Book of the New Sun (1980-1983) by Gene Wolfe

Don't miss out on the sequel to the series:
The Urth of the New Sun (1987) Book Review
Available works by Gene Wolfe


Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun tetralogy (1980-1983) is set in the quasi-medieval, post-technological land of the Urth, a far future version of Earth. Essentially a single work, the tetralogy strikes a fine balance between fantasy and science fiction, a format that underpins not only the work’s major spiritual and materialist themes, but also its method of estrangement. The Shadow of the Torturer won the British Science Fiction Award (1981) and the World Fantasy Award (1981). The Claw of the Conciliator (1981) won the SF Chronicle Novel award (1982), the Locus award for Best Fantasy Novel (1982), and Nebula Novel award (1982); The Sword of the Lictor (1982) won the SF Chronicle Novel award (1983), and the Locus award for Best Fantasy Novel (1982); The Citadel of the Autarch (1983) won the Campbell Memorial award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1984).

Severian tells the story of how, from being a young torturer apprentice in the Order of the Seeker for Truth and Penitence, he rises to become Autarch, ruler of the Commonwealth. Severian’s journey begins when he violates the laws of his guild by helping a female prisoner he has fallen in love with, a crime for which he is sent to a remote outpost to perform his job as executioner. Through a myriad of different encounters, and travels across war-torn country, it is only gradually revealed that it has been foretold that Severian is destined to become ruler of Urth, bring peace to humanity, and revive Urth’s cooling sun.

Filled with numerous side plots, unexplained and seemingly insignificant events that later turn out to be of major importance, as well as references to people or creatures that defy rational explanation, the Book of the New Sun is a disorienting, maze-like narrative that defies assumptions of narrative closure. Severian only tells us what he experiences as he is experiencing it, he rarely supplies context and often is as confused as we are. Wolfe’s strategy of delivering what is essentially an unambiguous sf work in fantasy clothing serves as a masterful recipe for estrangement – blurring the lines between magic and science – and it forces the reader to inhabit the minds of the characters in the work. Deciphering Urth’s technological past becomes as much a quest for the reader as it does for Severian.

The Book of the New Sun is not space opera – Severian only ventures into space in the sequel, The Urth of the New Sun (1987) – but it gradually reveals a panorama of a past, long-forgotten society that must have had star-faring capabilities, touching on many of the sf tropes that define postmodern space opera, a narrative dynamic shared by Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980). With only fragments to rely upon we learn about Urth’s technological past, whether it is from something as mundane as internal lighting that has worked for centuries, or a picture on the wall of a man in a military suit with an unwavering flag (moon landing photo). Severian is not unaware that Urth was once different: when he encounters an unworldly, poisonous flower, he assumes that it is not native to Urth. On the other hand, when Severian is fighting creatures that look like man-apes we can only guess as to whether this is some kind of Lord-of-the-Rings episode or the creatures are in fact the leftovers from past experiments in bioengineering. Late in the work we learn that Zoanthrops were once humans who in their desire a return to a simpler life, unburdened by the great existential questions, underwent brain surgery, a trope that David Zindell employed in his Neverness Universe (1988-1998), as did Greg Egan in Diaspora (1997).

Dan Simmons’ postmodern masterpiece, Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997) also contains many parallels to Wolfe’s technological premises. While Simmons’ Farcaster travel system appears as a magic door in Wolfe’s work, Simmons’ Time Tombs, including the underlying spacetime warping technology that allows for peeking into the future the making of prophecies, exist in the form of a house situated in warped spacetime in Wolfe’s work. The house offers Severian a glimpse into Urth’s geological future. Late in the work we learn that humanity once strove for pure intellect, technological transcendence – also a trope developed in most postmodern space operas – and that it was only because machines developed consciousness,  remembered what it means to be human, and in turn took it upon themselves to teach humanity the dangers of veering too far away from the human baseline, that humanity as we know it survived.