplished by superior technology, etc. It is a Lovecraftian universe, with monsters such as Abaia among the least of its horrors.

    Others read it in a very Christian way – Severian is a bad man striving to be good, striving to become closer to God. His universe precedes ours, and so cannot reach as high a height (no Jesus, for example), but they can still strive, still achieve some progress in the upward spiral. Here we see people that Severian encounters as moral examplars: as Dr. Talos alludes, Baldanders is the ultimate Faustian expression of evil, the lessons about the Autarch have deeper meanings as being applicable to the Increate, the stories the characters tell each other offer deep insights into what is going on at higher levels (one story in particular is cited time again; the story of the Cock which fought the Angel. The angel ultimately confesses that even he doesn’t know the will of the Increate, for he is infinitely far beyond the angels as the animals.), and so on.

    Wolfe’s stories reward what he calls the intelligent reader; the many allusions and borrowings and words are devices which, as in Shakespeare, add connotations and ramifications and subtle jokes, but rarely if ever are they crucial. The intelligent reader may track them down or already know them, but for Wolfe the mark of intelligence is thinking clearly and carefully about the story and its meaning (as Neil Gaiman writes, Wolfe is always honest, the evidence is always there to be found), and the proof is that such a reader can read the books again and again, and derive fresh enjoyment each time.

  6. Now that’s what I was hoping to hear–that these books are worth RE-reading. I absolutely plan on that, because I love books that yield up their treasures with multiple reads.

    As someone who has spent a lot of time delving into Christian theology, I tend to side with the critics who call the universe amoral. I did not see a reckoning with a God who matters. What you describe as Christian sounds more like Unitarianism than Christianity–in other words, there’s a sense of a “better way to live” but no notion of the sacrificial God-made-flesh in Christ. In Christian theology, Christ was not an evolved man, he was God himself come to earth to die for mankind. There is no “upward spiral.” As RC Sproul puts it, we are all corpses without Christ. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor. Because of the alzabo, I was looking for Gnostic traces in the book, and of course found them with Thecla and later the Autarch, but they were just traces. The difference between a book like Karamazov and New Sun, theologically speaking, is like the difference between a fresh orange and a scratch and sniff sticker–at least that is what I took away from my first reading. But honestly I’m just not inclined to believe that it offers a dynamic engagement with Christian theology.

    I think the book offers some profound insights into evil, but didn’t see any about God.

  7. There are Gnostic tendencies here, but one has to be careful to not simply call anything with an exoteric obvious story, and a esoteric hidden story (where the real meaning lies), Gnostic.
    A number of readers on the Urth.net mailing list, and a number of critics of Wolfe, see the New Sun as being one of the earliest Christian projects of Wolfe in which he creates a universe which seems un-Christian but in the end turns out to be exactly that. That is, they look at the Book of the Long Sun, and they see the false hierarchy of gods on the ship being undermined by the true god, the Outsider. They look at the Wizard-Knight duology, and while it *looks* like a Norse world, with Norse gods and everything, the Highest is the real, single god.
    Have you read Paradise Lost, where Milton is describing the demons in Hell and he covers a number of them, identifying them as being the gods the pagans reverence? The early Christian theologians did this as well – those pagans` gods may well have performed miracles and what-not, but that was just because they were demons. But even the demons contain some truth to some, inasmuch as they mock the real saviors, Jesus and God. Wolfe has certainly read them; his knowledge of the ancient world (as set forth in some of his best books, the Latro books) is considerable.

  8. Now you’ve got me aching to read the other books & check out the mailing list. Seems like I dismissed things too summarily. Hopefully the next time I discuss Wolfe I’ll be able to make a substantial contribution to the conversation.

    Thank you so much for sharing your insights & your time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *