A few years ago I was wandering through a used bookstore in Berkeley when a striking title caught my eye: The Book of the New Sun. Intrigued, I pulled the book down from the shelf, only to be greeted by a garish cover featuring a masked man cloaked in black, his hands resting on the pommel of a giant sword. Assuming the tacky artwork told me all I needed to know about what lay between the covers, I was already putting the volume back when my eyes snagged on a quote printed on the cover.
“The best science fiction novel of the last century.” – Neil Gaiman
I hesitated, my arm suspended in midair, lowered the book again, turned it over. The back cover was adorned with the ordinary blurbs, but upon examination these bits of praise indicated the story I held in my hands would be anything but.
“A major work of twentieth-century American literature,” declared The New York Times.
“The most extraordinary hero in the history of the heroic epic,” exclaimed The Washington Post.
I squinted, and muttered the author’s name. Gene Wolfe. Gene Wolfe? I’d been reading science fiction and fantasy since childhood, yet I’d never even heard of the guy. How was that possible?
I bought the book. When I got home I immediately lay down on the couch and began to read. Two pages in I let it fall to my chest and stared up at the ceiling, mind racing, exultant in the knowledge that I had discovered Something Amazing.
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Gene Wolfe died in April. I attempted to write something about The Book of the New Sun a year before he passed, on the 25th anniversary of its publication, but the piece came out overwrought, stuffed with long passages of synopsis. Truth be told, I had felt overmatched by the task of trying to conjure the awe I experienced while reading Wolfe’s masterwork. The sense of being confounded reminds me of the writer Benjamin de Mott, who, while attempting to capture his admiration for Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, admitted in the pages of the New York Times, “. . . I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”
My sense of being stuck was exacerbated by the fact that few of the people I proselytized about the book ended up enjoying it. Like, none of them. Of the numerous readers I recommended it to no one even came close to finishing it. These were not, mind you, the kind of friends who only read business leadership books or airport bestsellers about Navy SEAL raids. No, these were ripe targets; readers of serious literary fiction and/or dyed-in-the-wool sci-fi and fantasy types. Didn’t matter. They all bogged after a few chapters, yawned, and patted me on the head.
Around the time my sorry attempts at a tribute petered out, I started another of Wolfe’s books, Soldier of the Mist, the contents of which further confirmed that the man was a genius. Why, exactly? On what grounds do I thus esteem him? And why am I now trying to convince you too, dear reader?
Consider: why do we talk about things we love in the first place? So that other people might give the book, or the film, or the dish, or the experience a chance, and perhaps be moved as well. This is, presumably, why authors volunteer to write those blurbs in the first place. There is no doubt some mercenary trading of commercial favors at play, but I doubt Neil Gaiman would stake his name to quite so bold a claim without meaning it. So what is it about this book, this writer, that would lead Ursula K. Le Guin to call Wolfe “our Melville” and me to foam at the mouth? It is in the writing itself, of course. The only way for what at first blush would seem to be nothing but a work of rank pulp to induce such raptures is by compelling the acknowledgment of its genius through undeniably great writing.
Wolfe elicits the praise of other novelists because he wields the powers they prize most, both as readers and fellow craftspeople: subtlety, complexity, a virtuosic handling of language, all married to a control that focuses the laser of his genius into the cutting of something greater than the sum of its parts. I suspect writers of speculative fiction love him with a special love because he is both the instantiation and justification of their much-maligned subculture. Urth, wherein The Book of the New Sun is set, is the ultimate built world, replete with rituals, places, societies, and a history that are each deeply realized yet only partially explained, giving one the sense of reading a real history as opposed to the cheap stage sets of much genre fiction. Wolfe writes so well that his work becomes a rebuttal to catty critiques of “escapism,” proving works of speculation can be every bit as literary as any postmodern sketch of the disintegrating nuclear family.
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Told in four parts, the Book of the New Sun details the life and peregrinations of Severian, a journeyman of the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, commonly known as the Guild of Torturers. His story is set on our own planet at a time so far in the future that the sun is cooling and the polar ice caps encroaching. The novel is science fiction in a technical sense, in that it incorporates classic fixtures of the genre like space travel, but in many ways it reads more like high fantasy. The technology that allowed for interstellar travel has been lost, and society has reverted to a quasi-feudal state. The great Citadel of Nessus, once an unimaginably huge spacecraft, now operates like a castle, its skyward-pointing arms having been occupied for centuries as towers.
Having been nearly expelled from his guild for the crime of showing mercy to a prisoner, Severian is thrust into the tumult of the outside world, where he becomes entangled in love affairs, witness to tragic deaths and miraculous healings, and subject to encounters with terrible monsters, all of which sound like so many tired plot devices as I list them out but which take on a freshness in Wolfe’s telling that render them deep as any mythology. Indeed, The Book of the New Sun has a mythic density that pulls the reader in like a black hole.
That density becomes a stumbling block for some readers. For all the praise he has garnered, much has been made of Wolfe’s supposed difficulty. Part of how he pulls off his magic trick, conjuring a sense of deep time or even timelessness, involves the use of arcane language. In no other 20th century novelist’s work, save perhaps that of Cormac McCarthy, does one encounter such an extravagant vein of fossilized English. Fans of speculative fiction are accustomed to the sudden appearance of invented languages and freshly coined terms, such that I was surprised to discover there really is such a thing as a falchion. And a cacogen. And a hieordule. Wolfe mines ancient thesauri for words that, while technically orthodox English, are so floridly esoteric that they scan as invention, leading to an added element of delight when the reader learns that fuligin is an actual color, even if no one has used the term since the 16th century.
Wolfe’s high style is a kind of down payment on the intricacy with which his story unfolds. He mixes picaresque adventure with formal introspection, mythology with literary fiction in a cross-pollination of influences that somehow manages to cohere in a hero’s journey rendered as to make it seem that it has fallen, of a single piece, from an ancient tapestry depicting all of mankind’s most durable tales. The Book of the New Sun also bears a deep philosophical watermark. While this may seem unremarkable, given the disproportionate appetite authors of science fiction and fantasy have for Big Ideas and the romance that accompanies them, ambition alone guarantees nothing, and many efforts at armchair philosophy on the part of people obsessed with spaceships and warlocks fall flat. Wolfe succeeds where others fail by employing his unique style to simultaneously bring two of speculative fiction’s unique lenses to bear on his ambitious subject matter; aesthetics (fantasy) and the lessons of history (science fiction). He tackles the very biggest of ideas; man’s place in the cosmos; the existence and character of God; the nature of evil; the limits of human consciousness.
The sense of majesty conveyed by Wolfe’s work is attributable in part to the role his Catholic faith, with its ontological grandeur and antiquarian dust, plays in the shaping of his world. In cannibalizing the church’s lexicon—monstrances, postulants, and altars abound, even a “miter of bone”—and including an overt emphasis on renewal through a coming messiah, he ends up splitting the difference between a bizarre, dark gospel and something even more orthodox in its underpinnings than Middle Earth’s metaphysics ever were to Tolkien’s own faith. Severian is an obvious Christ figure, yet his fallibility, even perversity—he engages in numerous sexual conquests, as well as various killings and acts of torture—make him an unsettling kind of ikon.
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The effect of all these layers, all this depth, is something that ultimately carries beyond simple innovation toward a kind of genre-consummating work. Nick Gevers, in trying to capture the book’s dizzying effect for The Washington Post, describes Wolfe’s exquisitely controlled style as “a vehicle for precisely calculated ambiguity, an ambiguity that so faithfully captures the texture of lived experience as to render his science fiction a sort of transcendent realism. A Roman Catholic whose subtlety recalls Aquinas and whose neoclassicism brilliantly conflates the simplicity of Homer with the labyrinthine complexities of Byzantine theology.”
The Book of the New Sun is ultimately a grand story, not a work of philosophy or a Borges-like exercise in esoteric playfulness, and like all true stories it bears the world’s scars. Among the most moving of the many scenes dealing with death or its intimation is the twilight moment in which Severian witnesses the accidental immolation of a young boy. He attempts to bring the child back to life using a miraculous jewel, and “for a moment it seemed that there was a glimmering, a bright shadow or aura” before the boy’s corpse disintegrates into ash and disperses into the air. It is a shocking scene, brutal and unexpected, and the narration of the aftermath has a searing quality, relating Severian’s near-suicidal despair with unflinching directness. Witnessing the death of a child is the kind of thing a man might spend the rest of his days trying to fathom. Wolfe’s inclusion of such a mystifying encounter with evil cuts to the heart of the question he is interrogating throughout his long book; is death our final end, or may even our most annihilating losses somehow be redeemed?
Ben Bishop's writing on faith, art, and culture has appeared in Commonweal, Willamette Week, and The Other Journal. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Oregon.