Author: Gene Wolfe
Title: Shadow & Claw (Omnibus edition containing The Shadow of the Torturer & The Claw of the Conciliator)
Series: The Book of the New Sun #1 – #2
I don’t think I’ll be offering any new insight in this review – Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun has already been analyzed to death since its original publication date. Hailed as a masterpiece and having won numerous awards, The Book of the New Sun remains one of the key SF works over 40 years after its conception. I’m very content that I had finally gotten the chance to acquaint myself with this series. Both The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator are indeed worth reading, and I hope to get my hands on the rest of the series sooner than later. Was it however such profoundly intellectually challenging experience I dared to hope? Alas, not entirely. And the responsibility for this turn of events lies as much in me as in the books themselves.
You see, had I read it a decade or two ago, it would’ve made a much greater impression. It would undoubtedly form my mental image of the far-future decline-of-humanity narratives reminiscent of anthropological analyses of historical cycles, and I would’ve judged all other books by Shadow & Claw’s own measure. I would revel in the intricate puzzles these books offer (though I did it anyway) and would discover many of Wolfe’s opus magnum’s secrets with a fresher eye and more inclination to unhedged awe than I possess today. As it is, however, with these decades filled by a multitude of other books, be they fiction or not, and my own life experiences, I can’t help but be less than dazzled by Wolfe’s intellectual magic and because of this – to see more clearly the imperfections of his work.
Ad rem, though. Starting off as a straight fantasy narrative, a Bildungsroman and a quest for knowledge, The Shadow of the Torturer & The Claw of the Conciliator reveal themselves to be set in a wonderfully complex, multi-layered world, where far-future Earth is still inhabited by much diminished humans, who had forgotten more than they know, as well as a scattering of both alien and heavily modified and engineered lifeforms. Earth, called now Urth, is nearing the end of its time. The Sun is old, very old, and has already darkened considerably due to the black hole at its heart – and, as a result, Urth is slowly dying from the lack of light and warmth. Humanity is grounded on Earth, even though it used to travel among the stars – like a very old person, Urth’s humans as a whole have forgotten more than they remember.
For me by far the most interesting element of The Book of the New Sun was the weight of history, both the one forgotten and the one remembered in bits and pieces, often simply garbled beyond recognition of purposefully misremembered. The world of Urth contains pockets of old technology which can be still used but not reproduced, and which is limited to the rich and powerful in a feudal world of strictly divided socio-economical classes, or strata, and nested among the prevalent, very much medieval technological and social level of awareness. The world in general is strongly reminiscent of medieval Europe – on purpose, I feel, to showcase the darkness and unthinking brutality of the slow decline. Two decades ago, I’d have devoured it all and asked for more; today, I have more doubts. The first one is obviously concerned with Wolfe’s belief in cyclical nature of social change. The spectres of the rise and fall of empires and history endlessly repeating itself until death and rebirth of a new society hang heavily over The Book of the New Sun. To be honest, I don’t consider feudal order as more or less natural than any other, and the belief that humanity will sooner or later regress to it (I use the word “regress” on purpose, because this discussion is inherently rooted in the paradigm of progress) seems to me rather contrived and false. Wolfe is certainly neither the first nor the last to adhere to this assumption, as the books on this list only in the SF genre range from Herbert’s Dune to Carey’s The Book of Koli and beyond. The recurring nature of Urth’s development is also clearly visible in the figure of the main protagonist, Severian, who was designed to resemble Jesus and repeat at least some of Jesus’s steps. Again, Christ-like Messianic figures crowd our cultural narratives and collective imagination from Matrix to Narnia, and the trope of the Chosen One must be the most overused tropes of all 😉.
To be fair to Wolfe, though, Severian seems not as much a Chosen One as a Happened One, at least for now: he himself is more someone to whom things happen, than someone who acts purposefully. Even the first fateful decision he makes is not thought-through, but rather a result of the spur of the moment – and from then on, the avalanche of events propels him on and he rides the slide, from one adventure to another, always rather clueless as to what he’s actually doing and saved from many a mishap by possessing way more luck than wisdom. On the other hand, however, the most meaningful instances of Severian’s actions always contain compassion at its root – and if compassion is too big a word here, than let’s settle on empathy, or a need for human connection and at least a modicum of understanding for the Other.
Severian is a curious protagonist: there’s been many a discussion whether he’s an unreliable narrator, purposefully lying to his audience, or whether the author simply plays a game of telephone with the readers, intentionally garbling the message through “translation.” Whatever the cause, the end result is a narrative that’s full of holes, omissions, and artful creation. We are never sure how much of what we’ve read about Severian can be taken seriously, can be even believed. In that, he reminds me of Baron Munchausen, famous for his less than credible adventures. But we also need to be mindful of Wolfe’s beloved recurring theme of misunderstanding inherent in any communication. Stepping out into the wide world Severian sees things he doesn’t understand, and so he conveys his fragmentary experience in an imperfect language, leaving us grasping at straws for the original meaning. This is the biggest delight of this book for me: the creative, misleading, garbled, and flawed narrative that’s nevertheless focused on communication, on the attempt, however futile, to convey meaning and value. The act of communication, the act of connection with another, may be in the end more important than the message itself. It’s a philosophical tenet close to my heart: phenomenology.
Wolfe clearly let rip with his personal literary favourites here: we can find everything in The Book of the New Sun, from the myth of Theseus and Odysseus to Frankenstein and Robin Hood, by way of Time Machine and apocryphal biblical texts. All those Easter Eggs are nice to find, but to me they also negatively affected the narrative as some of them seemed shoehorned and out of place – particularly Dr. Talos’s play.
Also, while I can appreciate the fact that Severian is a horny, good-looking young man freshly released from a monastery-like environment, I really don’t need to spend so much time on his sexual conquests. I mean, seriously, I hope the next books have less descriptions of both the bodies of Severian’s partners, and Severian’s carnal pleasures. I really don’t care if someone’s pubic hair resembles chicken or anything else.
I could go on and on with this rambling review, but it’s high time to end it. As most of it is highly positive and totally tangential to the books, you can see that the first two volumes of Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun made a certain impression on me. It might not be the masterpiece I expected, but it is a very good book, worth reading – if not for the plot itself (some of the great twists are rather predictable in our day and age, so the suspense of these books is rather minimal, and Severian as the protagonist is also difficult to like sometimes) then at least for the intellectual inspiration. I might not agree with Wolfe, but I sure enjoyed arguing with him.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.