Late to the Party: Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun

As befits the novice nature of this column, I don’t feel particularly well-read in the areas of Science Fiction or Fantasy. I have only household names checked off my list, most of which could be considered rites of passage for fiction lovers such as myself; the usual suspects of Lewis and Jacques and Tolkien and Harry Potter. I’ve also read Left Hand of Darkness, A Song of Ice and Fire, and last year I finally tackled Dune.

Maybe it’s my Anglican faith, but many of these seem so Christocentric as to form their own subgenre of “Messianic” fantasy. This may be because of the views of the authors and because myths echo this type of tale so frequently.

It’s almost inevitable that I would find similar themes within Gene Wolfe’s epic tetralogy The Book of the New Sun. There are four volumes grouped together, followed by a sequel, Urth of the New Sun, that functions more or less as a fifth entry, though there’s just enough closure to stop after four if you like. There are also several other novels and short stories in the same universe. In total, they’ve come to be called the Solar Cycle. The book chronicles the atonement journey of a young man named Severian. Given its preoccupation with symbols of Christian sacrament, I would go so far as to say this series is to the Eucharist what the Lord of the Rings is to renunciation.

Please forgive me for this longwinded post, but I’m barely scratching the surface of all the wild and creative things Wolfe does in this series. Then again, if you like a long, slow read that goes in unexpected directions, that should be proof this book is for you.

Wolfe grew up in the sweltering heat and humidity of Houston, Texas, before there was air conditioning. He would sometimes sit in front of the electric fan reading for eight hours a day. He was not raised a Christian but converted to the faith as an adult through his wife Rosemary. They met shortly after he returned from the Korean war, when he began to suffer debilitating PTSD. He credits his wife for nursing him back to sound mental and spiritual health.

Up until the early 70’s, he worked as an engineer and was the editor of a technical trade magazine. One could easily admire the plot engineering at work in the fiction he would go on to write, never sacrificing sprawling beauty in service to the intricate twists that work with all the precision of a tightly wound clock. Every component has a purpose. If you see something in a Wolfe story, it is there for a reason.

In 1972, he came to critical recognition for his short story The Fifth Head of Cerberus. This is a wonderful and beguiling read that I recommend to any sci-fi/fantasy lover looking for an introduction to Wolfe’s work. He would spend the next several decades adding essential works of short and long fiction to the corpus.

I should have probably started with something shorter, but I decided to dive right in last winter with his opus The Book of the New Sun. As a sucker for beautiful prose, I was immediately rewarded:

It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.

There’s a lot going on there. In addition to the mastery of style he demonstrates, I learned this tale was a recollection from the main character. For the next one thousand pages, I would be subject to the memory and reflections of a very detailed man in whose hands and trade are bloodshed.

The main character (and narrator) is named Severian, which may be a corruption of Steven (meaning “crown”) or could recall the Latin word “severus,” meaning stern, strict, severe. Various mystical characters in the books give him names linked to ancient sun deities. Along his journey, he carries a giant cross-shaped sword, discovers stigmata-like wounds on his forehead, experiences water turning into wine, and then wine back into water. He is like the Christian of Pilgrim’s Progress in that he undergoes a painful atonement as he grows into both a Christ figure and an Apollonian figure. It’s as if Wolfe is asking what if a sinful torturer and his tools, the hammer and nails that pinned Christ the carpenter to the cross, grew into the Christ himself? 

Wolfe’s writing is often described as “Proustian” and seeing as I’ve never read Proust, I had to go on a hunt to learn what that entails. In his lecture on The Walk by Swann’s Place, book one of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Nabokov says that Proust is “a prism [whose] sole object is to refract, and by refracting to create a world in retrospect.” As Severian recounts his life in Book of the New Sun, he is describing it and reflecting on it at the same time, creating “an evocation, not a description of the past.” He’s not to be trusted for a historical record, merely his recounting of it. In the universe of the series, this may not be the ideal record of what actually happens in the story, but only a copy of the ideal.

Like the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, Severian is unreliable: it’s not most important that he’s a liar – though he certainly is – but that he’s a subjective source for his own memories. He probably believes his account wholeheartedly even as he is his own editor. The reader will notice he does a lot of despicable things. In exile, he gets paid to torture and execute people. He regularly uses women for sex and discards them, openly hurting the women who are devoted to him. If he admits to these actions, and if they amount to confessions, how much more may he be leaving out?

(There are a slew of heroic actions throughout his journey, but I’ll leave them for the reader to discover on their own.)

But all we are given is what Wolfe shares with us through his narrator, unreliable as he may be. If Proust is a clue, Nabokov writes:

…Proust contends that a charter, a personality is never known as an absolute but always as a comparative one. He does not chop it up but shows it as it exists through the notions about it of other characters. And he hopes, after having given a series of these prisms and shadows, to combine them into an artistic reality.

One of the things that strikes me about this book is how subtle it is. The reader really has to pay attention to pick up on what’s going on, when, where, and how. You have to read this closely. If you enjoyed A Song of Ice and Fire, you will love Book of the New Sun even more. Wolfe rewards your patience. He loved reading and rereading pulp stories like The Island of Dr. Moreau in order to discover tidbits he hadn’t found the first time. Clearly, he wanted to give the same gift to his readers. Get used to waiting hundreds of pages for a mystery to finally be solved. Be prepared for twists all the up to the final pages of the last book. In an interview with Technology Review, he said, “If you make everything easy for yourself as an author, you bore the reader.” In my estimation, he never did.

I regret waiting so many hundreds of pages into the volumes to finally start looking up all the made-up sounding words and names. He hides explanation and even mysterious clues in many, many nouns, a good bit of them proper: names of water gods and nymphs, the color of  a cloak, the symbolism of a lake world at the center of all universes. You’ll find extra layers of meaning in the terms he borrows from Latin, Hindu, and Kabbalistic mythology. It’s worth keeping Google handy!

Like Lord of the Rings (but to a lesser extent), the series is an anti-war novel. There’s a war “to the north” that is described as if it’s been raging for decades. It’s telling that a reason for the conflict is never given. Who cares? It’s awful that it’s happening. It’s telling that, when Severian finally reaches the frontlines, most of the drama takes place in a makeshift camp for the sick. Clearly, both Tolkien and Wolfe were profoundly wounded in their souls by their wartime experiences.

Upon Wolfe’s death, Jeet Heer, writing for the New Republic, stated that Gene Wolfe carefully intertwines the three disparate threads of “pulp fiction, literary modernism, and Catholic theology.” I am uniquely unqualified to address any of these in full – and such is the nature of Late to the Party – but let me at least try to form some thoughts on the third informed by the other two.

Heer goes on to say that the book is “an examination of the possibility and limits of atonement.” Severian is a torturer, a bringer of death, raised to do terrible things, and he carries with him a magic artifact of life, the Claw of the Conciliator. Wolfe’s works are rife with these kinds of dualities. The woman who walks beside him for much of his journey was herself resurrected by said relic, even at the cost of (possibly) killing off an alternate future. Life and death march in lockstep. A careful reader will note that the story starts with someone’s life being saved while in a graveyard, a place of death. We’re following a pair of contradictions, but Wolfe wants us to see them as part of a cycle, not opposites.

The themes of indwelling and hosts recur again and again, but it is not always in the beautiful sacramental way that Catholic readers might expect. There is one wicked alien called an alzabo who makes frequent appearances. Once it eats someone, they consume its personhood and memories, using them to lure in others. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the elements of an alzabo can be used in their own twisted, evil indwelling ceremonies with startling consequences.

Moreover, Severian is constantly reminding us as he recounts his tale that he has a perfect memory. Is it to remind us that he’s actually unreliable? Or is it actually true? Are we meant to take him at his word, that, whether we’re getting the truth or not, he does actually remember the truth?

In case the inspiration from Proust left any doubt, Wolfe is very preoccupied with memory. While Severian claims to remember everything, the protagonist of Wolfe’s Soldier series, has lost his memory and cannot create new ones. This underscores the importance of recollection in his stories.

I believe Wolfe is telling the reader to have as good a memory as Severian. Characters keep coming back. You need to remember who they are and how they fit into the story! Even stray adjectives can spin into consequential twists. An innocuous sentence in the first book could metastasize into a full-blown mystery in books 2 and 3, not to be solved till 4. In the same way, very obvious questions raised early on may not find their resolution till the book’s close. If you want to journey with Severian, you’re going to need to revisit his words quite a bit, unless your memory is as good as his.

But there’s another layer of memory and remembrance that may give us insight into the literal and metaphorical presence of eucharistic theology in Wolfe’s work. The Claw of the Conciliator is a relic of a savior figure who came once and is destined to come again. Severian happens upon it almost by accident. Before he’s even aware of its presence, its power spills forth, though it seems to ebb and flow within himself as the story goes on. At the end of the book, he admits he’s perplexed by the power he bears and draws. In this, his perfect memory won’t help him. Where does the power of the Claw end and that of Severian begin?

By the end of the fifth book, Severian’s personhood is completely transformed. He possesses his own complete memories, the memories consumed from thousands of other people, the transformative power of the Claw, and has even fused with past incarnations of himself. At this point, “who is he?” ceases to be an adequate question. Where and what and when is he? St. Augustine wrote of the sacraments, “It is a mystery I put before you: I will give you spiritual life, not fleshly.” This hints at what will eventually happen to Severian’s physical body. He, like Christ, will find himself in many places and in many forms, both metaphorically and literally, just as Catholics believe with the Eucharist.

It also brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 

To further understand the Claw’s life-giving power, when Paul writes about communion, he says that Christ commanded us, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The Greek word used here for remembrance, sometimes translated as memory, is “anamnesis,” invoking a rich theological picture of remembering a sacrifice, taking the elements to recall Christ’s suffering, resurrection, and coming again. In worship, the believers are recalling God’s saving deeds. In recounting his life, Severian is recalling how God (the Increate) prepared him to save the world. Without the Claw’s transforming power of life, I don’t think Severian would be placed on the path to doing what is right.

Wolfe isn’t trying to map this symbolism directly onto Christian theology. He always claimed to be a writer who is Catholic, not one who writes Catholic books (I only partially disagree with his own assessment). He takes the literal and metaphorical stature of the Eucharist and builds on it, shapes it, speculates what a similar concept of remembrance might look like splayed across a mosaic of good, evil, robots, aliens, time traveling angels, and endless universes springing forth from a river of light. What if there was an evil form of indwelling alongside the presence of Christ all in the same character, he asks.

His antihero, Severian, is not a fully formed, indwelt Christ figure. He is not Gandalf or Dumbledore or Paul Atreides nor even Harry Potter. The catalyst for his journey – when he spares a torture victim – is as much an act of mercy as it is of lust. He’s a very imperfect person who somehow grows into a savior.

I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler, as any astute reader will see it coming a mile away. To read The Book of the New Sun is to endure Severian’s tests of sanctification and learn how quickly they’ll come to shape who he is, even before he does. After all, he doesn’t realize how important his life’s events are till well after they’ve happened. Read closely! See if you can pass the trials Wolfe lays out for you in his long journey. I promise you’ll be richly rewarded.