Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gene Wolfe's Sun

Over at the Guardian, Alison Flood has been reading some science fiction and fantasy classics, and has gotten around to Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series — the first half of it, anyway. She is impressed, as she should be. But I have never been quite sure how highly to rate this series. It's brilliant in so many ways, but I have always suspected that Wolfe never really grasped the essence of his own design — that he followed an imaginative trail that was very rewarding in many ways, for him and for his readers, only to find that it concluded in a dead end. To shift metaphors, there seems to be no heart to the series, no core or center — just a magnificent series of images and events that add up to nothing in particular.
Someday I will try to express this more clearly.

4 comments:

  • I felt like that for a lot of the longer, more meandering digressions (which, admittedly, make up something like 80% of the series), but I think the threads that tie it all together are:

    1.) Questions about the reliability of the narrator, and the resulting questions this raises about who writes history, etc.

    2.) The main character's gradual ascension towards grace with all of the embedded Catholic symbolism (which, now that I think about it, you're far more equipped to comment on than I am).

    The fact that the series is less cohesive and more episodic I've always taken to be both a stylistic quirk of Gene Wolfe's and an attempt to echo iconic cultural epics such as the Odyssey and, yes, the New Testament.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Even after my third time through the series, I'm still not sure whether tBoTNS actually coheres into something greater than a sum of its procession of strange and wonderful episodes. Some of the most elaborate, in-depth attempts to make sense of it all -- John Clute, Robert Borski -- are unconvincing and seem to stray off into fan fiction.

    On the other hand, I continue to have people point out details and connections that I had missed but which are unquestionably there in the text, clues that make me say, "Now wait a minute, maybe this trail really does lead somewhere..."

    Wolfe certainly creates a masterful impression that there's some larger theme and story here that we're not quite seeing. Even if it's just a trick, it's an impressive and beautiful accomplishment. The Dorcas puzzle in the first book is such a tour de force, once you see it (or have it spelled out for you) it's very unsettling. Is the whole book like this? What else have I missed?

    Sometimes, especially in some of the later Long Sun / Short Sun books, Wolfe creates narrative puzzles that have disappointingly mundane solutions. The narrator hints darkly at what he had for lunch, and if you look carefully and re-read the previous chapter it turns out it was...apples! Wolfe himself has said of his works (can't find the exact quote but something like) "everything means something, but not everything means very much."

    All of which is to say that I certainly don't feel that I can pass judgement on the question of whether tBotNS is ultimately a tease or if it has a genuine heart, and, short of a really compelling explication of the whole thing, I'm not sure there's anyone whose judgement on the question I would trust. But please, give it a shot! As I've said before, I'd absolutely love to read an article about Wolfe from you, Alan.

    I think the most promising thread which I've yet to see satisfactorily explored is the way in which Severian's life has been revised via time travel by the Hierodules (and possibly by himself), and what it means to see Severian's life as one of several rough drafts.

    And another important thing Wolfe is doing that's worth consdering is the way he sets you up to think you're reading a swords-n-sorcery fantasy story, and then slowly lets you discover that it's "really" science fiction and that all the supposedly magical events have a scientific explaination. And then he shows you a genuine miracle. That contrast between magic and miracle seems important to understanding the forces shaping Severian's life and Urth's destiny.

  • > I think the most promising thread which I've yet to see satisfactorily explored is the way in which Severian's life has been revised via time travel by the Hierodules (and possibly by himself), and what it means to see Severian's life as one of several rough drafts.

    I like this idea as well; but the problem is, it is terribly difficult to see what is what. A work like _Primer_ gives you a lot to go on, but _New Sun_ doesn't. We can identify a few episodes which are clearly cruxes: Severian drowning in the river Gyoll, freeing the Green Man, etc. But it's next to impossible to work out what the full esoteric story of timelines is, under all the lies and uncertainty.

  • Thanks for the very thoughtful replies. Oh for the time to sort through them — and through Wolfe — and come up with an appropriate response. . . .

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