Friday, October 25, 2019

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

Where to begin with even preliminary notes on Gene Wolfe's dizzying, monumental sequence The Book of the New Sun? The death of Gene Wolfe earlier this year prompted me to return to the sequence starting with The Shadow of the Torturer to give the whole series its second (and in some volumes third) reading, but the whole remains a staggering and sometimes frustrating work, frequently brilliant and occasionally baffling.

At one point in The Sword of the Lictor, the narrator-torturer Severian climbs down a mountain cliff that is composed not only of natural materials but human-made elements, strata of artificial structures, metals, made objects: "the buildings and mechanisms of humanity," layered in geological sediment. As Tolkien created a sense of the mythic past of Middle-Earth by building ages of imaginary history, Wolfe creates a sense of an ancient world illuminated by a dying sun by generating these accumulated layers of future history. But this history is also so vast that it is mostly unknowable, at once so compressed and remote that there is little to be gleaned from it. This scene is something of a touchstone for my reading of the whole work.

You might say that Severian's eidetic memory, able to record a mass of episodic detail but rarely able to draw back far enough to show the implications of what he witnesses, enacts this kind of layering. Severian is often described as an unreliable narrator, despite the precision of his recall. In fact, the text itself is like this, layering allusions, metaphors, stories, histories, and forms of meaning. One of Wolfe's most effective conceits is to conceal high technologies behind antiquarian terminology by way of "translation", such that energy weapons are described as lances, grounded spacecraft as citadels, and often the apparent significance of an item conceals and transcends its material nature, as the Claw of the Conciliator, the healing relic of the messiah, is eventually whittled down from jewel to claw, and eventually shown to be a thorn from a wild rosebush.

This mirroring (mirrors can also transcend space and time in the New Sun) can be both dazzling and perplexing. For instance, after two or three readings I'm still at a loss as to describe precisely how the far future messiah boot-straps himself into temporal existence, or precisely how and where and for what function he comes by the Claw. It's suggested by the end of the sequence that Severian is destined to travel in the corridors of time, and thereby somehow guide his own apotheosis, but where Severian intrudes in his own story, or his precise relationship with menacing, distant figures such as the abyssal giants, is not apparent after this reading any more, I expect, than the next.

The dying earth genre, from The Night Land to Viriconium, is by implication an elegy, located at the point of entropy where the fictional world is ossified and decayed. The Book of the New Sun certainly partakes of this moment and its dizzying perspectives. But perhaps Wolfe's most profound piece of misdirection is that his work ends not on the edge of dissolution but of renewal. This theme, the movement from executioner to broader moral consciousness to redemption, is one Dickens deployed and I've used myself, most clearly in the figure of Gabriel Carver. There is always a tendency, from Tolkien to Wolfe, to chase after deliberate allegories, in this case between Catholicism and the cult of the Increate and the New Sun, but for me it is Severian's meandering journey, sometimes impressive, sometimes perplexing, in the labyrinths of the far future that hold the greatest satisfaction and interest.

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