The Urth of the New Sun (1987) by Gene Wolfe

Don't miss out on the prequel:
Book of the New Sun (1980-1983) Book Review
Available works by Gene Wolfe


The Urth of the New Sun is a continuation of Severian’s log which he started with Book of the New Sun (1980-1983). Unlike the prequel, the narrative takes place largely away from Urth on board a spaceship and on the strange planet of Yesod, bringing to a conclusion Severian’s endeavour to rejuvenate Urth’s dying sun. It won the SF Chronicle Novel award (1988).

Foretold to be the harbinger of the New Sun, Severian is brought onboard a spaceship heading for the planet of Yesod, located in a different universe and home to the Hierogrammates, a god-like people in possession of the technology needed to renew Urth’s sun. On board the ship servants of the Hierogrammtes, Hierodules, tell Severian that in order to save his world he must first stand trial before Tzadkiel of Yesod. The ship itself is so vast that it is impossible to gather the crew on deck at any one time. It has been travelling through space for so long, and with so many different people onboard, that any consensus on mission objective has long since been lost. Severian never gets his head around the layout of the ship, he is constantly lost in its maze of corridors, and he has encounters that defy narrative purpose. Severian’s estrangement is only exacerbated by the puzzle that time appears to work differently across the ship: while some sailors don’t seem to age, others grow younger.

The exact origin of the Hierogrammates remains a mystery. While they are said to be created by man in an alternate universe, they are also said to have recorded the rescripts of the increate, thus suggesting that they might be of divine origin. What is clear is that they have god-like powers, can travel back and forth in time, and in the best of deus-ex-machina tradition will intervene in the affairs of intelligent civilisations should they so wish. They fear entropy more than anything and are thus wary of the human race who already once has spread across the stars only to bring death and destruction. At the same time, letting humans perish, wilfully or by simple neglect, is also fraught with danger, as it might lead to the setting-in-motion of a series of potential time paradoxes threatening their own existence.

The careful balancing act between science and the divine is also applied to Severian’s trial, where he and by extension humanity sit in judgement before Tzadkiel, and his return to Urth, where he is portrayed as the harbinger of the New Sun, a second-coming apocalyptic narrative arc lifted from the bible. Severian is eventually declared the New Sun, and as soon as he returns to Urth he starts to ‘magically’ heal people, a power which he previously had ascribed to the Claw of the Conciliator. Severian begins his ministry much like Jesus, travelling from village to village, preaching that he has been to the sky people (the Hierogrammates), forged a conciliation between man and sky people and returned to make Urth whole again. He quickly garners up a following, and as word gets around the authorities intervene and eventually arrest him. Biblical themes guide Wolfe right up to the story’s climax, the final apocalypse, which is heralded by a flood.

While it would be wrong to classify Wolfe’s work as space opera, it is difficult to underestimate his influence on the subgenre. There is not a single theme in the work of writers such as Dan Simmons, David Zindell or Alastair Reynolds that hasn’t already been introduced in some way or another by Wolfe. Key to The Urth of the New Sun is the issue of spacetime distortion, which imbues the text on more than one level. Just as the ship which brings Severian to Yesod dips in and out of time, so the narrative appears to embody some of quantum mechanics’ weirder conundrums: what starts out as a straightforward story soon shifts into a parallel mode of narration, Severian darting back and forth in time, upending assumptions of Newtonian causality in the process.