Who can I recommend this book to? It may be the best sci-fi epic of them all,
but I wonder how many genre fiction fans are ready for the arcane symbols
and narrative obstacles Gene Wolfe throws in their path. I am more inclined to
recommend it to philosophers and theologians, but they will certainly reject any
book filled with monsters, time warps, and extraterrestrials. Probably the most
suitable place for
The Book of the New Sun is on a reading list for an Ivy
League grad student in literature, but we’re more likely to experience the
coming of a new sun than the arrival of that unlikely event.

Help me! What do I do with this book? I love
it and want to spread the word. But I fear I am
that sower in the parable casting seed on
rocky places and scorched earth.

Well, in fact, it’s not really a book, despite the
title. But maybe an out-and-out deception on
the title page is the best way to start this odd
epic, offering a taste of the many misleading
‘facts’ and clues to come.
The Book of the
New Sun
is actually a tetralogy, a collection
of four novels, later capped by a coda—
Urth of the New Sun
, a fifth book in the
series published by Gene Wolfe several
years later—and two later multi-volume
works set in the same universe.  

The Book of the New Sun, for its part, is all
one story, except for the fact that it isn’t. If you read this work long enough, you
find it collapsing on you. Things you took for granted, even the foundational
ingredients of the tale, no longer offer a steady support. Even our main
protagonist Severian, who narrates the entire tale, may not be the same
individual at the end of the book as he was at the beginning.

But I’m jumping ahead (like Severian himself). At first glance, nothing seems
simpler than the story Gene Wolfe serves up for us. It follows all the familiar
ingredients of the fantasy epic. A hero goes on a vision quest, and
encounters villains and engages in battles, finds time for romantic dalliances
with fair ladies, and gets crowned as ruler in the final pages.

The clichés here are so overwhelming and obvious, that you might start
wondering why so many literary stars have praised this work. Neil Gaiman
has claimed he was even intimidated by Wolfe’s use of “science fiction to
illuminate ideas and people and to stretch my mind in ways it had never been
stretched before.”
Ursula K. Le Guin called Wolfe "our Melville." and critic Michael
Dirda ranked The Book of the New Sun as “the greatest fantasy novel written by
an American."  In other words, he is setting Wolfe up as the cross-Atlantic rival of
J.R.R. Tolkien.

Commentators have made much of Gene

Wolfe’s Catholic faith, and in fact this whole
tetralogy sometimes captures the ambiance
of a medieval saint’s life or parable. But as
soon as you try to pin down the meanings, it
gets tricky, very tricky. I’d like to see our hero
Severian as a Christ figure, and he does have
a strange talent for healing the sick. But how
do reconcile this with his official vocation?
Severian is a torturer, a journeyman member
of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, that
professional guild devoted to punishment and
execution. (The words used throughout this

book are part of the misdirection: Severian
himself will refer to torture techniques as
“excruciations” and beheadings as “decollations.”
Do we infer from these that they are legitimate
trade practices and not brutality under another

label? Here, as elsewhere in this book, the reader is forced to decide such matters.)

Severian has violated the rules of his guild. He had an affair with Thecla, a
discredited member of the ruling family now held as prisoner, and then helped
her commit suicide to avoid torture. He is expelled from the guild, and sent to
a distant city where he will serve as a lowly provincial enforcer. Along the way,
he comes into possession of a sacred relic, the claw of the conciliator—which
might just be an ornate gem setting, but seems to have miraculous powers
when wielded by our hero.

This seems straightforward, but nothing in this work is ever what it seems. In
fact, Wolfe readers still can’t seem to agree, even after years of scrutiny and
commentary on this work, on whether Severian is a truth-teller or unreliable
narrator. And Wolfe proceeds to add several layers of difficulty for his
readers. Every page has its pitfalls.

The most obvious problem for the reader is Wolfe’s vocabulary. His word
choice is both eccentric and formidable.  No genre author I’ve encountered
uses more unconventional terminology (with the possible exception of
Clark Ashton Smith, who learned to be a horror writer by reading
the dictionary front to back).  Wolfe uses odd words, archaic words, invented
words, perversely obscure words. Every few sentences you run into something
like abacination, lamia, cerbotana,  indanthrene, clepsydra, petasoses,
catachtonian, chatoyant, vivimancer, lipsanotheca, estoc, antepilani,
ophicleide, scopolagna, merychip, and trilhoen.  You can consult a dictionary,
but many of these cuties aren’t even too funky for Funk & Wagnalls.

If you persist with this story—and many give up long before finishing
The Book
of the New Sun
—you will soon discover you need a guide. But good luck
finding one.  I am told that Peter Wolfe’s
Shadows of the New Sun is helpful to
read, but it’s out of print and the cheapest hardcover edition on the web is
currently priced at $2,889.95. I got most benefit from
Lexicon Urthus: A
Dictionary for the Urth Cycle
, a reference work by Michael Andre-Driussi. But
even the guides can’t guarantee you success.  They are like those legendary
Sherpa mountaineers who aid the foolhardy visitors who try to scale Mount
Everest. They might bring you to the peak, or simply leave you gasping for air
far below the summit.

The next layer of difficult is the deliberate absence of clarifying details. A tower
in the city center might have originally been a spaceship, but the reader will
need to make that leap of imagination. A story of a boat trip might really be the
tale of a space voyage. Even trickier: the adversaries in the overarching
conflict, those essential heroes and villains that give momentum to every sci-fi
and fantasy epic, might actually be working on the same side. At one juncture,
we learn that key combatants are wearing masks to hide their hideous faces;
but then we later find that the ugliness is itself a second mask, disguising a
beautiful visage underneath all the layers of deception. That’s a kind of
metaphor for the entire work.

But the biggest challenge here is the final layer of symbolism. Make no
mistake, almost everything in this work, even small incidents, begs for a
philosophical or metaphysical interpretation. I have devised my own theory of
these books, and if it is correct, they address profound issues on the nature of
evil, the path of atonement, and the legitimacy of power.  But in almost every
instance, the web of symbols here is open-ended, inviting discourse rather
than closing it off.

Are genre audiences ready for this? My instinct is to deny it. Everything we are
told about marketing popular culture suggests that there is no mainstream
audience for a sci-fi epic of this sort. Yet
The Book of the New Sun has found
a sizable following and these readers are devoted to Wolfe’s epic. In one
survey of readers, this tetralogy even finished in the top spot in a poll of all
time favorites.  I am amazed, albeit pleased by this turn events.  Maybe
miracles are possible, and not only for Severian the torturer. Who knows?
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before those Ivy League Phd types even
start to notice.  

Ted Gioia is the author of eleven books, including the forthcoming Music: A
Subversive History (Basic Books).

This essay was published on April 15, 2019
The Most Mysterious Sci-Fi Epic:
A Look Back at Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun

by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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The Foundation Trilogy

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