David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun

I’ve been meaning to write on this series/book for years, but because I’m less than enthusiastic about it, I haven’t quite had the impetus. Thinking back on it now, there are striking bits and pieces that have stayed with me, but the work as a whole has not. But because Gene Wolfe is praised to the skies by many “intellectual” sci-fi fans while being ignored by everyone else, I think he represents a position that is worth exploring. I.e., why is Wolfe still occupying a marginal place in literature in spite of praise from the likes of John Clute and Michael Swanwick, while Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson have made it into the mainstream canon?

I think there are discernible reasons for this. Wolfe may not be any worse than Stephenson or Gibson, but his particular weaknesses are much more problematic for non-sf readers than theirs. This is mostly for the sake of people who have already read the book, since I’ll be referring to lots of things not apparent until the very end of the book, if then. For those who haven’t read it, I suggest reading “The Death of Doctor Island,” a brilliant story that bests anything else I’ve read by Wolfe. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is also rather good (read all three novellas, not just the first) and deserves inclusion with other highlights of post-colonial literature.

On to the massive, ambitious, creative, and flawed The Book of the New Sun: first, there’s the style. Wolfe tends to employ a somewhat high-falutin’ style using words that appear to be neologisms but are anything but, drawn directly or indirectly from archaic words and usages, often Latin-derived. Some people I know find the resulting style insufferably pompous and awkward; I don’t, but nor do I find it to be one of Wolfe’s particular strengths. It does, however, serve its purpose, which is to evoke strangeness while preserving a depth of meaning, and I give Wolfe credit for this. Creating effective neologisms is very, very hard. (cf. “whuffie.”) What it doesn’t do is make the writing beautiful, which is one big minus in being accepted by the mainstream. Dick’s style is clunky but doesn’t call attention to itself; Wolfe’s is clunky, and it can’t be ignored.

The next issue is the plot. Wolfe is very fond of elision and narrative unreliability. Central plot points are skipped over and only referred to in retrospect. Others are presented in a highly misdirecting manner. And others are simply never cleared up. Because Wolfe’s ideas manifest themselves primarily through plot machinations, this is more of a problem than it would be in, for instance, a Faulkner novel. In so far as the entire series revolves around an obliquely laid out science-fiction scenario having to do with installing a white hole into the sun, it’s necessary to derive the plot sequence properly in order to make sense of the layers of (mostly Christian) symbolism and allegory that Wolfe has quite definitely laid into the series. And often just to figure out what has actually happened. A flurry of significant answers are delivered at the very end of the series, but these following questions, as far as I could tell, do not have apparent answers:

  1. Why does the Claw only work sometimes?
  2. Why does Hethor want to kill Severian?
  3. Is Little Severian just coincidentally a little boy with the same name, or is he the next Severian, or Severian himself?
  4. Does Typhon have any significance outside of the section in which he appears?
  5. Was Severian raised in the prisoner/starship cave?
  6. Who is Severian’s sister?
  7. Isn’t it, like, really dangerous to have the autarch pass from one body to the next, relying on the alzabo-esque transition to keep the line going, when the autarch tends to behave in wildly unsafe ways?
  8. What other characters are “projections” of the machines of the hierodules? Dorcas?
  9. Is Severian the conciliator?

People argue that Wolfe can be enjoyed without answering these puzzles, but unlike, say, Thomas Pynchon, Wolfe puts so much effort into the hints and partial answers that it very much appears as though things will come together. And they partly do. Moreover, their not coming together would not serve any evident thematic purpose. When Gravity’s Rainbow falls apart, it ties into themes and motifs that have been present from the very first page. Wolfe’s story of rebirth and redemption is anything but entropic and chaotic.

But where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. We know that Severian is a liar quite early on. We also know that what he is writing is destined for public consumption by people in his world, and that Wolfe claims to be acting as a translator of Severian’s manuscript which has traveled long and far, without knowing anything about that audience. These two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian’s motives and to the purpose of the text itself. Because we do not know what intent may be behind Severian’s lies, we can’t derive from the whole what the meaning of any particular piece is, because we do not have the whole context. If Severian were known to be telling the truth, we could inductively grasp the meaning of his history in the world. But because both are uncertain, the book loses sense structurally. This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment. Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian’s words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha, a gnostic gospel without an accompanying authoritative text.

For all their faults, the other writers mentioned above make their metaphysics and their internal structures quite clear. Even the underrated Christopher Priest, who has made an art of unreliable narrators, is sure to place them within a determinate (or determinately indeterminate) context. But Wolfe uses these devices without appearing to have a larger sense of what they might mean; like the lesser Oulipo novels, they’re just a game. And it is this myopia that I think is his greatest debt to the flaws of science-fiction, and the reason why his crossover remains unlikely.


  1. Wow, I think that really nailed why I never got into Wolfe and felt like he wasn’t really making an effort – even though he was so plainly making a HUGE effort.

  2. Just FYI, the follow-up volume Urth of the New Sun seems to exist to make explicit the answers to many of the questions you had, that are only hinted at in the first four volumes.

    The structural point is a good one, although I always thought a) some element of the truth can be found by thinking about what “the public” that Severian is writing for would know and be able to contradict if Severian was to lie about it, and b) some element of Severian’s character and motives can then be discerned by what we know he does lie about.

    Great blog, BTW — just discovered it via a link on sfsignal, and as someone who enjoys the ideas behind literature, I’m already exclaiming in delight as I look through your list of recent essays.

  3. I’m not sure I get it. When James\Cortazar do “The Fantastic” (it the Todorov sense) we also don’t know whether the world is like this or like that, and by implication don’t know what’s the proper context to interpret the narration by. I mean, every unreliable narration always entails an indeterminate fictional context to match, no?

  4. Interesting analysis. BTW, it turns out the Hethor puzzle is one of the few Wolfe solves for us. Hethor is Agia’s suitor and a tool in her revenge plot.

  5. Ok, color me naive but how do we know Severian is an unreliable narrator aka a liar? When did you first get wind of that?

  6. There are two things about the New Sun and Wolfe in general that I think are worth noting: 1) Argentina in the 70s. 2) Chesterton, “It is the agricultural labourer who calls a spade a spade who also calls a spirit a spirit.”

    Beyond that, I would also note that it seems that Wolfe thought The Urth of the New Sun superfluous, strictly speaking. That is, he thought that what it describes was inferable from the four. If you’ve read it and he wasn’t joking, the problem is far worse (or the wonder is greater) than it seems.

  7. MattD: Thanks for the kind words. I think that (a) is unanswerable. John Clute argued that the whole thing is a put-on to justify Severian taking power. This seems unlikely, but without any greater context than Severian’s words, Severian’s intent and the ‘truth’ is underdetermined. I haven’t read Urth.

    Ed Summers: between the elisions, subtle inconsistencies, and deliberate withholding of information, Severian is not to be trusted. (In addition, I have to push hard on my memory to find a reliable narrator in Wolfe’s work.)

    peli: I tried to answer your quesiton in my follow-up post.

    Jonathan: (1) is a very good point, though to reinforce my take on the book, I never would have figured out that it was set in South America on my own. I don’t know what quite to make of that parallel, though it could well gibe with what I know of Wolfe’s politics. I’ve seen Wolfe say that Urth was only conceived after the original quartet was completed, so I don’t believe he was joking…and again, I think this is in line with my reading of the book.

    On a much smaller level, I think the problems of BOTNS are encapsulated neatly in “Seven American Nights,” a highly-praised story of Wolfe’s that for me falls apart due to similar narrative instability.

  8. I think there are authors who express ideas using clear and simple expression. Hemmingway, Phillip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler are three immediate examples.

    Gene Wolfe has attempted to write using a complex style, expansive english and has reused several key ideas and themes from earlier SF and Fantasy works. There is nothing wrong with this approach for ideas and themes are too few for all books to be completely original and often books that utilise complex sentences and style make the reader concentrate.

    Unfortunately, Gene Wolf left many unanswered questions, and often drifted off into new ideas when he had yet to wrap up the previous scene or mention why the scene was important to the story.

    The last two chapters were without merit for new ideas or story twists but seemed to be nothing more than a wrap-up in the shortest number of words possible.

    Why was Aeta invited to join Severian in the second last chapter when there were other journeymen, older and far more experienced that could have ventured from the citadel – other than because we were familiar with Aeta from the earlier chapters. I find that I could write for many hours about similar weaknesses in these books.

    Overall, I am very disappointed by Gene Wolfe’s books.

  9. Interesting post. The thesis of my reply is that GW’s work is not as accessible because the text requires a commitment from readers who are accustomed to getting the goods easy. This requirement is not a weakness, but a strength. The Usual Suspects is less accessible as a movie than Ocean’s Eleven, but is far more rewarding.

    Of course, in a first person narrative the style should not be attributed to the author as much as to the voice of the character, who in this case is writing after the events and thus with the knowledge and vocabulary not just of an apprentice turned autarch, but also of a chatelaine and a long line of autarchs before him. Thus his recounting would seem false to me if it weren’t high falutin. I humbly submit that the reason many may find it awkward and pompous is that it may demand more from them as readers. One gains whuffie’s meaning from context on a first read. When readers come across a term like atrox or fulgurator they can get a taste from context, but the tickling lure of more information behind a real word might make you put a bookmark in and head for the OED. Couple with that the feeling that you may be missing out on something and it can generate annoyance. If on the other hand you already knew it, or looked it up on the spot there is a corresponding burst of pleasure, at least in this reader. This author trusts me as a reader and doesn’t overexplain or spoonfeed me. It makes the auctorial voice that much more confident and makes me feel smarter, and included. And of course Severian would not assume that he needs to explain what an Arctother is to people who have lived in fear of them. There’s my two bits on style.

    For plot let me say that I don’t think including mysteries is a weakness. I do not believe the plot is putting the white fountain into the sun(that doesn’t until Urth of the New Sun) From my 2 readings the plot of New Sun is the rise of Severian from failed torturer to autarch and possible savior. Like the definitions of the archaic words, the mysteries are invitations for the reader to take part on a deeper level. For those who only want to read it once and don’t want to think back on them it is no surprise many remain unsolved, though for me sometimes answers come of their own, days after reading, delayed detonations of pleasure and meaning if you will. But the clues are there. Often the clues are present before the mystery is apparent and things my mind skipped right over jump out on a second read. The first time through I recognized that Dorcas was the ‘Cas that the boatman was looking for one scene previous. The next time I read the book I realized he shows up earlier, at Severian’s almost drowning asking: “Who’s that?” The boatman holds Roche but looks at Severian and he says: “Not a woman?” Plainly he thought Severian might be his Cas back from the water. The clue is an integral part of the story so it doesn’t stand out, until a second reading when you know there is a mystery. Then there is that burst of recognition. The pleasure – I know what that means! It is more satisfying than the most imaginative eyeball kick for me. The mysteries cause distress, which is the root of all learning. If I don’t follow up on that I can be annoyed, but if the clues are there and I don’t search for them I cannot call it a weakness in the book. Rather it is a weakness in my commitment to the mystery. The student who says ‘math is stupid, I hate it’ really means ‘it’s hard and I don’t feel like putting the effort in.’ That is why people say that the story can be enjoyed without ferreting out the mysteries. It is like a role playing game – you can play straight through beating all the bosses, or you can complete every side quest. Your level of commitment will determine the amount of enjoyment you get out of it. These are not weaknesses but mighty strengths for readers that are worthy of them. Gene thinks you worthy, do you?

    1 The Claw only seems to work on people that are human. It’s true power is in the future when Severian is the New Sun, the distance may funk with its abilities.

    2 Agia has Hethor whipped. Thank your stars the book wasn’t from Hethor’s POV, talk about high falutin’

    3Coincidence, but he reinforces the mystery that Severian was a twin.

    4 Typhon plays in later serieses Long and Short Suns. I believe he is the one that screwed up space travel for the rest of humanity with his Imperialism.

    5 Severian was raised in the rocket ship known as the Matachin tower.

    6 Indeed. . . guesses have been Merryn and others, I favor Borski’s answer. “Solar Labyrinth”

    7 Yes

    8 Malrubius and Triskele, possibly Miles, after reading Urth, possibly Severian himself! A child’s skull is found in the bed of Gyoll.

    I believe Dorcas is Severian’s dead grandmother raised to life.

    9 Undoubtedly so, He’s also Apu Punchau.

    I, like Ed, am unsure that he lies in his narrative. Severian is unreliable to me in that while he may remember all, he certainly only reports it as he sees it without explaining the inferences he may have had, leaving out things that we wish he would explain. In my readings it does not seem that Severian expects a vast readership. He commits one manuscript to the vastness of Ultan’s library and the other he releases into hyperspace (presumably the ms GW received.) At the end of each book he commiserates with the reader that may not wish to travel farther with him. It seems to me his reasons for writing are his own. Thus I trust him to tell me in the truth insofar as Severian understands it. Here is the true source of the unreliability and honestly, is there any human who can be considered a reliable narrator, who completely understands everything that happened to them?
    Unreliable narrators make the mysteries that add so much fun and depth possible. But just because I may not have a larger sense of what the devices might mean, I dare not confuse that with GW not having that sense. If you want the ins without spending the noodle time, or if any have spent a lot of energy on this series and want to test their theories I recommend Robert Borski’s Solar Labyrinth. He has read the series 12 times as of the writing of that book, so you don’t have to.

    Sorry for the long post. I like this blog, I just felt like one of my heroes was getting picked on.

  10. I came across this and just wanted to add these two cents to consider: Severian writes from the point of view of one with eidetic memory, ie one who always has all available information at waiting at his fingertips. Availability within the mind can easily lead to scarcity at the fingertips, due to the author taking his internal wealth of information for granted. Of course these considerations are all occurring under a veil, since behind Severian’s fictitious authorship there lies Wolfe’s own. My interpretation would be that Severian occasionally omits detail that discomforts him, but never utilizes outright mistruth.

    That said I don’t think it would ruin the books to have a timeline appendix for us to refer to. Tolkien’s popularity comes not just from his story-writing but from the intensive world-building that he reveals afterwards.

  11. No one seems to have noticed this, but the point of Severian being a liar is in fact very valid, as he says it himself in the third chapter of the first book, when he explains how he’s realized he’s partly insane. He literally tells us that he lies to such a degree that, despite his photographic memory, he’s not totally certain of the truth himself sometimes.

  12. aaron singleton

    1 April 2008 at 14:12

    All of your questions can be deduced from the text. You very obviously did not read this work very closely. And you are basically saying that any work with an unreliable narrator cannot rise higher than entertainment. Entertainment is the reason I read fiction. What more do you want from the books? To learn a new language? The entertainment comment is ridiculous. It is obvious to me that you do not care for Wolfe’s style, and that is fine, but my question is this: If you did not like the books, why on Earth did you read all four of them? I don’t waste my time on books that I don’t like. BTW, as Wolfe has said in interviews: Everyone is an unreliable narrator. The fact that Severian is one also, just adds realism to the work. I suppose you don’t like Borges either.

  13. Interesting blog. The comment from Johnathan was very helpful, especially in just making sense of the book.

    The beauty and sheer genius of Wolfe’s writing is the lack of detail. As in his Latro books, he just drops the reader into the world and lets them decide their own level of involvement. I plan to pick up Solar Labyrinth ASAP because Wolfe has layered so many symbols into his text I need help catching them all.

    I didn’t realize Malachin Tower was a spaceship until someone told me. Wolfe is a genius at this: Severian describes things as if they were a medeval city, only dropping a few words here and there to let the reader know that this place is, in fact, the future.

    By the way…Pampas are synonymous with South America for me. Severian and Dorcas cross pampas on their way to Thrax.

    If you really like Gene Wolfe, try A. A. Attansio. Not quite as “falutin” but full of language play and beautiful writing.

  14. I’ve lost count of the number of articles on BOTNS that talk about Severian’s “lies” without actually listing what they are supposed to be. Maybe I’m dense and they’re obvious but it would be a real help for someone to list them out for the less enlightened amongst us.

  15. I know this is an old post, but I came across it on teh Google, and couldn’t resist responding.

    Your reaction to the book is perfectly fair, although I would say many have a completely different view. One of the things that I think you may be missing, or just don’t care for, is that this book is actually written for the second read through. You complained about how the resolutions weren’t satisfying at the end of the book, and that the ending felt rushed. Wolfe is notorious for having telescoped endings that just suddenly conclude, without the usual sense of completion. That is because he’s written the resolution to the story all throughout the book, but you won’t see it until you read it again. My first read through of New Sun was great. Really enjoyed it. When I read it again, I realized it was a work of genius. I was continually blown away by how much my view of the story and characters was completely changed by catching details that completely missed me the first time around. There is no writer I’ve encountered who attempts this, and Wolfe not only attempts it, he wildly succeeds. That is a lot to ask of the average reader, and it’s why, I think, he’s not more mainstream. But it puts him near to the top of my literary cannon (as one who doesn’t really read SciFi). The others in this series, Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun are equal works of genius, yet would ‘suffer’ from many of the same problems you had with this work. Short Sun in particular hides the solutions to its mysteries very very deep. But when found, they explode like dynamite.

  16. Caru — I second your recommendation of A.A. Attanasio; not as controlled in his language as Wolfe, but highly inventive and bordering on poetic in and of itself. Attanasio’s “The Last Legends of Earth” was stunningly conceived and written.

  17. It’s funny to hear these complaints…when most are answered in the BOTNS…but I didn’t realize them until I read The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun…and the Borski’s Solar Labyrinth…on second reads of BOTNS I find myself laughing out loud at how sneaky Wolfe is…he hides things right in front of your face…

  18. The Book of the New Sun does not answer all of its questions because it does not exist in a limited world where everything that happens is part of The Main Plot. That would be, in fact, entirely at odds with the basic idea of the world of BOTNS, which is so ancient that history itself begins to become meaningless.

    This is not an ordinary science fiction book, and it does not have an ordinary plot. It is a sophisticated piece of literature that needs to be read as such. The text is not stable. The text is not supposed to be stable, because it is the recollections of a single, unreliable individual, and the lives and perceptions of individuals are not stable. I mean, read Joyce’s Ulysses. If you approach BOTNS from the perspective of modernist or post-modernist literature, or a classical epic, rather than a standard Speculative Fiction Yarn, then the whole thing opens up.

  19. Old, I know, but google has directed me to this blog.

    Concerning Severian’s “lies,” I do not know if they are conscious lies or if they are simply self-deceptions of a kind. One concrete example of a lie is how in the early chapters Severian seems to let on that his relationship with Thecla is more or less non-sexual, in that while he does have feelings of attraction toward her they are never consummated. At most he behaves in way that kind of betrays a boyhood crush. Later on, however, Severian relates to us through hints and outright confessions that his relationship with the Chatelaine was certainly sexual, that is, they actually had sex—a point that, if we are to look at it from the narrator’s point of view, Severian might not be particularly proud of. The fact that he was not forthright at the beginning, but later on “lets it slip” seems—to me—to indicate that it was not a conscious deception but rather a self-deception, or, at best, a convenient omission later rectified.

  20. As mentioned by another poster, Hethor wants to kill Severian because Agia told him he would marry her if he did.

  21. Typhon is such a huge character when looking back over the Books of the New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun.

  22. I think your criticisms are valid, but only in the subjective sense. I would argue that Wolfe’s interest was in creating a work that had a sense of realism in a very unrealistic setting. If a work of literature intends to paint grandiose pictures of the human condition, or propel the dystopic present into a dystopic future, etc. that’s great. But real historical non-fiction often doesn’t work on that model. The narrator of a memoir on the battle of the bulge, for example, may see things or take actions that never get completely resolved and whose overall meaning or importance are lost, even on the narrator. Wolfe could’ve split the difference and tried to milk literary conventions while still working toward some sense of realism, but he chose to make the search for meaning a battle for Severian that he never quite manages to win. It’s 100% valid not to like that…I could perfectly understand if it leaves you cold. But I think it’s a brave choice and an unusual one. It may be the core reason I like these books so much.

  23. The gorgeous art of the weird is not a parlor mystery to be closed with pat answers. Try some Agatha Christie, might be more your speed.

  24. This discussion is old, but I’d like to add a bit to it.

    I am a staunch fan of Wolfe, and especially BOTNS. I get huge pleasure in rereading this work, and enjoy all the puzzles although I am never sure I have them worked out. I look back on my first reading of it almost with amusement — I did not even really understand at the time it happened that Severian had eaten Thecla’s flesh. I suppose to me it was, despite its difficulties, strangely and compellingly readable to the point that I raced past very obvious points.

    I also find Waggish’s critique of the unreliable narrator a little thin. If I was going to criticize BOTNS, I would aim at the reliance of the plot on coincidence. Maybe Waggish is getting at that with his question #7, but it seems to me that Severian reunites with characters from earlier in the story with improbable regularity (Dorcas in the abandoned part of the city is only one of many examples). This could be explained by his time-traveling self arranging for his fate — a rather mind-bending element that could explain any number of things — but the plotting still could come across to some readers as overladen with artifice.

  25. jesse kleitman

    29 May 2010 at 11:46

    I’ve just re-read the series via audiobook in the space of a week and don’t think Severian lies to the reader.

    The lies he refers to are 1) the normal process of diplomacy he has engaged in while Autarch 2) the normal fibs to get out of trouble as a kid. 3) lies to other characters/opponents as a stratagem in sticky situations or to get people to talk 4)misdirection or misrepresentation of intent as a strategem.

  26. I disagree with many of your points, but that seems to be major part of reading and sharing opinions about Wolfe ;) My point is to make a quick note on Typhon, I was confused about that until I realized his place in a pan-Hindu mythology via a chance encounter in The City At The End of Time by Greg Bear as an agent/incarnation of Chaos. More info http://www.hindu.com/yw/2006/08/04/stories/2006080400760800.htm

  27. Awesome discussion! I realize it’s fairly old, but there aren’t enough people talking about the New Sun! My quick takes… Unreliable Narrator: Your first clue that Severian is an unreliable narrator is when he claims to have a perfect memory. Ask yourself; who do you know has a perfect memory? How often are we constantly proving to ourselves and others how faulty the “memory” is, how perspective- and time-dependent our memories are, how emotions color and even outright change our memories? Also, from a storytelling-perspective, the fact that the narrator states up-front and “factually” that he has a perfect memory seems to beg the reader to disbelieve (and we are given reasons to only a few pages later, such as by the “I am insane” comment Severian flatly makes). 21st Century fiction (especially SF) is generally so obvious to understand that we are losing our sense of irony and take everything at face value.

    But the true irony is that Wolfe is so sneaky (as “chris” pointed out above) that he hides many answers in plain sight, relying on Severian’s off-handed remarks to slip information by us. But this is all part of what makes the book great. I am just embarking on my first re-reading, and I have already been amazed by how much that really matters is easy to miss on the first read, mainly because the reader is not truly dissecting the words.

    Another subject, one of the great mysteries to me, is the “relationship” between Severian and Vodalus. It has been ten years since I read it the first time, and I’m just in the first 6 or 7 chapters of Shadow now, but I have seen several statements by various characters that would imply somehow that Severian = Vodalus (maybe by way of Severian = the Autarch = Vodalus?). I have to go into the text for the exact quotes, and maybe I will later today and re-post with some page numbers, but there is a statement early on (Ch.1 – 3?) by Severian equating himself with Vodalus. Then later the Picture Cleaner makes a comment to the effect “I thought you were he (Vodalus)” (and why would he? What would Vodalus be doing there anyway?), to which Severian makes the remark (paraphrasing) “he must have heard me say Vodalus’ name (to the armigers, earlier), but when you glance back at that page– what do we find? We find that Severian’s account is not that he spoke Vodalus’ name, but a Voice Behind Him spoke Vodalus’ name.

    So this mystery might be more related to the fact that sometimes Severian doesn’t recognize his own voice? Or know when he’s speaking? Or “feels” the presence of other people/spirits around/behind/inside of him even though they are invisible (figments of his imagination, products of the cannibalization/autarch/alzabo rites?). But this also speaks to his unreliability as a narrator, because he clearly writes about the “Vodalus” statement first as if he *heard* it, and then later (in the picture cleaner’s company) that he *spoke* it.

    Anyway, I am eagerly highlighting my copy and will hopefully post more as I continue my re-reading. This book was made to be read twice/thrice!

  28. It’s amusing to see all the pseudo-intellectuals replying about how great the books really are and how a simple plebeian cannot hope to understand such overwrought prose.

  29. Alex J. Taylor

    7 April 2013 at 18:48

    I realize this discussion is now quite old, but I’ve really enjoyed reading it, and wanted to toss in my two cents’ worth regarding the novel being set in South America. In addition to what others have already posted, two clear hints are that it’s hot in the north and cold in the south (thus; we must be in the Southern Hemisphere), and that people in the north drink maté from gourds with metal straws, and spiced chocolate. Those points were the main tip-offs for me, in any case.

  30. I am going to throw in a comment in response to David on February 6. The psuedo-intellectuals are right. Wolfe’s elisions point to something tangible – he is not a postmodernist but a modernist engineer who deals in themes which can be parsed and problems which can be solved with objective or, unfortunately for our more pragmatic readers, symbolic resonance. There are solutions which are only available upon re-reading, unfortunately most are not careful enough readers and most who make that claim won’t provide real examples of detail oriented solutions to his work.

    Let’s take his short story the Changeling – when you look at the details of the text, our narrator, Peter Palmer, doesn’t see himself in his 4th grade picture in 1944 – replaced by a boy who never ages, Peter Palmieri.. In 1949 Peter Palmer was in the armed services before fighting in Korea. His birthdate of 1934 does not allow this unless he lied about his age – but the boy who never ages shows up in 1931, according to the story of the father. What has happened? The real life Peter Palmer was born in 1931, the actor who played Lil’Abner, a notorious oaf. The root of the word oaf means elvish changeling, made in a bad exchange. Our narrator was born in 1931 and IS old enough for Korea, switched at birth but his perceptions altered by wrestling his doppelganger in 1944 and messing with his memories. We can figure out the truth with objective markers in the real world, but there is a puzzle to be solved.

    Let’s turn to Fifth Head of Cerberus – called by LeGuin the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in fiction – alas, she’s wrong. There are objective symbols that allow us to make real claims. The second part is an allegory – place names like “the eye” and “the other eye” are to be taken literally as signs of a much smaller world than we are accustomed to. The constant association of Sandwalker with feet and walking, his aboriginal culture described by the bogus term predendritic, his dreams of being a formless worm, the street called the Rue d’asticot – the street of maggots – all point to the hidden evolutionary pattern of those aboriginals: maggots who have anthropomorphized themselves in the stories of their mimicry and who eventually evolve tree like carapaces in the next stage of their life cycle. The shadow children in the tale float up from the spaces in between – they are an airborn parasite. Thus, when Dr. Marsch tells his story, and one of our brothers, Eastwind or Sandwalker, has his feet swept out from under him and is drowned in the river, we know which one it is – the one associated with foot imagery. We can determine that it is Eastwind that lives, his personality transformed by an infectious bite from a Shadowchild. Later, we can have the same knowledge about Marsch – he is not the aborigiinal VRT as many claim (which stands for variance reduction techniques, in which a problem is solved by a SERIES of approximations, not just for the boys name, Victor R Trenchard).
    Eastwind survives BECAUSE it is the microscopic airborn mites who survive as Marsch and try to justify their humanity (thus shadow children riding the Marsh men in the story). All the names make sense then: Cedar Branches Waving – sentient trees. Eastwind: a symbol of the method by which Marsch is infected and is replaced – airborne small beings rather than walking aborigines. The name Many Pink Butterflies showing that metamorphosis from larva to all the people who have been replaced by aborigines – but our incarcerated Marsch is not an aborigine, but a shadow child, infected by those microscopic shadow children in the cat bite. That novel has been out for 40 years and there had been no word on the maggots and microscopic mites, nor the dendritic culture of the aborigines, because people don’t pay attention to detail in Wolfe enough to jive with his themes. VRT is a series of approximations in Engineering, not one – Marsch is not an aboriginal, but a shadow child. The hidden name of our narrator umber five is Wolfe – the name of one shadow child alone is wolf, too. Wolfe is the greatest, subtlest, and most rigorous artist of our age.

    Wolfe is rigorous scientifically and with detail – his symbols point to objective solutions, but he is always complicated and structurally interesting. I honestly feel as if almost everyone who reads him misreads him. You can figure out his puzzles, but you have to recognize that he is a genius.

  31. Just a quick response to Nathan’s speculation that Severian is Vodalus.

    You’re basing that theory on a couple of misreadings and misremembered bits in the meeting with the man restoring the paintings (Rudesind the curator). Rudesind doesn’t say “I thought you were he (Vodalus)” – that would be an extremely odd thing to say, as you point out – he says, “A bit ago, though, I thought you was for him.” In other words, that Severian was a sympathizer.

    And the reason he thought that was that Severian had said, “They [the armigers] should be done away with. Vodalus would set them quarrying.” That’s the mention of Vodalus to which Severian refers when he thinks Rudesind only kept talking to him because he spoke that name.

    So there’s no inconsistency, no mystery here, and no reason to make up elaborate explanations.

  32. If you couldn’t answer those 9 questions, then you didn’t read the book well or understand it. If you didn’t understand it, then probably your position as a critic is flawed.

    “Why does the Claw only work sometimes?”

    The claw doesn’t work at all. The power comes from Severian himself. The first thing he resurrects is his dog Triskele which is dead. If you don’t read carefully then you can fall into what Severian thought at the time, which was that the dog appeared dead but was not because afterwards it was alive (simple logic, right? Unless you happen to be connected to the New Sun from echoes going backwards in time. Severian is not connected entirely to the New Sun (and then an ability to warp or pass through time). At several points in the books, particularly when Dr. Talos speaks, it is explained that events ripple backwards in time as they do forwards in time. Dr. Talos basically describes the villagers attacking the castle with a tall monster and a doctor tending to it as an event that rippled back in time (suggesting it is the inspiration behind the book Frankenstein if you can connect the dots). Severian occasionally resurrects dead things (including Typhon) through these ripples back in time from the his future connection to the New Sun. The New Sun is actually already on its way by the time the book starts.

    “Why does Hethor want to kill Severian?”

    Because Hethor is in love with Agia and is doing whatever he can to win her over. Agia is the one trying to kill Severian and Hethor is just trying to please her. This is made clear in the books.

    “Is Little Severian just coincidentally a little boy with the same name, or is he the next Severian, or Severian himself?”

    Little Severian serves a couple of purposes, one is to tease us with the thought that Severian may have a sister, because it is explained that Severian/Severa are names for twins. He is also destroyed by Typhon through his works. We’re supposed to think about that.

    “Does Typhon have any significance outside of the section in which he appears?”

    Yes. In the books he serves to tempt Severian probably as Satan tempted Christ, that Severian could co-rule an interstellar empire at his side. But he is also a force in the Long Sun and Short Sun novels. When he meets Severian he clearly knows who Severian is as well as the powers that he will have, far better than Severian knows (which is next to nothing at this point) and it is why he makes such a big deal out of trying to get Severian to swear allegiance to him. This implies that they have met before which means in terms of Severian’s timeline they will meet again.

    “Was Severian raised in the prisoner/starship cave?”

    That “cave” is a room. Severian was born in the Matachin tower. The metal walls of the tower are described when he recalls his birth.

    “Who is Severian’s sister?”


    “Isn’t it, like, really dangerous to have the autarch pass from one body to the next, relying on the alzabo-esque transition to keep the line going, when the autarch tends to behave in wildly unsafe ways?”

    The Autarch is not passing from one body to the next. His memories are being passed on. The Autharch of Severian’s time was told that Severian would inherit from him by the heriodules who are moving backwards through time. So he knows his actions will not cause his own death until he has met Severian and also had an opportunity to pass his memories to Severian.

    “What other characters are “projections” of the machines of the hierodules? Dorcas?”

    Dorcas was a dead woman who was brought back to life by Severian by accident. Malrubius and Triskele (when they appear together) are these projections. Nobody else.

    “Is Severian the conciliator?”

    Conciliator: a person who acts as a mediator between two disputing people or groups.
    “he was seen as a conciliator, who would heal divisions in the party”
    synonyms: peacemaker, mediator, go-between, middleman, intermediary, intercessor;

    At the end of the books Severian leaves Urth to go attempt to bring the New Sun. Typhon clearly knew who he was. In the tomb where he plays as a boy the coat of arms he takes for his own are a “ship volant” (flying ship…. spaceship), a rose (rose… thorns… the thorn that was shaped exactly the same as the claw and pierced his skin and became impregnated in his red as a rose colored blood), and a fountain (white fountain…. NEW SUN).

    You really read these books and missed all of this?

    • Nice rebuttal mate. Book isn’t known, because like this guy you can pass it off as pulp if you want to because there is an engaging plot. Fun to think Wolfe’s inspiration for it nucleated around wanting to make a badass character people could con as.

  33. I would add another point with regards to #7. Severian mentions that he is not sure if he is mad at some point in the second volume, after consuming Thecla’s memories. I think it’s safe to assume some of the erratic behavior of the Autarch is most likely due to being slightly mad from all the voices within him.

    But then you made the point that there are the Hierdules too.

    Also, excellent rebuttal.

  34. These are indeed good rebuttals. As my 2010 comment above relates, I don’t blame anyone for missing them — at least not the first time through. These books are designed to be read again and again. Nothing wrong with missing all sorts of things, but it’s true that one shouldn’t pass judgment on the books only having read them once.

  35. Listen to the books out loud, a lot of the things that people find puzzling suddenly make sense when heard aloud. I found these books catnip in the mid-80s as a young teenager, and learned quickly that the best way to read the books was to just read them. Don’t pause to puzzle over the weird/archaic words, just read. Don’t get tangled in the “what does that mean?” trap – that’s a distraction. Now, at 50, I still find the books as fascinating now as then; it’s like putting together a really good jigsaw puzzle: put in the last pieces and what appears to be a tangled mes turns into humans clearly living in the ruins of their once starfaring ancestors. Recognizing the image of the first man on the Moon was as exciting for me at at 50 as it was for me at 13.

  36. old. But many people believe that Severian may have been an unreliable narrator with contradicting narratives because he’s remembering an alternate timeline.

  37. This is how I felt after first reading TBOTNS;

    “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
    Or like stout Cortes when with eagle eyes
    He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men
    Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


  38. There’s nothing wrong with a person’s taste in liking or not liking a book, author, or whatever, but if you’ve read the four books and can ask why Hethor wanted to kill Severian, you’ve obviously not read at all that closely as it’s stated in the book. Not only is it explicitly laid out, it’s implied in several other encounters with Agia.

    I think all of us have encountered books off of lists or via recommendations we did not enjoy and found ourselves drifting over sentences and paragraphs, then suddenly realizing no recollection of it, but, forging forward anyway in our heroic efforts to finish. Perhaps, though, when attempting to diagnose those book’s perceived faults it would be beneficial to give the author a full and fair reading, especially if publishing one’s reasoning online. Unless, of course, the goal was to demonstrate how thinly disguised and poorly argued a pedantic “It’s not my taste” can be stretched out over one thousand words, and if so, may I offer my belated congratulations.

  39. Perhaps you do not read with the degree of attention Gene Wolfe demands. Allow me to observe that the character you represent as ‘Aeta’ is actually named ‘Eata’.

  40. I think the article touches on interesting stuff from an epistemological angle, and I agree the text isn’t stable. I also think Urth/Long/Short sun shouldn’t be taken into account when assessing BOTNS – both for its artistic value as for the original puzzles. I don’t agree it is mere entertainment however, as I think the puzzles serve a spiritual purpose. I’ve written a 5500 word article about it, should anybody be interested: https://schicksalgemeinschaft.wordpress.com/2021/05/16/the-book-of-the-new-sun-gene-wolfe-1980-83/

Leave a Reply

© 2024 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑