Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Polyphonic Games: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

The two-volume version of The Book of the New Sun

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun is not for the faint of heart or shallow of mind.  It is equal parts challenging, beautiful, incomprehensible, maddening, and intriguing, a multi-tiered, polyphonic literary game the reader plays with the author.  The reader is playing in Wolfe's house -- and the house always wins.

The Book of the New Sun was originally released as a series of four novels: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982), and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983).  There is some truth to the idea that this is a series, but, as with all appearances within the novels, there's a greater truth: it's really one long novel in four parts.

I almost never read a series straight through.  I like to put down a series to let it percolate in my mind as I read other things for awhile.  This was an exception.  Maybe it's because I read it in a more recent two-volume edition from Macmillan with the titles Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel, maybe it was because I couldn't stop playing this game, hoping (whether vainly or not) for some degree of winnings in the currency of understanding.

The Book of the New Sun is somewhat fractal: you can zoom in on the details or zoom out for the bigger pictures, each of which forms a pattern (whether you can see the whole pattern, of course, is a different matter).  To capture this aspect of the work, I'm setting out the reviews I wrote as I finished each volume with an appendix at the end.

The Shadow of the Torturer

Reading The Shadow of the Torturer is like taking an acid trip through a thesaurus.  I'm not sure I understood or even liked everything, but I'm pretty sure this is genius.

Our hero Severian seems to be a Gary Stu who becomes romantically entangled with every woman he meets (after describing their breasts, of course).  Partly because of this, he seems like a standard teenage boy embarking on an epic fantasy quest in a vaguely Tolkienesque fantasy setting ...

... or so it would seem if Wolfe wasn't engaged in an elaborate, layered game with the reader that makes me question anything I think I know about this book.

There is a more-or-less coherent plot that starts out with Severian in a guild of torturers.  He falls in love with one of the women to be tortured and breaks the rules of his guild.  Rather than sentencing him to torture or death, the guild assigns him to a post in a remote village.  So he embarks on an epic voyage to this village, er, well, not exactly.  Instead, things start to get weird.  I don't want to give spoilers, but then again, I'm not sure I could if I wanted to.  Things quickly get kaleidoscopic and seemingly random (but not really, of course -- the underlying order is just not immediately obvious, and I feel like I wouldn't completely understand it until a third or fourth reading, if even then).

On top of all this is Wolfe's challenging, but deeply beautiful prose.  I thought there was a lot of invented vocabulary, but apparently Wolfe has merely memorized a thesaurus along with the deepest cuts of the Oxford English Dictionary.  He would blow the vocabulary section of any standardized test out of the water.  This can be overwhelming, but there's a deeper reason for this lexical excess explained in the appendix.  (The appendix made the book twice as cool for me, but don't read it until the end.)

I normally wait awhile to continue a series, moving on to other items on my to-read list before coming back, but I'm intrigued enough to make an exception for this series.  I can't claim to completely understand whatever games Wolfe is playing, but I nonetheless find myself wanting to continue playing them.

(See also my Goodreads review)

The Claw of the Conciliator

The second in the series continues to be as challenging, baffling, and beautiful as the first -- and even more mind-bogglingly complex.  I'm still not entirely sure what Wolfe is doing or how he's doing it, but I've been pulled into the vortex with no hope of escape but to dive head first into the rest of the series.  Part of me thinks I have to wait until I've finished the whole series to give The Claw of the Conciliator anything like a complete review, but here are some thoughts so far.

We meet our hero(?) Severian not long after the end of the previous volume.  The narrative moves, but not in anything that feels like a straight line.  It's more in fits and starts, curves and gaps, and seemingly extraneous details followed by glossing over what seems like some of the important stuff.  I suppose it's closer to how memory actually works, which is funny, of course, because Severian tells us several times how great his memory is.  We also come to wonder just how reliable a narrator he is.

So what happens?  I can capture the surface level randomness of the story best in a list of a few highlights, which I guess contain spoilers, but I doubt this list would actually ruin the book for anyone:

[Minor spoiler alert]

Severian meets a man with green skin who claims to be from the future, he meets up with his old pal Jonas (who turns out to be a robot from a space ship that landed a long time ago), he glimpses Agia, gets a note that purports to be from Thecla (the woman he feel in love with in the first part of the previous book), fights a bunch of ape-men in a cave who are weirdly afraid of the jewel he obtained in the last book (the eponymous Claw of the Conciliator), he meets the rebel Vodalus from the previous book who invites him to a feast where get Thecla's memories by ingesting her flesh after ingesting an alien drug, Severian is imprisoned in a prison that serves cake and coffee and allows people to leave even though they've been there for generations, Severian meets his old acting troupe with whom he puts on a play that contains important back story/world building, he leaves with Dorcas and Jolenta (both of whom he has sex with, of course), Jolenta gets sick (and dies but after some mystery), Severian seems to remember he was supposed to going to Thrax, there's some kind of giant sea person, they meet a strange group who give them a vision of a strange town's past(?), and there are some hints that some people see all points in time -- past, present, future -- equally and that time is what (real world present day) philosophers would call eternalism or block time (past, present, and future equally exist), all of which means that Severian may be subject to such all-time-seeing forces on his Messianic path, and the appendix hints that part of why the time line of the narration is so wonky is because Severian has been dealing with people who see time in this way.

Whoa. I'm excited to see where this crazy ride takes me next.

(See my Goodreads review.)

The Sword of the Lictor

The appearance-reality distinction continues.  Of course, the series (really one novel in four parts) is science fiction that looks like fantasy.  None of the characters are who they first seem to be, and nothing is really as it seems.  More fundamentally, the reader constantly feels that the realities underneath the surface of the story are unfathomable -- one might scratch a bit deeper in a second or third reading, but Wolfe demonstrates that there is always more than meets the eye.  The abyssal depths of reality can never be fully ensnared by our cognitive nets.

That said, I can't tell if I'm just getting used to Wolfe's style, but this third installment feels slightly more comprehensible -- at least at the surface level -- than the previous volumes.  This isn't to say I understood everything.  This is still no easy read.  As enriching as the journey is, some of the steps along it are hard to take.  As with the previous installments, the middle part is the hardest.  You have to have a bit of faith that Wolfe is taking you somewhere interesting.  It helps to ride the waves of his prose: when the content threatens to sink you, let the form keep you afloat.

Severian finally gets to Thrax, which was his quest way back in the first part.  He has a steady job and a steady girlfriend, both of which cause the sorts of growing pains for him that careers and relationships cause most people these days (a strangely relatable part of this unnervingly strange tale?).  Of course, our hero(?) rarely stays in one place or with one woman long and finds himself having an affair and then on the road again, where of course many more strange things happen.  A somewhat spoiler-y list of highlights:

[Minor spoiler alert]

He fights a bizarre alien creature that devours memories as well as flesh.  He fights humans who have deliberately become part animal.  He meets a family with a boy named, well, Severian.  His old nemesis/lover Agia shows up again.  The family is killed and Severian ends up sort of adopting the lad Severian, who later dies (insert your favored quasi-Freudian diagnosis here).  He meets a two-headed man who claims to be a long-lived monarch.  He takes up with a group of islanders to fight their oppressors, who turn out to be, well, people he's met before, of course.  A somewhat epic battle ensues, along with some deep thoughts on politics, poetry, and philosophy ... and of course more mysterious people (aliens this time) tell Severian that he is destined for almost unthinkable greatness, or is already there depending on how you look at time. At the end, Severian describes three states: normality, a higher state of mystical insight, and a state of obedience to some unknown.

[End of spoilers]

Wolfe's story moves between normality (there is a relatively coherent story here), higher insight (all the mind expanding stuff about time, aliens, humanity, reality, appearance, etc.), and obedience to an unknown (wherever this story is taking me, I'm compelled to go along for reasons I don't entirely understand).  Just as the endings of the three volumes so far have generally been my favorite parts of their respective volumes, I'm hoping the end of the whole series will be my favorite overall.

(See my Goodreads review.)

The Citadel of the Autarch

I'm not entirely sure I'm any closer to understanding The Book of the New Sun after finishing it, but, on the other hand, maybe I am. Perhaps Wolfe's genius is leaving his readers unsure of what they know.

The more purely literary merits (of which there are plenty!) are better discussed by others (for instance, see here).  I will say that Wolfe's prose can be beautiful even as it's veering into incomprehensibility.  And the intricacies of the plot(s) and settings are breathtaking and not immediately obvious.  I will admit I didn't always enjoy reading The Book of the New Sun in the usual sense of "enjoy."  There's a lot of "WTF?" and head-scratching and "Wait, what the hell is going on?"  But as an overall aesthetic experience this is an enjoyable read: something this baffling, challenging, and just plain weird is enjoyable for the fun of playing the games Wolfe sets up even if you don't win those games (and you aren't going to win those games.  Wolfe is simply too good.)

For previous volumes, I gave a bit of a summary of plot points.  For this last volume, it's maybe easier just to set it up, partly because I don't entirely understand what all happened in this book. The Citadel of the Autarch picks up right where the previous volume left off.  Severian meets a dead soldier, whom he revives with the claw, and ends up involved with a war with the Ascians, people who speak in strange parables.  He becomes, as we were told in the first volume, the Autarch, but not in the ways you might expect.  Seriously, it's weird.  And cool.  Check it out.

I thought there might be slightly more resolution and explanation in this book, at least in the last appendix.  How naïve I was!  It's not that we're not given anything at all.  We get some really good hints.  In particular, I was aware that time travel was part of the background for the story ever since the second book, but we learn in the last book that it's far more integral to understanding the whole structure and plot of the series.  It will be the number one thing on my radar if/when I do the re-read that seems necessary to make sense of the series, as Severian himself tells us at the end.

As Peter Wright writes in this review: "The Book of the New Sun reminds us of our potential and our vulnerability as readers and, in so doing, it reminds us of our potential and vulnerability as individuals."

Let me take this in an epistemological direction (epistemology being the part of philosophy that looks at knowledge: what it is, whether have as much of it as we think, etc.).  Part of what is enthralling and, to be honest, a bit unsettling about encountering The Book of the New Sun is that as a reader I never entirely knew what was going on, and even more deeply, I could never be sure I knew what I knew.  Because I am encountering a radically estranged world though the perspective of a radically estranged narrator (using "estrangement" in the sense of Darko Suvin), because Severian is a deliberately unreliable narrator (his constant iterations that he has a perfect memory are a red herring - I think), and because of Wolfe's literary game playing, as soon as I think I know what's going on something else makes me unsure.  And then I come to another conclusion and the cycle continues.  I finished reading the book two days ago and I feel like I'm still piecing it together, but only in a piece meal fashion and in a process that will continue.

That this process is so rich and seemingly interminable is what makes The Book of the New Sun a great work of literature.  The deepest philosophical point can be found in our awe and intellectual humility as we touch the limits of human understanding, attempting to fathom an unfathomably vast and secretive universe -- whether that universe is Wolfe's or our own.

(See my Goodreads review).

Appendix: On the Knowledge of Ignorance and the Ignorance of Knowledge

In his rich and insightful review of The Claw of the Conciliator, Jonathan McCalmont draws a comparison to what some people have called the paradox of inquiry from Plato's Meno (a version of this is discussed by Indian philosophers as well).  The paradox is this: If you don't know the answer, you won't recognize it when you find it, and if you already know it, then you don't need to seek the answer.   So in either case it seems that inquiry is impossible.

Reading The Book of the New Sun is like seeking an answer to a question.  When the story started, I didn't know what I was looking for.  And I was never sure I found the answers.  To be clear, we get some hints and some context as we go.  I feel like I have some of the major pieces of the puzzle in place, but I don't have the picture on the box to compare it to.

McCalmont's review takes this in a somewhat different direction (with some help from Wittgenstein's private language argument), but I do agree that of course we don't start from complete ignorance.  I had some ideas from reading reviews and hearing people talk about it.  Still, I don't take this in the epistemically optimistic direction that, at least in some interpretations, is taken by Plato and Wittgenstein.

Speaking of Wittgenstein and the private language business, as a speaker of English (like all real languages, a very public one) I knew most of the words.  Still, Wolfe uses an awful lot of words I didn't know.  I only occasionally looked them up, partly because I didn't feel like stopping the flow of reading and partly because I figured that not knowing which words are real, but archaic English and which were Wolfe's creation was in fact part of the aesthetic experience of the work.  I was aware of my ignorance, and I took this to be integral to the estranging effect of Wolfe's prose.

Zooming out on the fractal, I can say that much the same pattern fits with the overall plot(s) and structure.  One of the most challenging and dazzling feats of Wolfe's work is that he is always working on multiple levels simultaneously.  See, for instance, the three levels I mentioned above with regard to The Sword of the Lictor: normality, higher insight, and obedience to the unknown.  This is a straightforward fantasy narrative, a weird far-future science fictional story, and a baroque, mystical literary experiment all at the same time.  It can be read as any one of these or all three.

The epistemological effect is simultaneously estrangement and disorientation, but also -- in those rare moments of clarity of knowledge and/or obedience to unclarity -- a deeply satisfying experience.  Sometimes you know what's going on, usually you don't.  And if you take a wide enough and self-cognizant enough zoom backwards you can never be entirely sure which of these situations you're in.

So in this mode Wolfe's work is philosophically not so much akin to Plato or Wittgenstein, but perhaps to ancient skeptics like Zhuangzi, Nāgārjuna, and Sextus Empiricus for whom the question of whether we really know what we know may be difficult, even impossible to answer.  Whereas most of us find this type of ignorance deeply troubling, the ancient skeptics teach us how to live with our ignorance in a universe where we may not even know what answers we're looking for.  And if Wolfe can help us do the same, all while playing an elaborate, infuriating, enthralling literary game, then this series might indeed be worth several re-reads as Severian recommends.


  1. Great review! Just found your blog, nearly everything you write about is an interest of mine, looking forward to reading more. Anyway I highly recommend reading Urth of the New Sun, it answers some questions, especially about the time travel, while of course raising plenty of new ones itself. My second time through the series was the most rewarding literary experience I've ever had. Good luck!
    (You'll want to move on to Soldier of the Mist straight away.)

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you found the blog.

      Urth of the New Sun is definitely on my list. I might need a break from Wolfe for a bit to ready myself to dive in again, but I hope to do so at some point in the relatively near future. Now I'm trying to catch up on some 2017 releases for the sake of writing a Best of 2017 list. Thanks again!