The Urth of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

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The Urth of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe, Tor, 1987, ISBN 0-312-93033-X, $17.95, 372pp.

I read Gene Wolfe’s four-volume “Book of the New Sun” when I was in high school. Even though I read indiscriminately in those days, I knew that these books were something different, something special. What originally drew me to them was the unconventional employment of his hero, Severian, who we meet in the first book as an apprentice torturer. I was a big fan of fantasies with someone other than the orphan farm boy who turns out to be the long-lost prince (my high school favorite being, of course, the leper and unbeliever, Thomas Covenant). But what kept me reading was the language. Wolfe’s style in those books was a complex baroque–what we read as fantasy, in the strictest Arthur C. Clarke definition, is really only far future science, Wolfe was saying. And what is old (especially in language), becomes new again, with a strangely reminiscent quality. Wolfe’s books were set so far in the future that the sun is a dying star.

When you write a masterpiece, as Wolfe did, it is hard to top it, and, although The Urth of the New Sun attempts to be that fifth book that provides a seamless integration with the four before it, something is missing. It could be that Severian has finally risen too high (literally) for us to follow; it could be that the metaphysics of the New Sun become too convoluted. Or it might just be that I waited too many years between the tetralogy and this book to be able to pick up the narrative thread. I know that in the first four books Severian engages in remembering instances that occurred earlier, but it seems endemic to this novel, taking seemingly forever for something new to happen.

But you don’t read these for the plot. It is Gene Wolfe’s genius for making obscure words and ancient terms seem like the language of a new world that leaves you spellbound. This might frustrate some who do not have an OED handy or a grasp of foreign word roots, but most SF readers are used to trying to understand new words in context. To use a fairly simplistic example: you know that a falchion is a sword- like thing when it is used to chop someone’s head off.

Wolfe took some years off before returning to this world in the 1990s in the Long Sun books. I’m interested in how they compare, hoping that he was able to capture more of the original spirit there than in this novel.

[Finished July 1999]

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