Fragile Bird

The Book of the New Sun First Read and Re-read project [spoilers]

413 posts in this topic

Great theory on the moon picture.

I agree that we are supposed to draw a parallel between the corpse eaters and the library, plus the mention of a crystal (like a flash drive) that contains more books than are physically in the library. The library must have a database more vast and sophisticated than books, explaining it exceeding its physical dimensions.

The corpse-eating struck me because God-eating is prominent in several religions and it links to the messianic theme plus the possibility (from the coffins) that the current Severian is one of a series.

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3 hours ago, Iskaral Pust said:

The corpse-eating struck me because God-eating is prominent in several religions and it links to the messianic theme plus the possibility (from the coffins) that the current Severian is one of a series.

I missed the idea of a God-eating link - that's probably no coincidence considering how prominently Wolfe's Catholic faith influences his work.

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The "God-eating" is not in the book yet, but it's one way to see holy communion. Although more traditional catholics would probably cringe to put this into parallel with the ghoulish corpse-eating (this will come up in the second book, but I don't want to spoil it).

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13 hours ago, Iskaral Pust said:

I agree that we are supposed to draw a parallel between the corpse eaters and the library

More than one parallel, actually, as Master Ultan is almost certainly an eater himself. Severian says, "The livid woman I had seen dragged from her grave rose before me so vividly that I seemed to see her face in the almost luminous whiteness of the figure who spoke." This is much the same way other known eaters are described, in that other characters will seem to see whoever was eaten when they look quickly at one.

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Wow, good catch!  That's why these comments are so good, the text is so dense and full of information.

I keep thinking this book must have had a very strong influence on GRRM.

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Great insight, Matt. It seems like a lot of points get stronger on reread.

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In terms of influence, this book has a huge debt to Jack Vance's Dying Earth setting - an old, corrupt society, crumbling institutions, ancient religions and sects, highly segmented societal layers with little interaction, formerly high technology that has new become magic, etc.

I particularly enjoyed the instance of a coin as indicator of vocation, like the faceless men in ASOIAF.

The eidetic memory issues that Severian faces also call to mind Wolfe's Solider in the Mist and Soldier of Arete books, where the fidelity and inconstancy of memory point the reader to the question of what man can actually believe about his experience in life, and whether or not we can depend upon our experience and recollections as valid.

Other books that the setting called to mind include A Canticle for Leibowtiz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. where again a world has gone through nuclear winter, and the recovery or the survival of humanity is fostered by a church or religious sect.  Similarly, both books ask questions about whether man can ever be "good" or create order, or whether man actually has a tendency to self-destruction and chaos.

The opening quote is interesting, taken from the fifth stanza of Isaac Watts' hymn, O God, Our Help In Ages Past.  The full lyrics are:

  1. O God, our help in ages past,
    Our hope for years to come,
    Our shelter from the stormy blast,
    And our eternal home.
  2. Under the shadow of Thy throne
    Thy saints have dwelt secure;
    Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
    And our defense is sure.
  3. Before the hills in order stood,
    Or earth received her frame,
    From everlasting Thou art God,
    To endless years the same.
  4. Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
    “Return, ye sons of men”:
    All nations rose from earth at first,
    And turn to earth again.
  5. A thousand ages in Thy sight
    Are like an evening gone;
    Short as the watch that ends the night
    Before the rising sun.
  6. The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
    With all their lives and cares,
    Are carried downwards by the flood,
    And lost in foll’wing years.
  7. Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
    Bears all its sons away;
    They fly, forgotten, as a dream
    Dies at the op’ning day.
  8. Like flow’ry fields the nations stand
    Pleased with the morning light;
    The flow’rs beneath the mower’s hand
    Lie with’ring ere ’tis night.
  9. O God, our help in ages past,
    Our hope for years to come,
    Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
    And our eternal home.

That fifth stanza is the turning point of the poem, where the author pivots from discussing God's power to considering the brief and inconsequential life of an individual man compared to the march of time and the slow turn of nature as well as the inevitability of death.

In regards to Bookwyrm2's comments on page 3, the concept of inheriting memories through eating the flesh remind me of the scientific experiment where researchers made earthworms learn to run a maze.  Once the worms had mastered the maze, they were chopped up and fed to new worms, who then mastered the navigation of the maze much more quickly.  This sort of cannibalistic memory inheritance is both fascinating and repelling.

When I put all of this together, it seems as if in the opening chapters of the book Wolfe is preparing to address issues of man's place in the universe, the permanency and reliability of perception, and the ultimate end of man.

Edited by Wilbur
highlight stanza

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The indifference to their own business that the torturers seems to demonstrate or underline a kind of minimization of the value of human life as indicated by the thematic elements of the first chapter.  While the maidservant's flayed leg should sicken and horrify the reader, the characters in the scene regard the results dispassionately, and the plot continues on without a backward glance.


On the other hand, the third chapter does illustrate Severian's growth, as his earlier beliefs in the system are challenged and overthrown once he sees the charges against the prisoners brought to them as clients.  Severian reacts to this growth by recoiling and thinking he is going crazy, but perhaps the author is merely suggesting that the mental expansion of Severian's borders of imagination and understanding that begins here is an intense experience.


The trigger to Severian's growth - is it the near-drowning experience, or the coming of The Chatelaine and their discussions?  The book structure sets it up like it is the near-death, but intellectually the discussions in the dungeon would seem to be a bigger driver.


The name Triskele reminds me of the Triskelion, which in Christianity represents the Trinity and on a deeper level, eternity.  So when Severian shows compassion to the injured dog Triskele, we are perhaps meant to understand that only compassion to others or reaching outward from ourselves to benefit others is the path to eternity and lasting worth in the brief span of a man's life.  It is also interesting that in his pursuit of compassion he ends up traversing the Atrium of Time and arriving in the presence of a girl who could also represent the possibility of love and companionship.


Weird seasons and a sun or suns that approach and withdraw is an interesting idea for discussion on a board dedicated to ASOIAF, isn't it?


In Chapter Six, Master Ultan asks, "How big is a man's life?"  I think that this again is referencing the Chapter One idea that an individual man's life is short and meaningless in contrast to nature and time.  Further, he and Severian have a discussion about the size of the library that can be read on two levels.  One is the technological level that Bookwyrm2 and Jo498 have mentioned.  The second is the level of influence.  I believe that Ultan is alluding to the fact that the ideas in the library are True Forms, eternal and lasting, and that as a result these ideas have an influence that pervades all of life.  Similiarly, he indicates that the Torturers represent an idea that also possesses strong influence on the current society far beyond the walls of the Citadel.


I also found the discussion about "how much of a dead guy do I need to eat in order to share his memories" to be blackly humorous, as Ultan and Severian bat back and forth the idea of indivisiblity or minims of truth in the form of munching on a hand, a finger, or just a knuckle as sufficient.  I appreciate Matt B pointing out that it is a meme of this series that the eaters can and will flash an appearance of the persons that they have eaten.  My guess is that once you can't read anymore as a result of blindness, eating becomes another means to gain knowledge and fill the void.


Reading these books almost requires a full-time internet connection, as I constantly had to go read up on the lives of the saints that the characters are named after.  I am always suspicious of Wolfe as trying to slip some clever Catholic allusion by me, so when a guy names Rudesind comes down a ladder, I want to know if this is some signal that I am missing.

Edited by Wilbur
cain't spel

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I'm up to XIV, Severian's exile; he's just receiving Terminus Est.

Lots more messianic hints from various allusions to a decayed world awaiting renewal. Also "for it seems to me that all experience becomes a part of my being" inverts the discussion of minimal corpse-eating to transfer knowledge.

Geographically, Severian is situated either in South America or Southern Africa. It's not so far in the future that the continents could have moved substantially. He says in an early chapter that there are other continents to the north, east and west. And now he mentions the pampas, forests and jungles to the north, which suggests southern South America or possibly Southern Africa if pampas is now being applied to the Serengeti plains.

Another dream/vision of Malrubius when he gets drunk and a surprising/suspicious gap in his memory.

When he first met Thecla, was he merely dumbstruck by attraction or did she exert some hypnosis or mind control? Do exultants have psychic power in their tall, thin frames unsuited to physical dominance?

Is the Autarch human? We hear from Severian's master that this Autarch probably does not have sexual relations with even the inner circle of concubines. And then Thecla hints that the Autarch may be nonhuman: the Democracy wanted a leader greater than they but some philosopher predicted that people would not accept a leader who was not human.

The description of women's faces sounds a lot like anime/manga: triangular, heart-shaped or oval faces with huge limpid eyes, small straight noses and small mouths.

What's the significance of the view from the top of the tower? I can't find it now but I thought there was a hint that the sunlight is dim/weak/darkening beyond a typical daily cycle.

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GRRM is a huge Gene Wolfe fan, he had a blog post about it last year durning the Hugo, uh, event.

 

Edit: Oh, and Gene Wolfe helped invent PRINGLES!

I just like pointing that out because it's insane.

Edited by Darth Richard II

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Lol, ok then, moving right along...

Chapter VII, The Traitress

Severian's tasks now include bringing meals to the journeymen on duty in the oubliette.  He wants to speak to Drotte, who's in charge that night.  Drotte is preoccupied with saving the life of a female client who has tried to cheat the torturers by trying to commit suicide by ripping off the bandages on her wounds.  Drotte asks him to finish giving the clients their food trays, since he was interrupted at the task.  Apprentices are not supposed to deal with clients, but Drotte assures him it's ok, since it only involves shoving a tray through a slot.

He also asks him to shove the books through the slot of Chatelaine Thecla's door.  He finds her in the last cell, a woman so tall she can barely stand up, with a face more triangular in shape than heart shaped.  She immediately reminds him of the woman he saw with Vodalus.  He also instantly falls in love with her.

Severian can only pass two books through, since two are too large.  Thecla asks him to bring the other books in, and although he knows he shouldn't, he fetches Drotte's keys and lets himself into her cell with the books.  He suggests she ask for better food.  He also tells her it won't make any difference to make friends with him, it won't change anything.  She thinks the Autarch might release her, and asks if he wants to know why she is there.  He tells her no, he knows why she is there, to be tortured.  Severian thinks about the stages of denial other exhultants in the cells have gone through, thinking they would be released.

The next day he is summoned before the master, Gurloes.  He is concerned that he will be punished for what he did, but Gurloes is quite friendly to him, asking him to be seated.  He explains Thecla is very highly connected, a member of the inner circle of the Autarch's concubines.  He keeps 20 to 30 of them, women from exultant families that are kept there so that the Autarch has control over their families.  The women may or may not be slept with, there are actually substitute women available called khaibits (a word from ancient Egyptian, the shadow of a man, it could partake in the funerary offerings and detach itself from the body), shadow women who are supposed to look like the chatelaines.  But there are rumours that the Autarch does not have pleasure with any of them.

Thecla has asked for company, and because she has seen Severian she asks for him.  Gurloes allows this, but warns him not to sleep with her, since pregnancy would complicate things enormously, especially if she ends up being released.  She has been sent to the torturers as a pawn in the Autarch's game, as her sister fled from the Absolute Palace to join Vodalus.

Gurloes asks if Severian has been with a woman yet, and he hasn't.  "You've never been to the witches?" he asks.  (So, are the witches really witches or prostitutes? )

Severian ends the chapter by saying Gurloes was the most complex man he has ever known.  Among other things, he would go to the top of the tower, above the guns, and wait there talking to himself...unafraid of the energies there and the unseen mouths that spoke sometimes to human beings and sometimes to other mouths in other towers and keeps.  He would mispronounce common words like urticate, salpinx and bordereau (cause a stinging sensation like nettles, fallopian tube and a detailed memo or note of account).

ETA:  ...and Thecla says she eats like a dire wolf...

Edited by Fragile Bird

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Chapter VIII, The Conversationalist

Severian keeps company with Thecla for the first time the next day.  They play word games, and then they start to talk about what happens after death.  One of the books he brought contains discussions of various heretic theories.  She announces that after she is released she will start a new sect, which will teach there is no afterlife.  The religion will be appealing for its contradictions. 

She also tells Severian she has asked for more clothes, and Master Gurloes says he sent someone to the House Absolute to ask for her clothing, but they were unable to find it, meaning the House is pretending she doesn't exist.  The place is invisible, so you can be there and not know it.  She has a bracelet made of platinum that is in the shape of a kraken, with emerald eyes.  She is surprised she was allowed to keep it.  She wonders if any of her friends have tried to see her, but most of the people in the House Absolute have no idea the torturers tower exists.

When Severian returns to the dormitory he tries to find out who was sent to the House Absolute, but no one knows.  A discussion about the Autarch ensues, with many speculative stories about him, that he is tall when standing, common sized when sitting, old, young, a woman dressed as a man, etc.  They also talk about his vizier, Father Inire, who looked like a monkey and was the oldest man in the world.  His name has been mentioned before, Severian spoke about Inire's famous mirrors. 

Roche then shows up at the dormitory door, dressed in bright civilian clothes.  He asks Severian to follow him, and takes him to his cabin, making him change into similar clothing.  Roche is taking him out to the Echopraxia and a woman for each of them.  They take a fiacre, like a hansom cab,  and Roche explains that the exultants are constantly moving up river, pushing out people, in search of cleaner water, and being further from the sea, as living too close to it is suspect.  Parts of the city are getting smaller, fewer people because there is less food until the New Sun comes.

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Chapter IX, The House Azure

A bizarre chapter.

Roche and Severian go to the brothel where they are seated in a room and girls are paraded before them. There was a door with a stained glass window insert, the room is decorated like a pavilion, and Severian feels like he is sitting in a ruined chapel.  The first girl is startlingly beautiful, with a perfect oval face, limpid eyes and a mouth painted to look smaller (in imitation of exhultants, apparently); the next woman is dark skinned with blonde hair, and Roche chooses her.  The woman are both called Chatelaines. The third woman is introduced as Chatelaine Thecla, and looks the spitting image of her, but shorter.  Severian doesn't even know he has said yes.  She takes him up to her room, on the stairs another woman passes them, going down.  She looks like the woman who was with Vodalus.

Once in the prostitute's room, she asks Severian to undress her.  The cheapness of the clothing destroys the illusion of her being Thecla.  Severian tells her she is not Thecla, and she becomes afraid, telling him she will scream if he hits her.  He tells her there isn't anyone who is going to come, which seems to be true.  She tells him she can be Thecla if he wants her to be, if he believes it.  "Strong people [believe] what they wish to believe, forcing that to be real.  What is the Autarch but a man who believes himself to be the Autarch and makes others believe by the strength of it?"

They undress....

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Chapter X, The Last Year

Roche is given more money by Master Gurloes to take Severian to the brothel, apparently to keep his mind off of the real Thecla, but Severian tells him to pocket the money and never returns.  He found the pain too pleasurable, the pleasure too painful, and feared that in time his mind would no longer be the thing he knew.

Severian refers to the experience as "anacreontic diversions".  Anacreontic refers to verses in a meter used by the Greek poet Anacreon in his poems dealing with love and wine.

He spends a year with Thecla, the books he first brought her becoming his university.  If educated men think of him, not their equal, at least someone whose company did not shame them, it is soley owing to Thecla:  the Thecla he remembers, the Thecla who lives in him, and the four books.  When spring comes he brings her flowers he has picked in the necropolis.

She tells Severian that the Autarch is like no one else on Urth.  Some people say Father Inire really runs the Commonwealth, and others say it is really the Autarch, but really no one can tell the difference between the two.

Severian tells her he believes he saw Thea that night in the necropolis, when he met Vodalus.  She asks him to tell Thea about her if he sees her again.

At one point Thecla pulls off his shirt.  He quickly runs to the door of the cell to escape.

She has been in the cell for so long she does not believe she will be tortured, but that she will be released.  She asks for paper to draw  a villa she means to build.

When winter comes again Master Gurloes and Master Palaemon call him in for an interview, telling him they have heard good reports about him.  It's time to become a journeyman, but first they must ask him if he wishes to stay.  He has reached the point where he is allowed to leave if he so desires. Severian cannot imagine leaving, not because he loves the guild but because he grew up there, and what else would he do.  They tell him if he leaves, people will always know he grew up in the guild of the torturers, but if he stays people will always say, he is a torturer.

He says he wants to stay, and then they tell him the secret which lies at the heart of the guild and which is more sacred because no liturgy celebrates it, and it lies naked in the lap of the Pancreator.  The secret is not to be told to anyone other than someone about to enter the mysteries of the guild, an oath Severian will break.  We are not told what the secret is, I assume we will learn eventually.

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The action clearly takes place on the southern hemisphere (it gets warmer going further north and sometimes "jungles in the north" are mentioned) but I am not sure it can be matched to any current geography on earth.

The huge sprawling city Nessus still seems to be fairly close to the sea which is to south  (but I do not remember if it is said somewhere how far the sea is) but going north (as Severian will do at the end of the first book) there are mountains not all that far away. They are not so far as the Andes would be in a South American setting and not so far to the west either. But if the moon has been terraformed and changed to an orbit closer to earth (which seems crazy because this would mess up the tides and all kinds of stuff) there could have been so much terraforming going on with "Urth" that we simply could not tell where this is supposed to be.

The sun is older, weaker, reddish and the earth cooler although Nessus and the Citadel seem temperate enough that swimming was a frequent pastime for the boys, apparently not only in the hottest summer.

The torture practice is really strange, very clinical, the torturers have apparently been well trained to become completely detached, the "clients" are treated very well before the actual torture (sure, Thecla is a special one but it seems that all prisoners are kept in clean warm cells and are reasonably well fed).

The somewhat paradox impression I get is on the one hand that the Guilds just do their job without knowing much about the rest of the world, so the system seems frayed on the edges without strong central control. But on the other hand the description sounds sometimes a little like brilliant Orwellian manipulation: People think the Torturer's tower is a legend, there is an ominous, continuos war to the north (to keep the armigers busy). The autarch and Father Inire are shrouded in mystery etc. Because of the separation and lack of knowledge people are kept separate and weak.

 

Edited by Jo498

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That's why the roads are all closed too: to prevent the spread of sedition.

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At the Feast of their patron St. Katharine the torturers feast on beef, agutis and capybaras which could be another hint that the setting is in fact South America (but as there is both ancient and futuristic hybrid fauna around this is only a hint, not proof).

There is another oddity: The Feast of St. Katharine the Great Martyr is 25th of November. But Severian says the feast falls in the fading of winter. November is not really the fading of winter in temperate zones of the Southern hemisphere (e.g. Argentina), is it? This would rather be late August or early September. Maybe the feast day was shifted (there is another St. Katharine (of Genova) with 15th September as feast day) or the old sun winters have become so long

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If they really pulled the moon to a closer orbit tilt change is indeed quite likely.

I just re-read the brothel scene and it seems that one major point here is illusion and imagination. The girls are supposed to look like the courtesans of the Autarch, are called and supposed to look like actual "chatelaines". I wonder if there is some kind of yellow press so the customers would know the names and looks of more famous courtesans. It seems unlikely that it is merely accidental that Severian meets both the "doubles" of Thecla and the mysterious woman.

And if the autarch is really too aloof to actually bed the chatelaines one could entertain the thought that they fly over to the city for some fun ;)

 

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