Gene Wolfe Ends the Book of the New Sun
The Book of the New Sun, Vol. 4: The Citadel of the Autarch – Gene Wolfe (1982)
It is complete. My tour through the mind of Gene Wolfe, and Urth, the world his protagonist Severian inhabits, has run its course. I am not the same person that began this journey. Neither is Severian. In fact, neither is anyone or anything. Permanence is an illusion. Change is the only true constant of our existence. Change is so constant and so pervasive that we flow through countless cycles unnoticed as we toil in our second-to-second existence. The theme of change, or wholesale and wide-ranging change, and the ways that change can actually bring about order and stability, are at the core of the Book of the New Sun.
The genius of Gene Wolfe helps facilitate this through his use of a narrator whose memory, he claims, is eidetic. This narrator, Severian, is the writer of the tale, and also the hero. Through the course of 4 novels, he tells his own story as he progresses from a know-nothing young apprentice, to a full Master Torturer, then into a world-weary traveler, and finally to his ultimate destiny as a leader of men. While Severian may indeed possess an eidetic memory he does make mistakes and omissions in the telling of his tale, and later admits them to us, the reader. If this did not complicate the story somewhat, the fact that Severian ends up absorbing the consciousness of various people throughout the tale increases his inner confusion, for he cannot tell whether the memory he experiences is his own, or one of the people whose memories he carries within him.
This is a neat literary trick to show how humans actually think. We assume we are ONE BEING, but we have two brains. We have multiple personas. We all have multiple “selves” we carry within us. The 6 year old me is still in there somewhere, as is the angry 19 year old me, and the depressed 30 year old me. Not only that, but by virtue of their constant presence and nurturing, I carry my father and my mother and their voices within me as well. Change does not erase. It aggregates. The same is true of our narrator, Severian, and every one of us.
(I began this journey through Urth at the behest of a pal from the Sonic Youth Gossip Forum. His screen name is Severian, and he has championed these books to me for EVER. I first posted my review of Volume 1, The Shadow of the Torturer, on April 4, 2016. It took me a couple of years to get back to the Book of the New Sun, and Severian let me know of his displeasure. Now I have read the final three volumes, one a month, for the past three months and I am all Wolfe’d out! What a story! WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!! )
When I last visited Urth, Severian had become embroiled with people who showed him the true age and mystery of his world. Urth is very very old. So very old. Not only is Urth old, but the universe itself is exceedingly ancient. The mores and dogmas that hold this society together are a bizarre combination of their access to high technology with no awareness of the science that makes the tech function, and of the descent of humanity into a strict feudal system, similar in rigidity to the old Hindu caste system. In a world like this, the powerful are like gods, like magicians, and the regular people are solely there to feed the mill of life. No questions are asked, and everyone knows their place. Into this world, a young torturer’s apprentice is thrust, forcing him to question everything he has been learned, and yet reinforcing everything he has been taught. It is as complex as real life. Each human is doing their best to survive with what means they have at hand. Life is too hard to worry about the big picture, or the bigger issues.
In this type of world, war is constant. Pain is constant. Death is so pervasive that an entire Guild of Torturers exists to dole out punishments and executions. Everywhere Severian travels death shadows him, or has been there before. What is shown in this last volume is that Severian, a personification of death, grows to understand that absolute rule means that everyone is short-changed. As he progresses through his final understanding, Severian realizes that the biggest change he will bring about will be to re-craft the rules of the world that made him who he is, to create a better world for all.
As with all fiction I review here at RXTT’s Intellectual Journey, I do not want to give away too much of the story. That is the single greatest joy of fiction, the way the story is revealed to the reader, and I hope you get to experience the sublime literary and imaginative joys that gene Wolfe has crafted into The Book of The New Sun for yourself.