Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, I

June 30, 2022

The Shadow of the Torturer
The Book of the New Sun, Book I
Gene Wolfe
(Orb, 1994) [1981]
210 p.

Many societies, a significant fraction perhaps, have found it convenient to have torture available as a punitive or coercive measure, and to that end have maintained a certain number of people trained in the art, or the science, of causing pain. This, it turns out, is as true in the future as in the present or the past. The Book of the New Sun, set in the deep future, begins with the story of the apprenticeship of Severian, a young man being trained in the guild of torturers, whose expertise seems beyond doubt but whose commitment to his role, he finds, begins to falter.

What is most impressive about this first volume in the tetralogy, for me, is the sense of deep history that it develops for its story. Tolkien did this too, in The Lord of the Rings; we have a sense, developed partly by a web of allusions to matters never fully explained, of ages upon ages of past time, mostly forgotten but still woven into the fabric of the present moment.  Wolfe’s story differs from Tolkien’s insofar as his story is set in the future rather than the past, so that his story’s “deep past” includes, somewhere, our own time, and we see, here and there, how the world we know has been projected and refracted into the future. For example, there is not a great deal of science in this book — the future society Wolfe depicts looks, in many ways, far more primitive than our own — but relativity theory survives as a kind of lore, imperfectly understood but carrying a kernel of truth.

Part of the enjoyment of the book is trying to figure out just how far in the future it is set. As the book proceeds, and the circle of light by which we see this world expands, it becomes clearer that it is very deep in the future indeed. We get a passing reference to things that happened in “anteglacial days”, from which we infer that a future ice age has come and gone, but even this does not capture the scale, for the sun, we learn, is cooling, which places us many millions of years in the future. These sorts of details gave me a vertiginous feeling as I was reading, similar to what I have felt afloat on the ocean: sustained by a depth swarming with mysteries.

A distinctive characteristic of Wolfe’s future world is that it is permeated at all levels by religion. Much of society appears to be organized into guilds, which reminded me of the medieval guilds, and Severian’s guild of torturers is officially the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, a fine religiously-tinted name that confirms the impression. A character at one point speaks of “figures who wait beyond the void of death… blazing with glories dark or bright, wrapped in authority older than the universe”, which sounds to me like angelic powers, and we get passing references to “the theocenter” and other such phrases. In fact, much of the religion in the book seems derived from Christianity, although if there is anything like actual Christianity in this society I haven’t seen it yet. But I did see allusions to Gabriel (“His sword blazed in one hand, his great two-headed ax swung in the other, and across his back, suspended on the rainbow, hung the very battle horn of Heaven”), to the paschal candle, to “the Theoanthropos”, to a passage from the Book of Exodus, and to Christian devotions like the Angelus. In every case the impression was like that given by the reference to relativity theory: a sense that these things are shards left over from something that has been shattered, lost from its original context and adrift on currents of language and culture.

A strength of the novel, apart from its impressive world-building, is the way in which, by the technique of oblique allusion already described, it hints at the direction in which the story of our hero, Severian, is going. The tale begins with Severian wrapped in obscurity, a mere apprentice in a guild the existence of which is, we learn, actually doubted by some, and he himself having had almost no contact with the world outside his guild. But here and there we get hints that his trajectory aims at the very apex of this very hierarchical society. Not much upward mobility occurs in this novel, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this aspect of the story develops in subsequent volumes.

On the other hand, this first volume has problems of both structure and execution that caused it to falter as it proceeded. The first half of the book is devoted to carefully developing the character of Severian and describing, gradually, the strange world in which he lives. A lot of effort is invested in the relationships he has and the place where he is. But in the second half he goes on the road, and the story devolves, in my judgement, into a series of episodes bearing no particular narrative relationship to one another. The thread of the story grows dangerously thin through this series of encounters. They are not only episodes, but brief episodes, so that I hardly had adjusted to some new situation or character before it was gone. It might be that these episodes and characters will return later in the story, and that could revise my judgement.

I also feel, thus far, that there is a basic problem with the character of Severian. He is the hero of the tale, but he is also, objectively, a monstrous figure: a man who is expert in causing pain and death, and who does so without any particular qualms of conscience. To read the things he does, and to know that he does them in a spirit of conscientious diligence, as a craftsman might shape pottery, is an alienating experience. I am open to this moral numbness being an intentional and necessary part of the story Wolfe wants to tell, but it is affecting my investment in Severian and his fortunes.

A book called The Shadow of the Torturer is one that, absent some reason to adjust my priors, I am unlikely to pick up, but I am, on balance, happy to have embarked on this series. Praise has been lavished on it — each volume won some sort of science fiction or fantasy award when it was published, and that’s fair enough. Wolfe, on the other hand, has been called “the Melville of science fiction”, which, well, I guess could be true too, but in that case the phrase “of science fiction” appears, at this point, to be doing a lot of work.

4 Responses to “Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, I”

  1. blah Says:

    “All Manner of Thing” is a treasure.


  2. Somehow I missed this post and the one about the second volume. It’s an interesting coincidence that you’re reading these. I’ve heard for years that Gene Wolfe is a novelist worth reading, and a year or two ago I found the second volume of this series on the discard shelf at the library and picked it up. I read part of it, 50-100 pages maybe, and wasn’t much taken with it, and thought I’d just give it back to the library. Then the first volume showed up, and I thought maybe if I started there I would get a better idea of what the praise is all about. I haven’t yet done so, but when/if I do I’ll come back and compare notes with you.

    • cburrell Says:

      I’ve now finished all four volumes, and will be writing about the other two in the near-ish future. I finished in a state of some confusion, but also some admiration, so my experience was mixed. There are a number of late developments that open the door to reinterpretation of what happened earlier. People say the books are better the second time, and that might be true.


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