Gene Wolfe

On the Rediscovery of The New Sun

I finally finished reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. It took me twenty years, three times as long as it took Gene Wolfe to “translate” the tetralogy. But it was worth the wait.

Alright, so twenty years is a bit of an exaggeration. The truth is I came across it by chance at a friend’s house while still in high school. This friend had a Grand Central Station home: four siblings and their friends, a pair of Black Labs, generations of cats, exchange students, a grandfather, a grandfather clock, and (on occasion) his parents. Books piled up as well. In those days, there was no Internet. Things were slower, more localized and a book with an interesting cover could attract your attention on a Saturday afternoon.

The title was certainly unusual: Shadow of the Torturer, and the cover was severe enough. I assumed it was fantasy, based upon the massive sword, Terminus Est, Severian brandishes on the cover. Nothing I couldn’t handle. Or so I thought.

Shadow_of_the_torturerI remember being a bit overwhelmed as I read it. The language was as heavy as a chocolate torte, awash with ponderous words, most of which I wrongly assumed were imaginary. (These ostensible neologisms are in fact extremely rare words, many based in antiquity or science.) Severian, the narrator, spoke with high-minded clarity and dispassionate candor in the recounting of his gruesome deeds. He is, as the title would suggest, a Torturer. And an orphan. An orphan torturer. Who can’t forget anything. Talk about issues.

I hung around, though I was a bit out of my comfort zone, at least until Severian left the metropolis of Nessus. In departure, he describes the outlying districts, the fringes wherein ruin upon ruin molder, turning to dust, the endless tombs, robbed by generations of scavengers combing the detritus of civilization. It was then I realized this wasn’t Fantasy at all (which one always presumes is in some mythic distant past) but our future world! At that age, I still needed a hard line between the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Talk about issues.

The Green Man was the last straw. Chained inside a pavilion like some sideshow freak, this inhuman descendant of ours cryptically mocks Severian’s ignorance. In doing so, he throws his head back. He emits a howl, green teeth to the eves: a laugh from the future. This post-human creature can slip sidewise through time. And he has plants living symbiotically within his body, from which he draws nourishment photosynthetically.

I had had enough.  I wanted a nice, tidy Monomyth, something I could sink my adolescent brain-teeth into. I clapped the book shut.

But I never forgot it and when I decided to begin writing Speculative Fiction, it was to this series I first returned.

He throws his head back. He emits a howl, green teeth to the eves: a laugh from the future.This post-human creature can slip sidewise through time.

On Faith in Fiction

In the introduction to Kafka’s The Trial, philosopher George Steiner states, “The secondary literature [on Kafka] is cancerous.” A hundred years after his death, Franz Kafka is still being dragged onto the couch, but as Steiner notes, almost every analysis, be it psychoanalytic, structuralist, Marxist, etc. has fallen short. In his own look at Kafka’s work, Steiner chooses instead to focus on the Talmudic inheritance of commentary and exegesis inherent in Kafka’s background as a product of the Jewish Diaspora. One could ask, quite rightly, how something so fundamental would not be a first point of analysis.

Wolfe, of course, has not been so whittled away by criticism and commentary—perhaps this is one of the advantages of being a pillar to a fun house. But he is esteemed enough, at least within the confines of Speculative Fiction, to have drawn significant notice and analysis. The secondary literature on him is also quite wide-ranging, if not always serious, and better scholars than I have done critical examinations of his work, hermeneutic or otherwise. Therefore, in conclusion to this short elegy, I would like to draw attention—as Steiner did with Kafka’s Judaism—to Wolfe’s Catholic faith and how I believe it enriches his work.

His work is not all informed by his Catholic conversion. Storeys from the Old Hotel, a collection of short pieces runs a creative gamut that would make any artist proud, often showing his more playful side (this collection comes highly recommended, I might add.)

StoreysFromTheOldHotel

But in his first longer work, The Book of the New Sun, one can almost track the evolution of Wolfe’s faith in the adventures and maturation of the main character. In The Book of the Long Sun, he cuts straight to the chase: the main character is in fact a “priest” whose jarring prophetic vision opens the book and sets the tone for all that follows. In The Knight, Able buries a murdered woman beneath a makeshift cross: “The only grave marked by a cross in Mythgarthr.” In all these works, ceremony, pageantry and theatre are common as is the theme of Resurrection, Dorcas, whom many read as being the mother of Severian, being the most obvious example.

But symbols are easy. Anyone can wear a cross. Anyone can don a habit.

Self-professed zealots of all the Judeo-Christian faiths prove themselves hypocrites time and time again. Wolfe’s eschatology, I believe, is at its most subtle and effective in his tone and Form, as well as his dichotomies.

Take for example Urth, a world that combines the worst elements of medieval cruelty and modern callousness. An endless war rages in the North. The leaders of the world are tools themselves of powerful beings, the “Cacogens”, who have come from the stars (or the end of time, or both?) bringing technology that avails only the powerful—and their own ends.

The entirety of time and space is at the feet, literally, of many of the characters—including the Green Man that so initially perplexed me. They walk sideways through it, returning as both real and false beings, broaching conundrums and sometimes providing answers. Wolfe, as a scientist (his day job was as an engineer) and a Catholic, seems unconcerned with distinguishing between what could be called the afterlife and the fantastical implications of Einsteinian relativity. Perhaps science is his chosen tool for explaining our reality. But it is Wolfe’s abiding faith in the goodwill of God that provides the bedrock upon which his work rests. And he is the better for it, I’m sure, both as a writer as much and human being.

Many Speculative Fiction writers are faithless, myself among them. Dystopian fiction is at an all time high–some might argue low. My own recent attempts at fiction on this blog Subterranea fall within this cynical vein. In contradiction, there is a confidence, albeit resigned and aloof, that Wolfe writes with, as though he knows all our suffering, man’s torture of one another, our lying and belittling and indifference, is simply the storm before the calm. It is his most iconic character, after all, who is charged as harbinger for the day of reckoning. The rebirth of the new sun, itself a homophone, of course, for “son”.

I envy his belief.

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