Gene Wolfe, “The Urth of the New Sun” (1987) – Gene Wolfe wrote “The Book of the New Sun,” a quartet of novels (that can — I would say should — be read as one) that ranks among my favorite works, and probably the hardest to describe among literary favorites of mine. It is the story of Severian, an orphan raised by a guild of torturers and executioners in some far future Urth (the spelling turns out to have more meaning than flavor- maybe? See below) where the sun is guttering out. Severian has a perfect memory, clinical depression, a way with the ladies, a destiny, and arguably the greatest prose stylist in scifi/fantasy history behind him. The story is told in past tense- Severian is using his perfect memory to recall his youth, his adventures, and his ascension to the role of “Autarch,” emperor/representative of Urth, and due to scifi shenanigans he has more than one consciousness in him. The story goes back and forth across space and time, and if you get lost, it’s in the best possible way.
Wolfe — an unassuming man, for all of his talents, who died a few years back, not a strutting fool and/or a gormless nerd like so many big name scifi/fantasy writers — decided his follow-up would be… a follow-up. “The Urth of the New Sun” follows Severian in his ascendance past the Earth (or Urth?). This is an interesting decision for Wolfe to make. We leave the New Sun books as Severian the Autarch learns that being Autarch is basically about answering for Urth at some sort of divine/alien space/time tribunal. He gets on a spaceship and goes, the end, more or less. Do we really need a tale of Severian on the spaceship?
Well, having read it, I’d now say “no,” we don’t need as, it turns out, the world needed (but probably doesn’t deserve) The Book of the New Sun. Among other things, Wolfe can’t quite manage the creative farrago he did in the original series, strategically revealing what was going on behind all the weirdness, keeping other things concealed, switching out truths for lies and vice-versa until you barely cared anymore and just went with the story. This one does something like that but less so- the flipped cards stay flipped (“floop the pig!” as they’d say on a show that I think might have drawn some inspiration from Wolfe), confusing aspects stay confused, it is less elegant.
But it’s still pretty good. Wolfe’s prose style — dense and allusive but always flowing and alluring, not unlike a lava flow, how beautiful and crushing it is — carries the reader along. It might have helped had I read this closer to when I read the New Sun books, as there’s a lot of call-backs, but it’s hard to forget Thecla, Jonah, the Green Man, and the rest (some of Severian’s lovers — Severian being a lady’s man on top of everything else isn’t as cheesy as it sounds but is the closest to cheesy Wolfe gets here — are a bit interchangeable, tragic women of power usually)… Just sometimes hard to forget where Wolfe left off with them.
Especially because his spaceship, in keeping with relativity (or some other science stuff, who’s to say really), is also a timeship! And kind of a… temporal realm ship? There’s some Kabalistic metaphors here, where Severian and company, after some spaceship stuff, wind up higher up the Sepiroth, the Tree of Existence, snd then have to go back home. Among other things, this probably confirms what some of the old Wolfe-heads say- Urth ain’t Earth, but it’s close (and possibly upside-down- there’s reasonably good hints that the city where Severian is born is meant to be alternate dimension far future Buenos Aires, but the Plata/Gyoll flows the wrong ways, the jungles and mountains are on the “wrong” direction, etc).
In the end, Severian does the thing. You kind of know he will. The suspense of that was never the point, though seeing what Wolfe could yank out of his bag of tricks to complicate matters is part of what you’re plonking down time and money to see. There’s some time travel (including retconning/retroactively-establishing stuff in the prior books), some Christian symbolism (Wolfe was a devout Catholic, but I question how the claims made that his works are directly devotional), and then Severian finally gets to get a rest. Wolfe wrote two more series, the Book of the Long Sun and the Book of the Short Sun, in the same, err, multiverse? I’ll get to those, at some point, but I think this is a good, if perhaps more protracted than necessary, stopping point for Severian’s story. ****