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Triskan

Wolfe's Book of the New Sun

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To be honest I'd never heard of this guy before this board. I've not read nearly as much Science Fiction or Fantasy as many of the people on this board (Martin, Tolkien, Bakker, Kay, not much more)

But I got interested in this one because it seemed like the people that liked it really liked it and when you pick up a book and see the praise he's received from other authors, it's hard not to be impressed.

So there are a few Wolfe-related threads but nothing really on this, his most essential work, so I thought I'd throw some thoughts and reaction down. In no way intended to be a Pat, Wert, Stego, DF type of review...I'm just dying of curiosity to see what others liked and didn't like, and hopefully to have some questions answered. So here it goes...(though I warn you reader, the way will not be easy)


The three main fantasy series I've read have quite different structures to me. Lord of the Rings seems mostly linear, going from a starting point to an ending point. I suppose there is the break-up of the fellowship, but even then, it's just split into two lines still leading to the same ultimate place.

Then there's Martin with his mulit-layerd POV style, a total contrast to Tolkien.

I would say Bakker is somewhere in between, sort of jumping around to different viewpoints, but mostly as they see a linear plot.

[b]Book of the New Sun[/b] is linear in a sense I guess in that we never leave Severian, our protagonist. But I can't call the structure linear. The story to me is almost set up like a videogame. Severian goes from chapter to chapter and it seems like there is another strange enounter at every turn.

Some of the things I didn't like about this story: vagueness. Wolfe uses crazy vocabulary and that I didn't mind too much, but he doesn't often back it up with enough description so sometimes I really got lost. I've heard people call Bakker difficult. Compared to Wolfe, Bakker is a walk-in-the park (other than perhaps name pronunciation).

I also was at times annoyed by the way certain things seemed to come out of nowhere, like the house in the botanical gardens, or when Severian pulls Dorcas out of the water. I would say that Wolfe redeems himself in a sense in that typically you are eventually awarded with some sort of explanation. The problem is that sometimes that explanation comes 300 pages later and is still vague.

But here's what I liked about this book:

-Prose/style. The way Severian talks to the reader and at times pauses to explain a side note is great. I don't know that it would work in every story but Wolfe makes it work. Like when he pauses to address you as "reader."

He also can write a beautiful sentence, or sentences. One paragraph that I remembered from the beginning of [i]Shadow[/i]: [i]"We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that tehy invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of hte Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life--they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of amrs. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to belive that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believee so is to believe in the most debased and supersitiuos kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith inthe efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all."[/i]

Whoa. I don't even know whether I buy that or not, but I love reading it. I think there's more good writing in that paragraph than the SoT series in it's entirity.

Another shorter one I like is after Severian has nursed Triskele back to health and he wanders off again: "[i]After that I saw him once or twice a month for as long as the snow lasted. I never know whom he had found, who was feeding him and caring for him; but I like to think it was someone who took him away with him in the spring, perhaps north to the cities of tents and the campaigns among the mountains."[/i]

At this point so early in my reading, I thought that the Triskele chapter was simply to demonstrate that this "torturor" Severian had a heart. But of course more comes later.


I could go on with writing samples for ever, so moving on.

I thought the story started off very interesting with the Oubliette, and Thecla, and Severian's subsequent dismissal for being merciful. Then I got a little lost in the Gardens before getting sucked back in in the build-up to the dual with Agilus.

[i]Claw of the Conciliator [/i]was where I started to get lost. The jouney with Jonas to House Absolute, the times after wandering with Jolenta and Dorcas...this book got slow.

But I thought it picked up with [i]Sword of the Lictor[/i]. Betraying the Archon (for a woman...again), the showdown at the house with the Alzabo, young Severian, the return of Agia, Baldanders as some mace-weilding Ogre-Mage...this one was way more entertaining to me than Claw...or maybe I was just getting more comfortable with Wolfe's style. Wolfe has the capacity for strangeness like the Typhon and Piaton, but then again, who's to say that such a surgery couldnt' be possible someday? (by the way, palm to Piaton's nose to kill Typhon was a great moment).

By the time I got to [i]Citadel[/i], I was well immersed. I knew Severian was destined to become Autarch, but the way it happened shocked me. How he meets the Autarch and tells him how he spent his life hating him...

This was a very difficult book for me in the sense that I usually just get sucked in to whatever I read and I'll look down and realize ten pages are gone. Not here. I had to work for it. But it was ultimately very satisfying.


Now for any of you have traveled this post with me this far, some questions/comments:

I thought for sure Severian was going to eventually find the girl he met in the Triskele chapter at the end of the book. Valeria was it? I thought that even before he went back to that spot. What happened there? And when he said to someone "I desire only one living woman and only one man and I am he" or something like that, who was he talking about? Valeria, Dorcas, Thecla?

Where did Hethor come from? I don't exactly remember when he was introduced to the story and who the fuck was he, other than someone who eventually reconciled with Agia.

Did Agia decide to ultimately give up on killing Severian at the end for some reason or was it because she knew he was Autarch? I thought the "Mercy of Agia" chapter was only saying "mercy for now."

Was Vodalis with the Ascians the whole story? That was my assumption but I'm not positive.

I was surprised to see that the New Sun didn't actually come in this story, nor did we get confirmation that it would come (unless I missed it). I thought Severian was the Conciliator come again but it didn't seem to ever get there.

Ah, I know I have more, but I can't think of them now. I hope there are enough people on this board that have read this trip of a story so a discussion can get going. If not, I enjoyed going back through the story just now.


PS
[i]Terminus Est[/i] and the Claw are fucking awesome.

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I've been trying to start a topic on this series for ages, but I've found it difficult to write out my thoughts on the series coherently. I just finished it and [i]Urth of the New Sun[/i] about a week ago.

I found the prose gorgeous. But the story really difficult to figure out. It was like I understood WHAT was happening, but any sort of meaning and connection it had to the overall events kept eluding me. Large sections and additions seemed pointless or just ... weird.

I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure I really understood it.


And I must say, I don't know HOW anyone figured out half the shit you see flying around about this book from the text itself. There's questions people ponder that I look at and go "Where the fuck did that come from?". Alot of the stuff that happens in Urth otNS can apparently be gleemed from the Book otNS, but I sure as hell don't know how.

Anyway, I'd also love some discussion on this series, as I really feel like I'd like to understand it better. I felt like I missed alot somehow. Anyway, I await the discussion from many of you.

/patiently waits for Dylanfanatic to appear

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Shryke - I agree, there was a lot of "where the fuck did that come from?" And sometimes you get an answer and sometimes not.

My reaction when I finished was kind of "I don't know what the fuck I just read but I'm glad I did."

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Off the top of my head, there's the giant ... people under the sea. They were strange. They mention them, and their masters (whos names elude me right now) and their connection with the Ascians, but it's never explained wtf they want or where they come from or ... much of anything. Unless I missed it somewhere.

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[quote name='Shryke' post='1333114' date='Apr 29 2008, 00.04']Off the top of my head, there's the giant ... people under the sea. They were strange. They mention them, and their masters (whos names elude me right now) and their connection with the Ascians, but it's never explained wtf they want or where they come from or ... much of anything. Unless I missed it somewhere.[/quote]

Erebus and Abaia? Yeah, are they like Titans or something? Supposedly one of them stirs when Severian pulls the Claw on the man-apes and they seem to be aware that one of them is stirring. They were touched on throughout but we never learned too much.

I will add that Wolfe wrote somewhere that one of the requirements for great literature (and I'm paraphrasing) is that it should improve upon re-reading.

Oh, another question, maybe my biggest one and I didn't mention it in the OP: Wolfe is supposedly Catholic and this book is supposed to be full of refernces. Well, it seems the Conciliator is Christ-like and the Increate is God I suppose? But I'm not really sure where it goes from there. The Pelerines are like an order of nuns? I don't really see the Autarch as the Pope. I've read nothing on this other than Wiki mentioning his Catholic faith being engrained into the story so anyone how is enlightened, please share.

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I'm about 120 pages into the first book and have mixed feelings.

Sometimes I got the impression that Wolfe writes about very simple things in the most complex way. And it isn't exactly a good skill to have. The book is indeed strongly symbolic, so what happens explicitly isn't as important as its symbolic meaning. It's not a book you read for the plot, but it is strongly suggestive.

There aren't also strong characters in the traditional sense. No empathy here as you just meet a mix of the weirdest people. A bit surrealist style. Fancy.

Reminds me a mix of Alice in Wonderland and Lovecraft (!).

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I'm going to take it as a given that this is a spoiler thread. So, [b] spoilers ahoy[/b].



In general, Wolfe's books aren't really understood in just one reading. He's an evil guest in your life. He's tricky, he lies to you and he just won't leave your head. He also believes in the intelligence of his readers and never drops a clue more than once. In my experience, his books only get better the more you reread them as you're constantly picking things out that you missed the previous time through. A major caveat to reading Wolfe is to understand that the narrator is inherently unreliable. In BOTNS, Severian has eidetic memory but he LIES.

That being said, there's an online group that has been discussing these (and all of his other) books since 1997 and can be found here: [url="http://lists.urth.net/pipermail/urth-urth.net/"]http://lists.urth.net/pipermail/urth-urth.net/[/url] It'll take awhile to get through, but many things can become more clear after sifting through that list. And there's a lot of conflicting opinions. What is real? Well that's the fun. If I remember correctly, one of the larger debates centered on whether or not Jonas was Korean. (another fun fact is that Dorcas is most likely Severian's maternal grandmother)

Triskele, to your point:
[quote]I thought for sure Severian was going to eventually find the girl he met in the Triskele chapter at the end of the book. Valeria was it? I thought that even before he went back to that spot. What happened there? And when he said to someone "I desire only one living woman and only one man and I am he" or something like that, who was he talking about? Valeria, Dorcas, Thecla?[/quote]

Severian is most likely referring to both Thecla and himself. The question is how much of Severian is Severian and how much of Severian is Thecla? If I remember correctly, he partook in the "eating" of Thecla. From that moment on, he was both Severian and Thecla. If you read carefully from that point on, you'll notice good old Thecla popping up in Severian (the way he speaks and thinks, and what he says and thinks) from time to time. So when he says "I am he," I'm pretty sure he's referring to himself; he loved Thecla, and became her.

I loved the non-standard word usage (and the words used are in large part REAL words from a variety of languages; there has been an entire dictionary of BOTNS words released) it adds to the atmosphere of a world millions of years in our future floating around a dying, red sun.

Triskele, there is a fifth book, The Urth of the New Sun, that takes place after the BOTNS and it continues Severian's journey. I'd use the phrase "explains things" loosely, but it does tie up some loose ends (if you're willing to, as you say, work for it). Opinions are split on UotNS but I enjoyed it.

Gene Wolfe is my favorite author, bar none. And I think BOTNS is my favorite piece of literature. It's all in there. And, yes, Gene Wolfe is a Catholic (I believe he converted when he got married) and is fascinated by the whole Catholic mystique. And I'd say without much reservation that Severian is most certainly a Christ-like figure.


(please forgive any mistakes on finer points, it's been awhile since I've read BOTNS)

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It's late and I have a headache, so I'll keep this brief. The more you know about gnosticism, the early Christian ascetics, Borges' [i]The Book of Imaginary Beings[/i] (see the entry there on Baldanders), the story of Theseus and the black sails, St. Catherine and her execution, and so forth, the clearer the story becomes. It's just one of those books where you have to have experienced a lot in life and in literature to get the most out of it, unfortunately.

While I probably will write more later after work, [url="http://ofblog.blogspot.com/search/label/Gene%20Wolfe"]click here[/url] if you want to see my detailed thoughts on Wolfe's stories as I re-read quite a few of his books last autumn.

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I tried to read him recently and gave up half way through The Claw of Conciliator. The story was not interesting, Severian reminded me of Thomas Covenant the leper. I didn't like his writing style as well. Sort of old fashioned.
Just could not continue.

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[quote name='Astra' post='1333334' date='Apr 29 2008, 04.21']I tried to read him recently and gave up half way through The Claw of Conciliator. The story was not interesting, Severian reminded me of Thomas Covenant the leper. I didn't like his writing style as well. Sort of old fashioned.
Just could not continue.[/quote]

Those are two of my favorite series. I love the way Wolfe writes. Severian is indeed the Conciliator, you didn't misread that.

I was somewhat annoyed by the whole Dorcas thing actually. The Autarch's place was nice, the idea of having a house inside a house, hidden but not in the usual way.

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I missed a lot of it the first and second time around, and had to have it explained to me through reviews and hints. Dorcas is indeed related to Severian - his mother I thought (from the note at the inn)? Why grandmother? He also does indeed return to and marry Valeria at the end. Yes, we know nothing about her, we see her a bit more in Urth of the New Sun, but not much more. It's one of Wolfe's quirks that he keeps that relationship entirely off-page.

I would definitely recommend that you read the rest of the Sun books. Book of the Long Sun is much more straightforward, and Book of the Short Sun is my personal favorite of all of Wolfe's works (it has vampires!). They don't really refer back to Severian (though he does make a cameo), or clear up his mysteries too much, but they do build upon the gods and other mythologies of Urth.

Long Sun takes place on a generation starship of colonists from Urth. Short Sun is about the early colonists of a new world. As you should expect, it's totally unlike any other sci-fi with the above basic premises, even though the premises sound cliche. But then, Book of the New Sun also has the basic cliche premise of "boy from humble background discovers his secret destiny and becomes king", and you saw how that turned out.

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[quote name='iaptgwtegfs' post='1333207' date='Apr 29 2008, 00.36']In general, Wolfe's books aren't really understood in just one reading. He's an evil guest in your life. He's tricky, he lies to you and he just won't leave your head. He also believes in the intelligence of his readers and never drops a clue more than once. In my experience, his books only get better the more you reread them as you're constantly picking things out that you missed the previous time through. A major caveat to reading Wolfe is to understand that the narrator is inherently unreliable. In BOTNS, Severian has eidetic memory but he LIES.[/quote]

I did find something online about how Wolfe likes to use an "unreliable narrarator" or something like that. Having just read the book, it totally escaped me that was the case.

[quote]I loved the non-standard word usage (and the words used are in large part REAL words from a variety of languages; there has been an entire dictionary of BOTNS words released) it adds to the atmosphere of a world millions of years in our future floating around a dying, red sun.[/quote]

On the whole, I liked the verbage. Just sometimes a little more explanation would have been nice.


[quote]Triskele, there is a fifth book, The Urth of the New Sun, that takes place after the BOTNS and it continues Severian's journey. I'd use the phrase "explains things" loosely, but it does tie up some loose ends (if you're willing to, as you say, work for it). Opinions are split on UotNS but I enjoyed it.[/quote]

I'm aware of Urth and I'm sure I'll get to it eventually but I think my brain needs a break. Started The Blade Itself and got about 40 pages in. I think it's going to be a nice respit. (I love the line in Glokta's chapte about how if he could torture anyone, it would be the inventor of steps)


[quote]Gene Wolfe is my favorite author, bar none. And I think BOTNS is my favorite piece of literature. It's all in there. And, yes, Gene Wolfe is a Catholic (I believe he converted when he got married) and is fascinated by the whole Catholic mystique. And I'd say without much reservation that Severian is most certainly a Christ-like figure.[/quote]

At the very least, I can say I'm intrigued by this guy. I will definitely read him again and most likely the other Sun books but the Soldier series with the Greek themes sounds interesting too.

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[quote name='Triskele' post='1333121' date='Apr 28 2008, 23.11']Oh, another question, maybe my biggest one and I didn't mention it in the OP: Wolfe is supposedly Catholic and this book is supposed to be full of refernces. Well, it seems the Conciliator is Christ-like and the Increate is God I suppose? But I'm not really sure where it goes from there. The Pelerines are like an order of nuns? I don't really see the Autarch as the Pope. I've read nothing on this other than Wiki mentioning his Catholic faith being engrained into the story so anyone how is enlightened, please share.[/quote]
The sun and the rose are both common Christ symbols; Dorcas in the Bible was a woman who was raised from the dead; St. Catherine was sainted because she refused to denounce her faith when being tortured, so she died on the wheel which then became overgrown with roses; etc. There are a lot of those sorts of references and symbols in the books.

Beyond that level of detail: people often speak of Wolfe as a "Catholic writer" in a very facile way, but Wolfe converted only when he married his wife, and there's a sense in these books that he's not so much proselytizing as trying to explore for himself both what some of the more esoteric elements of the doctrine mean, and in a larger sense what it means to be a Catholic today. For example, there's a quote in [i]Castle of Days[/i] where he writes that the Bible tells us that Christ was a carpenter, but the only thing we ever actually see him make is a whip -- and so he suspected that Christ knew what it was to be a torturer (just as the cross on which he was tortured was obviously the work of a carpenter). So Severian-as-torturer is that much closer to a Christ, for all that Severian's Order is in a sense an order of religious monks gone wrong. And in the most simple, stripped-down sense possible, that's what the books are "about": someone struggling to become the best person they can in a world gone wrong.

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Another question: Are the exultants genetically modified through some scientific process, or are they simply a high-born class who, over time, has evolved into a generally superior group of people?

From a speculative, or sci-fi persepctive, I could see it either way, especially if Urth is supposed to be a distant version of our own world.

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[quote name='Dylanfanatic' post='1333217' date='Apr 29 2008, 00.51']While I probably will write more later after work, [url="http://ofblog.blogspot.com/search/label/Gene%20Wolfe"]click here[/url] if you want to see my detailed thoughts on Wolfe's stories as I re-read quite a few of his books last autumn.[/quote]


Just read the four sections for Book of the New Sun in your link. Very helpful. More!

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Interesting thoughts. I haven't really talked about these books, not because I don't love them but, like Shryke, I find it hard to articulate my thoughts on them.

I love how Severian is absolutely untrustworthy, and how Thecla's personality crops up occasionally. And, yes, I believe the Exultants are genetically modified.

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Can someone go through WHY Sevarian is an unreliable narrator? I mean, he's quite vague on details and such, but the only major thing I can think of that he neglected to mention was his relationship with Thecla, which wasn't mentioned till after she was dead.

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I think its time I do a re-read of this book. It is one of those pieces of literature that is simply [i]begging[/i] to be analyzed, reflected on, and debated.

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I found an interesting review of the series [url="http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/jlaidlow/ultan/botns.htm"]here.[/url]

One of the more interesting pargagraphs I thought:

[i]"The literary game Wolfe constructs is most notable in terms of textual structure. Wolfe's presentation of his rational sf novel as a non-rational fantasy, together with his subversion of the Campbellian heroic cycle, provide an insight not only into the possibilities of the genre but also into how habitual modes of reading inform and construct the reader's reception of a text. Of course, there are a number of novels that achieve this synthesis and/or recontextualisation, which alone is insufficient to distinguish The Book of the New Sun. However, for Wolfe, the recontextualisation is little more than a starting point for his wider concerns. He is not necessarily preoccupied with demonstrating how proficient he is as a writer. Rather, by effectively concealing his narratological sleight of hand and constructing a puzzle for his reader, Wolfe attempts to alert that reader to the level of perception required. Hence, The Book of the New Sun does not invite the reader to marvel at how clever Wolfe can be, but to marvel at his or her own intelligence in perceiving one facet of the elaborate textual game the author plays. In this sense, Wolfe's tetralogy is a masterwork in that it can be read as a paraliterary fantasy but demands to be read as a comment upon, and a reaction to, such narratives. In effect, it is a coolly intellectual denunciation of passive reading practices, a clarion call to readers dulled by formula fiction."[/i]

[quote]Can someone go through WHY Sevarian is an unreliable narrator? I mean, he's quite vague on details and such, but the only major thing I can think of that he neglected to mention was his relationship with Thecla, which wasn't mentioned till after she was dead.[/quote]

Could it be in part, because he does not, as he claims, remember everything and therefore his accounts are not entirely accurate?

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