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I first heard about this four-book saga by Gene Wolfe a long time ago, when a friend became very excited upon discovering that the video game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which we both enjoyed, contained a sword named “Terminus Est”. This friend proceeded to recommend to me the referenced source material, a cherished SF epic from the early 1980s. Many years later, some unrelated friends happened to refer to the work passingly but positively in conversation, and so — hungry for some unfamiliar fiction — I at last read the whole thing earlier this year. I feel very glad that I did, though not without some reflective reservation.
The good parts first: The prose is magnificent. I hadn’t read any Wolfe before this, and I knew within ten pages I had entered the realm of a master. I relished every visit to this first-person account of young Severian, journeyman torturer and a wanderer of the dying Earth, and its measured language that so richly paints his journey through a strange and broken world. Things often dip into the deeply, deliciously weird, with tricks of time and perception threading through Severian’s single and flawed viewpoint, and written with enough deftness to inspire intrigue and interpretation rather than mere befuddlement.
Simply charming, too, is the framing provided by “Gene Wolfe”, a contemporary scholar of deep anti-history who has come into possession of Severian’s megayears-hence journals through means too mundane to bother relating, and who ends each of New Sun’s four constituent books with copious and entirely straight-faced “translator’s notes”. I realize in retrospect that certain especially jarring sequences in the narrative may reflect areas where the original text has gone missing, like a reverse-time Gilgamesh, leaving “Wolfe” with nothing to translate, and he has elected to simply skip over these lacunae. I love it.
In sum, the writing struck me as a refinement on New Wave SF as I understood it from the Dangerous Visions collections from a decade-plus prior, and in this regard I adored it. If you want to read a complex, layered fantasy full of strikingly haunting and puzzling mind-visuals that invite pleasantly passive rumination long after reading, then please do read this. I am, certainly, happy that I did, and I look forward to my continuing exploration of this and other Wolfe work. The Best of Gene Wolfe sits on my to-read queue now, and I right now eat my way through the back catalogue of Alzabo Soup, a podcast that started deep-reading New Sun last year.
Inevitably, I must now lay out my admonitions regarding this epic novel which, for all its expansive thought, has its feet planted in the early years of the Reagan administration.
First of all, the grown-up reader will have to look past the book’s apparent attunement for 12-year-old boys. Certainly, almost all the New Sun-inspired artwork you find focuses on Severian, the lonesome killer, wandering the land with his badass Vantablack cloak and a bizarre enormous sword slung over his shoulder, always brooding and also totally scoring with every hot chick he meets. We also learn, whether we want to or not, that Severian is a breast man. My Twitter timeline would have a field day mocking several passages in this book (written, my timeline would note, by a middle-aged man) where Severian cannot describe what a certain female characters do without noting the ever-changing position, velocities, and shape of their boobs and buttocks in that moment.
Granted, I think that Wolfe meant these passages to read as ridiculous as they seem: one of the women in question, we eventually learn, has reason to use a sort of super-science cosmetic that acts as a fairy-glamor. Horny and sad, young Severian falls under its effect so thoroughly that he has difficulty seeing her as anything other than a column of subcutaneous jiggles. The rather more complex older Severian, writing all this down years later, feels compelled to express his memories exactly this way, despite knowing better. Recalled as a single aspect of the book, I find this all as hilarious as I believe the author meant — but, when actually reading these passages, of which there are a great number, I found myself cringing more than a little.
Beyond these skin-deep hijinks, though, I had quite a bit of trouble with the book’s depiction, and perhaps even its treatment, of its women — to the point where for that reason alone I would honestly have deep reservations casually recommending this to a modern audience. The protagonist is, by any modern definition, a horrible misogynist, and lives in a terribly regressed society that not only normalizes his views but provides him with no more correct path to pursue. This makes for a hard road, sometimes, to follow him down.
To be clear, the dismal outlook of New Sun’s women, and the benighted view of its protagonist, feels appropriate to its gloomy setting. New Sun takes place in an unimaginably distant future, when humanity has long since left the cradle and spread across the stars. The Sun of its homeworld has nearly reached the end of its natural life, starting to swell and dim to a dull red. But countless people still live on Earth — “Urth”, now — and, long neglected by the cosmic society that has left them behind, they suffer in a medieval backwater, all filthy city-states ruled by autocrats and engaged in ceaseless war with their neighbors over increasingly scant resources. The main character, an itinerant torturer and executioner, can make a good living because, with civilization lacking the necessarily energy to organize any sense of justice other than the most blunt, almost all crimes have become capital offenses.
And, part and parcel with all this, any notion of gender equality has slid entirely out of sight, with the entirely male-dominated society holding women with about as much esteem as children. Men — the narrator included — see women as stunted and half-formed people of specific and limited utility, most of which departs with youth. Severian views older women with pity, and people of non-obvious gender with confusion and disgust. If any women exist on Urth to offer a different opinion, we don’t meet any; none of the several female characters with whom we become acquainted seek any escape from these societal confines, as far as Severian (and therefore we the readers) can see.
But then, all this does help to set up the sole, startling exception, appearing in one of the book’s most strange and graceful moments. Severian briefly meets a woman from the stars, one of several eccentric post-human Urth-hobbyists who continue to visit their ultimate homeworld, perhaps out of a sense of charitable responsibility. By her mere existence, she represents so much that has occurred far, far away from Urth, and the moment suddenly crystalizes the tragedy of everything that Severian’s world has lost. I believe that it represents a turning point for Severian too, reminiscent of Krishna zapping Arjuna on the battlefield; it shocks him out of his tiny, Urth-bound viewpoint and catalyzes him to embrace his destiny of somehow bringing the titular New Sun into reality, reviving his decaying world and rejoining it with the true, larger world-of-worlds.
And, if I may switch worlds myself for a moment: Inspired by my recent two-week visit to London, I followed my completion of New Sun with a re-read From Hell, a lengthy graphic novel from the 1990s by Alan Moore and Eddie Cambpell that offers a semi-fictional account of the Jack the Ripper slayings. Its point of view shifts in a continuous cycle between the murders’ perpetrator, its investigators, and its victims. Reading it, I felt struck by the similarity of social predicament for the women of Urth and those of Victorian England, and also for the deeply misogynistic bent of the core protagonist in the two stories — much more monstrously so, of course, in From Hell’s case.
But through its wandering lens, that book puts a far more sympathetic light on its women, far beyond their incidental role as vessels for male violence. The reader gains a thorough portrait of daily life for the Whitechapel prostitute, circa 1888, spending a great deal of time with them and their mundane labor at (as Moore puts it in his vast endnotes) one of the few career paths that their society allowed everyday women. The From Hell version of Jack, too, also concerns himself entirely with the role of women, conducting his brutal work as part of a mystic ritual to ensure the continuation of man’s dominion over all things female — a state he sees as unnatural, and which therefore requires maintenance through actions so profane that they unbalance reality.
And that sympathy, I think, explains why I found From Hell a much less cringey read than The Book of the New Sun when it comes to the two books’ relative treatment of their women — despite the bloody fate that befalls the street-walkers of Whitechapel. Both stories take place in worlds, one historic and one fantastic, that hold women as not just second-class citizens but as a lower form of life than men. But Moore and Campbell’s narrative defies its setting by making those same women protagonists, sharing equal footing with their aristocratic killer — and then giving that killer a motivation that has everything to do with cultural suppression. Wolfe, on the other hand, gives us only Severian’s blinkered viewpoint, and thus the women of Urth are little more than lost children or objects of passing desire, with no overt questioning why.
I can certainly imagine New Sun authored today, the very same story, but with far more light cast on the inner lives of its female characters. Today, a book that depicts culture-wide subjugation of a population without being to some degree specifically about that subjugation strikes a very discordant tone, inviting suspicion that it actually advocates this quality of its own grim setting. I do not think that New Sun does this, but I observe with interest the difference that a few decades have made in what we expect from our alternate worlds. I would therefore advise the prospective reader to journey into Urth’s twilit realm with as much awareness of its origins as anticipation for its destination.
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