Friday, May 24, 2013

The Absurd Idea: The Book of the New Sun

Like much of science fiction and fantasy, The Book of the New Sun does not defy description; instead, it invites caricature.  Gene Wolfe's four-part work could easily be cast aside as nerd-food, what with its lusty young protagonist who wields a massive, Latin-named sword, its episodic parade of curious creatures and exotic locales, and even a battle where a village of beaten-down lakedwellers invade the castle of a ruthless magician.  Turning up your nose yet?  Control the itch, please.

I have loved the work of author Gene Wolfe since I was fifteen, and luckily my degree of comprehension has increased somewhat since my first being entranced by his prose, stories, and worlds.  Wolfe was born in New York, dropped out of college to fight in the Korean War, became an engineer afterwards, and invented one of the machines involved in the creation of Pringles.  His prolific work in science fiction is consistently award-winning, and he keeps trudging along at 82.  While science fiction is often divided into "hard" and "soft" categories--that is, fiction based on either the natural sciences or social sciences--Wolfe's work spans both in such a comprehensive way that flies miles over the heads of many readers, or at least young me.

The Book of the New Sun takes places billions of years in the future.  The sun is dying.  Overly large and red, it is no longer bright enough to scare away the stars during the day, and will supposedly die soon.  Religious convictions of the time believe that the Conciliator, a celebrated philosopher of times past, will return as the New Sun, renew the dying star, and save Urth.  Our protagonist, a young torturer named Severian, sets down a story for us that seems unrelated.  He falls in love with a client of their guild, allows her mercy by giving her a knife to kill herself with, and is banished into the massive city of Nessus, full of the poor people of the Commonwealth.  His journey makes him an actor, an executioner, a soldier, a temporary father, and eventually much more.  Severian's intellect gives us clear pictures and leaves out important details he assumes we should know, coupled with boyish simplicity.

At first I valued Wolfe for the same reason I valued Mieville--amazing creatures like the alzabo (a wolf that imbibes the consciousness of the creatures it devours and then can speak like them), imaginative places (the House Absolute, a huge garden hiding a subterranean palace for the ruler of Urth guarded by camouflaged police), and fidelity to his creations that make them lived-in by their characters, instead of commented on by them.  There is not enough that can be said of these virtues, considering that they are ignored by almost every writer in the SF world.  Beyond this, I could have devoured his books for the reason I devour Stephenson's--the sheer wisdom of his foresight, the cleverness of his commentaries, and his undaunted hope.

But with Gene Wolfe, there is more to like.

Gene Wolfe's Catholic faith is surprising.  His work reads like a Borges who has just read Tolkien for the first time, but who still goes to the cafe weekly with Plato, Descartes, and the collected body of the Council of Nicaea.  I'm missing some figures here--Severian, our thoughtful protagonist who claims to have a perfect memory, covers what seems at times to be the whole of human thought in his own observations of the world around him.

And what a world it is!  Unlike keyboard-vomit writers (myself included) who create names for their fantasies with cool-sounding collections of letters, all of Wolfe's names come from archaic words.  His genetically-engineered horses are called destriers, his soldiers dimarchi (they who fight in two ways).  His lore has its sources too--the fuligin-clad torturers are subtle descendants of priestly offices.  Though some references are clearer than others, we come to recognize our own world in Severian's Urth.  A picture-cleaner shows Severian an ancient photo of a man in white armor and a gold visor in the desert.  A storybook tells a story about a young boy brought from another planet who was defended by a panther before a council of wolves and eventually became a great leader.

The detail of Wolfe's portrayal stems from wit, but also from a deep need for verisimilitude.  Wolfe is showing us the world as he sees it.  The fourth volume's portrayal of war echoes the chaos and futility he might have seen fighting in Korea.  The government of the planet is ruled by a man who runs a brothel on the side, for personal reasons.  Everything is many-layered--his aliens (called Heirodules, holy slaves) wear masks that look like human faces, beneath which lie hideous monster faces, but these too are masks, hiding real human faces.

The great success of Wolfe, who writes with the intent of revealing God (here called the Increate or The Pancreator), is that he never forgets the masks.  Most religious literature presents a world that is oversimplified in order to show how God works.  Wolfe presents a world so complex and difficult it shakes us to realize that it is real, accurate, and truthful.  He is not trying to help us escape, but instead to see our world differently.  Near the end of the book, a curator speaks to Severian of the dead.

"I wanted you to see that there has been a lot come before you.  That there was thousands and thousands that lived and died before you was ever thought of, some better than you."

"You are the advocate of the dead," Severian observes.

"I am.  People talk about being fair to this one and that one, but nobody I ever heard talks about doing right by them.  We take everything they had, which is all right.  And spit, most often, on their opinions, which I suppose is all right too.  But we ought to remember now and then how much of what we have we got from them." (pg. 389)

As a religious writer, Wolfe does not ignore the past.  Greek & Roman thought finds its way here.  Buddhism is not ignored, and others more obscure are not forgotten.  A sense of universe-straddling perspective descends upon the reader, and a clarity to pull what is absurd from what is real.  Here God steps  in, not as a logical conclusion, but as an improbable possibility backed up by strange and inconclusive evidences.

To find God here, one must always make the choice to believe in the absurd idea.  "But then," Severian points out, "all ideas are absurd."

The Book of the New Sun is an example of what science fiction can do.  It was invented as the "novel of ideas," a chance to put forth concepts that were new, things that no one had thought of before.  Nowadays so much of it has us plodding down the same paths looking at the same uninteresting ideas.  I strongly encourage you to give Gene Wolfe a chance, and to see what the genre is really made of.

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