Words: Charles Hay
This is not your usual science fiction novel. This is not your usual fantasy novel. Like Dune and Lord of the Rings, it occupies a space normally held for the likes of The Odyssey or Beowulf. The world building here is monolithic in scope and mind-bending in detail.
The Book of the New Sun is set countless years from now. The blurb would have you believe a million, but the details of the story suggest way beyond that, perhaps in the tens or hundreds of millions of years from now. Society on Earth (here described as "Urth") is stratified in the absolute extreme, with the majority knowing only the land-based toil of work and war, almost entirely unaware of the extent of power their leaders exercise. The top layer of civilisation here clearly has the power over the universe, wrapped and disguised in baroque systems of leadership and separation. It is an absolutely compelling world Wolfe has created here, very often bringing to mind the eternal truism of Arthur C. Clarke: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' And so it is here, on Urth. If there is awe of technology here, it is awe of something elemental and powerful, rather than awe of something novel or revolutionary.
The central protagonist, Severian, is a member of the torturers guild of his particular polity, and throughout this novel (comprising the first two books in a sequence of four), he starts his journey towards greatness. Now, this is a winding and serendipitous journey, and if there is one flaw here, it is that Severian's special skill seems to be being in the right place at the right time but I must stress that the narrative does account for this in ways too marvellous to ruin by describing here. Against the mesmerising, endlessly expanding and occasionally psychedelic backdrop of Urth, he sometimes seems a little flat, or perhaps bland, and this is something I would say about many of the characters here. They may have interesting personal traits, and incredible back-stories, but on the whole, they are dealt with in an almost incidental way that occasionally frustrates. It is not a technique that stands in the way of the imagination, - Wolfe always gives information enough to set your synapses alight - but I do sometimes wish he'd get a little excited about these fascinating people he's creating. The whole novel is ostensibly being narrated by Severian himself, however, so a reasonable argument could be made that this descriptive style is in keeping with the rest of the book.
Oh good grief I wish I could go into the details of the book here. There is so much I want to write about but I absolutely cannot risk spoiling anything for people wanting to read it. The scope just increases and increases. On several occasions whilst reading, I found myself slowly lowering the book and staring into a mental image of what had just happened or been described. Several chapters were completely re-read. There is a wonderful dreamlike feeling to everything which, somewhat perversely, gives a very human experiential quality to events. The rigid and focused cause=effect dogma of drama is eschewed for the 'what the hell just really happened' reality of our actual lives. And, despite my earlier misgivings about Wolfe's descriptive style regarding characters, Severian's lack of narrative omniscience makes the world feel all that much more tangible and lived in. There are walls past which we cannot see, countless aeons of time lost in mist, lives blocked off from our scrutiny. Just as narrative experimentation, it is highly gratifying. As science fiction, a genre so often given to overt info-bombs and clunky exposition, it is a nigh-on miraculous feat of finessed restraint.
Here is a world filled with imported alien animals, a dimming red sun, hundreds of different perspectives of half-glimpsed history, humans as gods, humans as animals, humans as humans. This is a wondrous exploration into hypothesis that lends a cracked mirror to our own condition without ever being hackneyed observation. It is a transcendent attempt at representing the far, far future as not the future, but the now, with all its quirks and pasts and beauty and ugliness.
Gene Wolfe has created something here which is spellbinding and terrifying. I implore you to explore it.
Oxford Road Rating: ★★★★★