Now back to the lit – this time on the other side of the Atlantic.
Gene Wolfe is the writer who managed to restore my faith in science fiction and fantasy as literary genres. I first discovered him a few years ago through his Book of the New Sun tetralogy. Neil Gaiman called it the greatest SF work of the 20th century. He was compared to Tolkien and Chesterton. So naturally I had high hopes when I started on volume one, The Shadow of the Torturer.
The first half seemed to be a set up for a pretty good yarn. We had a cool setting – a distant to the point of alien future earth where the sun is dying. The narrator, Severian, is an introspective man from a guild of professional torturers. There is promise of political rebellion, tragic romance, and of course Severian winds up setting out on an adventure.
And then things got weird. The plot kept going on weird, trippy tangents, and by the time the characters were discussing the nature of interpretation and theatrical performance I was starting to feel pretty lost and a bit frustrated. It took me a while to realize that Wolfe was just messing with me, and that the traditional epic adventure story suggested by the surface was really just the surface. That was when the fun really started.
New Sun was one of those reads where when I had finished with it, I knew that things had changed somehow for me, even if I couldn’t put my finger on how. So many of the images and scenes remain burned into my imagination.
The work is also very crypto-Catholic, as Wolfe acknowledges:
This dark figure [the torturer], the personification of pain and death, clearly carries a great deal of emotional impact; but it is not always easy to see what such an impact is. At that time, I had not yet read The Magus, so the thought cannot have come from there, though it is to be found there; but from whatever source, I was conscious of the horror not only of being tortured or executed, but of being forced to be a torturer or executioner. It is a staple of Ag-school agnosticism to say that the existence of pain “disproves” or at least argues against the existence of God. For some time, it has seemed to me that it would be even easier to maintain the position that pain proves or tends to prove God’s reality.
The agnostics contend that pain has evolved blindly and as a means of causing us to avoid injury. There are two things that might be said about that theory: the first is that a few moments’ thought will produce half a dozen better ways of achieving the same objective (one of them is intelligence, which has also evolved – but the more intelligent the organism, the more pain it is capable of feeling). The second is that by and large it does not work – human beings jump their motorcycles over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace; dogs chase cars.
What pain does do is act as a motivator in all sorts of less than obvious ways. It is responsible for compassion and the hot foot; it makes people who do not believe God would permit it to think of God. It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was a “humble carpenter”that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words yet again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer; that the man who built the cross was undoubtedly a carpenter too; that the man who hammered in the nails was as much a carpenter as a soldier, as much a carpenter as a torturer. Very few people seem even to have noticed that although Christ was a “humble carpenter,” the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair, but a whip.
And if Christ knew not only the pain of torture but the pain of being a torturer (as it seems certain to me that he did) then the dark figure is also capable of being a heroic and even a holy figure, like the black Christs carved in Africa.
In New Sun, Severian is forced to grapple with the mystery of suffering, and in doing so undergoes a slow, subtle spiritual transformation, which remains incomplete even at the end of the series. The reader, by seeing things through Severian’s eyes, is forced to identify with a sinner. The strict separation between the elect and the damned that we like to make in fiction is blurred, but without lapsing into a utilitarian vision of the good.
All that probably made some kind of impression on me, in addition to all the narrative mind games and world building.
I wrote my last English essay on New Sun, and was accused by my TA of being an instance of scholarship imitating art by creating a text which mimicked the series’ labyrinth-like qualities. It was admittedly one of the more dense, hazier papers I have written. It’s a work that I love to pick apart. I’ve even on occasion toyed with the idea of doing a chapter-by-chapter analysis on this blog (or perhaps a periphery one).