|The SF cover does not match Wolfe's brilliance.|
This summer I set out to reread Gene Wolfe's critically-acclaimed science fantasy quartet, The Book of the New Sun (1,125 pages). It was a rewarding experience, though, near the end, it became a bit of a struggle. In June and July I was mesmerized by The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, and The Sword of the Lictor, but only recently finished the fourth, The Citadel of the Autarch: I got bogged down in a never-ending tale-telling contest - never my favorite literary device.
Critics often compare The Book of the New Sun to James Joyce's Ulysses. Wolfe, like Joyce, was a polymath and had a colossal vocabulary, but the literary comparison seems superficial. Wolfe's psychedelic prose owes more to New Wave SF writers like Samuel R. Delany (I thought of Dhalgren). And in terms of the fantasy genre, I see the influence of George MacDonald's surreal Phantastes and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
The lyricism of The Book of the New Sun makes for hypnotic reading. Set in a quasi-medieval future on the planet Urth with its red light and dying sun, this meandering epic is narrated by Severian as he looks back on his life. He remembers everything and never forgets a detail, as he often reminds us - but that does not mean he remembers in terms of plot. Instead, he paints one dream-like scene after another.
Raised and trained from childhood by the Guild of Torturers to master techniques of torture, Severian understands the psychology of prisoners, most of whom are confident they are there by mistake and will soon be freed. In the first volume, The Shadow of the Torturer, the Guild bans Severian for saving a prisoner, the beautiful Chatelaine Thecla. He slips her a knife with which to commit suicide, rather than suffer the endless tortures prescribed by the Autarch.
And so Severian sets out into the world alone, wearing his blacker-than-black fulgin cloak and carrying his sword, Terminus Est. His adventures unfold in a series of surreal scenes. At the Botanic Garden, he unwittingly saves Dorcas, a dead woman in a lake, while he is plucking a deadly enormous flower with which he must fight a duel. Somehow or other, he has brought her back to life (they form a theory about it later). This is the reverse of his saving Thecla by death, and Dorcas is a wiser, kinder friend/lover than Thecla - though Thecla becomes literally a part of Severian when he is forced to partake in the imbibing of a drug made from Thecla's brain, which passes on all her memories to the partakers.
I am awed by Wolfe's imagination and the beauty of his prose. Of the books I read over the summer, this is the one I will remember best and yet forget the most of. It is a paradox - but it is why I will reread it again someday.