Books »The Book of the New Sun

The Book of the New Sunby Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)

Gene Wolfe‘s imagination is truly formidable. A industrial engineer (and devoted Catholic) who has become a living SF legend, Wolfe’s work is rich, dense, and not always exactly what I’m looking for. But that’s no slight: when Wolfe’s writing what I want to read, it’s amazing; when he’s not, it’s still fine, it just tends to get a bit… overly complicated and less than satisfying – but a return to form is always just a few pages away.

Brittany will be posting her impressions of Wolfe’s early short story compilation, The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (not a typo, FYI), and I imagine her take on Wolfe will be equally conflicted.

But the Book of the New Sun is the big one: the magnum opus (he’s since spun off a coda and two additional series, the Book of the Long Sun and the Book of the Short Sun).

The four novels that make up the tetralogy are packed so densely with episodes alternately incredibly compelling and kind of… kind of like you just want to get through them as quickly as you can, that, sitting here now recalling the bits I remember, I’m truly astounded at the way the story is so compartmentalized in my brain.

The plot unfolds in a distant future inspired by the work of the writer who has appeared more times then any other on this blog, the great Jack Vance. The first novel, the Shadow of the Torturer, opens with its protag, Severian (who is blessed/cursed with a perfect memory), serving as an apprentice in the guild of torturers. His kind of weirdly idyllic childhood is interrupted by a key chance meeting in the nearby necropolis and the professional discipline he’ll expertly develop over the next few years is kind of slow-burn compromised.

While I suppose I could offer a more comprehensive plot synopsis, I’d really be doing everyone (particularly you, dear reader) a disservice. Suffice to say, a lot happens very quickly: Severian makes a judgement call that ultimately results in his exile from Nessus (the capital city), is challenged to an alien poison flower duel, demolishes a church, meets a young lady who’s been submerged in (for lack of a better description) internment water for who knows how long, meets another young lady who’s definitely hiding something, gets a crazy note from a bus boy, and becomes aquatinted with a fairly unique traveling acting troupe. Oh, and he’s given an awesome sword called Terminus Est and dispatched to a place called Thrax: the city of windowless rooms.

The first installment ends pretty abruptly and book two begins a short while after Shadow of the Torturer’s events take place. Tons more happens: there’s the town where the residents have barricaded a suspected dissident inside his home for weeks on end, Severian’s professional life as a traveling executioner (a ‘carnifex’, in the novel’s parlance), a subterranean sojourn that nods to Tolkien’s mines of Moria, a green (literally, he’s got green skin) man from the future who has been enslaved by a carnie, this alien-bear thing that digs up freshly dead bodies, consumes them, then is able to mimic their cries so grief-crazy parents will let it into their homes so it can kill them – and if you drink this thing’s blood and then eat part of someone who’s freshly dead, you can permanently experience some of the dead person’s memories!

There’s a half-cyborg who can’t get back to his own time, a waitress who becomes the most attractive women ever, monstrous lusty demigods who have become so massive that their bodies can’t leave the density of salt water lest they collapse, witches who turn back time, lakeside poisoners, a tower that only exists if you’re not looking for it, aliens that only want you to think they’re hideous looking, revolutionaries camped out in the forest like outlaws, a two-headed giant from the time when people still understood ancient technology, and much, much more, like the horrors of war and major notions about transparent, immersive governance.

For me, the BotNS experience is all about plot and story, I actually have no interest in examining the text for religious undertones or trying to decipher Wolfe’s symbology, though plenty of readers do find those endeavors richly rewarding. Last year I recommended an SF novel where plot was pretty much tertiary, this is the exact opposite case: plot is everything. And though Wolfe, like Delany (kind of) presents his book as a future journal he never discloses how he’s come into the possession of, it lives in my mind like a wonderfully disjointed collection of excellent short stories.

If you do it, and you should, my advice is not to sweat the big picture epic story arch stuff, but to savor the episodes that work for you. I’ve gathered a couple of book cover images below/after the jump; the French, as usual, totally get it right

French edition: The Book of the New Sun

Timescape edition: The Book of the New Sun

Japanese edition: The Book of the New Sun

Shadow of the Torturer, Claw of the Conciliator

The Sword of the Lictor, the Citadel of the Autarch

The Book of the New Sun

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Posted on December 6, 2009

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  • From Brittany on December 7, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    You write up makes me want to read this. Sounds like some amazing ideas. Although I need a break for a little bit with some lighter reads.

  • From Verito on October 26, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Wow! I can’t believe it! I love Gene Wolfe’s books and where I live it’s quite difficult to get them. I sometimes look up on the internet or search for photos of the books, so I got here and now I’m very excited about the nice covers I saw!! Really nice. Thanx!

    Kisses from Argentina =)

  • From Oli Arditi on June 5, 2011 at 11:33 am

    I’ve just re-read this, and I found it completely breathtaking, far more than when I first read it, because this time I understood it. The series doesn’t have religious undertones: it a religious parable. I’m not religious, but that didn’t make it any less readable, engaging or meaningful. For me the real mastery in this is how the amazing details and episodes of the story are all tied in so integrally with the big picture. It’s like a work of baroque architecture, and I can’t recall ever having read a more complex or accomplished piece of literature.