Halfway through The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe’s mind-bending fantasy/sci-fi tetraology, I knew I wouldn’t have a lot to say about it when I was done. Not due to a lack of things worth talking about, but simply to avoid embarrassment—it’s one of those works so dense, allusive, and trippy that you can’t really say you’ve read it until you’ve read it twice. And, having read it in fits and starts over a period of several months, I can barely say I’ve read it once. Indeed, if I was smart I would just shut up now, and save my comments for after I get a chance, someday, to read it over again.
But what fun is that? So here we go. For those who haven’t read it: The Book of the New Sun is the story of Severian, a member of the torturers’ guild in a far, far future society. So far, in fact, that the sun is old and dying and the civilization that currently exists on top of the ruins of the dozens before it is rather medieval in technology and sophistication, though those in power (the Autarch and his court) have access to the high-tech goodies of the past. That description, though, doesn’t convey just how far-future weird things can get, though. In the capital city of Nessus, there’s a sort of botanical garden where the different rooms apparently exist as separate dimensions and/or times. In the second novel Severian meets the Green Man, a guy who’s traveled back from a time when humans have synthesized plant matter onto their skin so that they’re literally fed by the sun. The Autarch’s elite troops include animal-human hybrids and flying warriors with angelic wings. In one particularly bizarre chapter, Severian encounters in the wilderness the ruler of Earth from a previous age, who has survived by grafting his head onto the body of a new host, alongside the existing head. Plus, the first time Severian meets him he’s a shriveled two-headed corpse who somehow gets re-infused with life—I forget how. Probably the Claw. Don’t get me started about the Claw.
You may be wondering how all of these details hold together in a cohesive story, and the answer is, they only sort-of do. We know from the outset that the narrative tracks Severian’s life from growing up in the guild to his improbable ascent to the rule of the land as Autarch. That path is not so much a natural progression as as picaresque series of encounters, usually disconnected from the one before (unlike a picaresque novel, though, there’s real and deep development of Severian’s character). I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn from a Wolfe expert that many of these encounters are metaphors or even allegories of assorted philosophies and political theories that Severian must consider on the way to the top.
The Book of the New Sun is Severian’s first-person narration of his ascent to the throne, told at some later date. Actually, that’s not true—as the notes at the end of each book indicate, it purports to be Wolfe’s translation of Severian’s as-yet-unwritten autobiography, a “study of the post-historic world.” Severian possesses an eidetic memory, a fact he is constantly reminding the reader of in his narration. But there are inconsistencies in his tale—far more than I noticed in a single reading, I’m sure—so there’s an indication that he may be an unreliable narrator. Toss that into the mix with a plot involving time travel and you can see why one reading barely scratches the surface. (Indeed, in this future world, travel through space, travel through time, and travel across alternate universes appear to be pretty much the same thing. Einstein would be pleased as punch.)
The translation conceit adds another odd level to the experience. Rather than invent new words to describe the myriad oddities of this world, Wolfe mines the O.E.D. for obscure and defunct words that suggest what he wants. At the same time, though, since Severian’s narration is treated as a post-historic document, Wolfe does the reader no favors when it comes to exposition: concepts and creatures are introduced offhandedly on every page and often aren’t fully described or understood until much later. Just one example: the first time you read about someone riding on a destrier, you probably imagine a horse, whether from context or because you’re enough of a word geek to know what it means. Only several chapters later will Severian mention a destrier’s claws, which forces you to revise your mental picture. After having your chain yanked a few times like this, you find yourself distrusting your mental images and holding off (as much as one can) until Severian gives you a bit more information. This approach is paradoxically immersive and anti-immersive at the same time: the lush vocabulary and historical stance draw you in, but the constantly shifting landscape of detail keeps you at a distance. I found this experience alternately delightful and annoying; whatever else, it’s definitely unique.
I can see why Wolfe is so highly regarded among the conossieurs of the genre. Which genre, you ask? In a technical sense, undoubtedly science fiction, though like Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, the tetraology straddles the genres and confounds the usual definitions that distinguish them. If I hesitate to include it on the list of Great Works, it’s because The Book of the New Sun is as much game as story: something not just to be read and experienced, but also puzzled out. It’s the work of an extraordinary genius, and an excellent prose stylist—a rarer trait than it should be in these genres—but sift out all the mind games and esoterica, and the story that’s left is good, but just good. And as regular readers should know by now, in Polytropian Aesthetics, story trumps style, philosophical sophistication, and certainly cleverness. Now if we could just come up with a decent definition of “story,” I’d know what that means . . .