The Best Way to Approach The Book of the New Sun

In my last column on Gene Wolfe, I wrote that the sheer number of his publications can make choosing an entry point difficult, but that his masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, was perhaps the best way for readers to make his acquaintance. Unfortunately, for many readers The Book of the New Sun’s reputation for quality is matched only by its alleged difficulty and inaccessibility.

I think that it’s difficult in only the most enjoyable ways, and far more accessible than commonly admitted, but for those who remain wary, I offer seven brief pieces of advice for reading The Book of the New Sun.

Set aside the dictionary

Reading with a dictionary on hand is among the healthiest habits a reader can develop, but it’s a terrible idea for The Book of the New Sun. It’s not that Wolfe strews neologisms over the page—every word in the book appears in a dictionary—or that he mangles their use. Rather, most of the potentially-unfamiliar words are extremely rare, and chosen to be evocative, rather than specific. In the brief appendix to the first volume, The Shadow of the Torturer, Wolfe introduces himself as the translator of a book that has somehow made its way to him from Severian’s “posthistoric” era:

In many instances I have been forced to replace yet undiscovered concepts by their closest twentieth-century equivalents. Such words as peltast, androgyn, and exultant are substitutions of this kind, and are intended to be suggestive rather than definitive.

Re-readers who want to take a closer look at the New Sun’s use of old words should look into Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus, which provides both the standard definitions of all Severian’s words and Andre-Driussi’s comments about what the word choices imply about Urth and its inhabitants.

Withhold judgment

The torturers, members of the grandiosely named Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, disguise themselves with masks while performing their grisly duties, but disguise and imposture are everywhere in The Book of the New Sun, as they are in so much of Gene Wolfe’s writing. Masks, literal, or metaphorical (or both), are forever being doffed or donned. We’re rarely allowed to rest in our interpretations. To take just one vague example, early on in The Claw of the Conciliator, Severian is made to participate in a Black Mass of sorts. I still shudder when I return to those scenes. It’s a horrifying, degrading, and macabre scene, perhaps Wolfe’s most nightmarish, yet the results of the perverse ceremony prove to be beautiful. 

Mind the gaps

Severian is an unreliable narrator for several reasons, but not much of a liar. He self-justifies and misinterprets, but rarely lies outright. Pay attention to his sins of omission: the white space between chapters and the gap between one book’s end and another’s beginning are rarely insignificant.

Connect the dots

There are several mysteries I didn’t even notice, much less solve, on my first reading of The Book of the New Sun, but other secrets will reveal themselves to any attentive and open-minded reader. Take, for example, some of the mysteries surrounding Severian’s lover Dorcas, a major figure throughout the series. There’s a very surprising revelation about her in The Citadel of the Autarch, provided you’ve picked up a few scattered clues throughout the preceding books. Of course, these connections are easier to spot if you…

…Read quickly (but not too quickly)

Like The Lord of the Rings, The Book of the New Sun was published before the great age of doorstop fantasy, and so the individual volumes are relatively thin. Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings, three-volume format aside, was really a single long novel, and there’s much to be said for taking a similar approach to The Book of the New Sun. Wolfe’s narrator claims to possess a perfect memory; if you’re less fortunate, don’t linger too long between volumes: they’re short, and a small detail in one book frequently presages a large revelation in a later one.

And if you like it, read on

Gene Wolfe finished The Book of the New Sun with one of his “slingshot endings”: The New Sun imminent, but not yet dawned. David Hartwell convinced Wolfe there was material for a fifth book; for his pains he received the book’s dedication. The Urth of the New Sun is sometimes overlooked, which is a shame: it’s one of Wolfe’s best books, and while Severian remains its narrator, he writes from a different point in his eventful life and about a very different setting.

Some years later, Wolfe published The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun. Though I won’t name names here, the history of science fiction sequel series is a long and frequently depressing tale of authors cashing in and tuning out; I’ve never heard this complaint about Wolfe’s other Sun titles. The plots of Long Sun and Short Sun books are only tangentially connected to their predecessor, and their styles are very different, but they explore many of the same themes of memory, identity, and belief. I’m a New Sun partisan myself, but I’m sympathetic to those readers who prefer the Long/Short sequence.

Finally, have fun

There’s a besetting sin of Wolfe acolytes, especially those looking to make new converts, and I have long been guilty of it—we fail to convey how truly enjoyable these books really are. Yes, Wolfe is one of the genre’s best stylists; yes, his narrators are unreliable; yes, he can be challenging; and yes, his books often demand rereading. These statements are all true, but they have the cumulative effect of making the books sound more admirable than enjoyable. Let’s dispense with the notion that The Book of the New Sun is good for you, but not fun. There are monsters, aliens, and robots. There are named swords and mysterious artifacts. There are duels and pitched battles and, in the end, the fate of the world is at stake. Enjoy the adventure.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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