Book Review: The Book of the New Sun
by aaron david
A million years in the future, and the sun is going out or so says a tale that is in a language not yet invented. A tale of an apprentice of the Guild of Seekers of Truth and Penitence. Torturers.
One committed an act of mercy, and thereby…
The narrator says he has perfect recall. We have caught the narrator out a few times. He hasn’t told us everything (obviously, the Piteous Gate.) Does he forget or mean to omit? Is he lying about the act of mercy to make us feel better about the story of a torturer?
And there lies the greatness of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. Science Fiction on the level of Nabakov or Joyce. Tricksy and sure footed, Wolfe feels that you are smart, and therefore he should treat you as such. He gives no easy path through the tale, but rest assured that he doesn’t lie. I repeat, the author doesn’t lie. There will be words that you have never seen before, but they are real words not made up jibber jabber. And they contain clues, answers. The more you look at the words, the deeper into the tale’s rabbit hole you go. Words and themes looping back on themselves, new meanings for older parts of the tale. Nothing will be handed to you, as he knows you are good enough to take the journey with him. And not all questions will be answered.
What was originally started as a novella about the feast of St. Catharine of the Wheel, grew into a four, no five book series. Hailed as a masterpiece by contemporaries such as Ursula K. Le Guin, George RR Martin, Orson Scott Card and Thomas Disch, time as proven them right. But, seeing the direction of contemporary fantasy/science fiction I don’t think any of them realized how subversive it is. We aren’t given a noble knight or fair sorceress to follow, instead we have a masked man of evil. And as we see the future world through his eyes, we take new meaning from old patterns.
“It has been remarked thousands of times,” Wolfe once said, “that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was ‘a humble carpenter’ that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words yet again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer; that the man who built the cross was undoubtedly a carpenter too; that the man who hammered in the nails was as much a carpenter as a soldier, as much a carpenter as a torturer. Very few seem even to have noticed that although Christ was a ‘humble carpenter,’ the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair, but a whip.”
Or, as Severian puts it in The Book of the New Sun:
Memory oppresses me. Having been reared among the torturers, I have never known my father or my mother. No more did my brother apprentices know theirs. From time to time, but most particularly when winter draws on, poor wretches come clamoring to the Corpse Door, hoping to be admitted to our ancient guild. Often they regale Brother Porter with accounts of the torments they will willingly inflict in payment for warmth and food; occasionally they fetch animals as samples of their work. All are turned away. Traditions from our days of glory . . . forbid recruitment from such as they. Even at the time I write of, when the guild had shrunk to two masters and less than a score of journeymen, those traditions were honored.
Here at Ordinary Times, we ask always for the best. And in Science Fiction here it is.
Note: The books of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun are:
Shadow of the Torturer
Claw of the Conciliator
Sword of the Lictor
Citadel of the Autarch
[Picture: via Wikicommons]