Way back in the mists of time, when SF Gateway was taking its first tentative digital steps into the world, I wrote about the first half of Gene Wolfe’s epic The Book of the New Sun – Shadow and Claw – which had just been voted one of the top ten Gollancz titles over our (then) fifty-year history. Shadow and Claw is now an SF Masterwork, along with the second half, Sword and Citadel, and I find myself writing a Masterworks Spotlight piece for it. Since my very high opinion of the book hasn’t changed in the enduiing five years, I see no reason why the words should change, either . . .
“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.”
I first read these words more than 25 years ago. I had encountered Gene Wolfe at the 1985 World Science Fiction Convention and, although I confess I hadn’t heard of him at the time (in my defence, I wasn’t even out of my teens and this was my first Worldcon), my determined strategy was to take advantage of so many of the great and good of SF being present in my home town to buy, get signed and read books by as many new authors as possible. It’s a method I heartily recommend to neophytes and experienced con-goers alike. My first reaction to that opening passage, in that callow, ohmygodI’vejustdiscoveredthebestwriterEVER kind of way, was . . . well, that I’d just discovered the best writer ever.
Now, as a professional working in SF publishing, with many more Wolfes read and – I would hope – more developed and sophisticated tastes . . . I’m not entirely sure I was wrong. Certainly, he’s not an easy read, nor is he everyone’s cup of tea, but I would contend that anyone putting together a list of SF and Fantasy authors who represent the best the form can achieve and leaving Gene Wolfe out, needs to seriously reassess their definition of “best”.
Just look at what is contained in those 70 words. We learn that our narrator is looking back from some time in the future, that his name is Severian, that he is (or was, at the time of the story) a torturer’s apprentice and that this book is to be the story of his exile. We learn that the gate at which Severian and his companions stand is old and is barred against them; from the references to exile and the time being the aftermath of Severian’s swim we can infer that they are standing on the outside seeking a way in; probably back in, as it is reasonable to assume his companions are also apprentice torturers and the group has absconded for a swim, and the wisps of river fog give us a sense of the misty, tenebrous atmosphere that will pervade the novel (alright, it’s possible that I’m cheating here, having read the series a number of times, and I’m seeing this because of my hindsight rather than the author’s foreshadowing – but it’s still a lot of information for a 70-word opening passage).
The novel itself – and, indeed, the entire series – is a remarkable journey through a world both alien and familiar – the Earth under the fading light of a dying sun. The language Wolfe employs is wonderfully archaic, managing to convey both the far-future setting and the almost impossible weight of history pressing down on a world at the end of time. A rich and varied cast of supporting characters drift in and out of Severian’s life, bringing with them the full flavour of the different aspects of life on Urth. And Severian’s journey is at least as extraordinary as the setting in which it takes place. Encounters with aristocrats and criminals, myth and prophecy, texts within texts, and my favourite element: meetings with alien beings travelling in the opposite direction in time to Severian – a full quarter of a century before anyone had even heard of River Song.
The Book of the New Sun is an utterly extraordinary work and each individual volume contributes to its mastery. Collectively, they were shortlisted for the Nebula Award four times, the World Fantasy and BSFA Awards three times, and the Hugo and John W. Campbell Awards twice, picking up wins in all except the Hugo.
Of course, this is all statistics and dry description; the proof of any book is in the reading – and in my entirely unbiased capacity as an employee of the book’s publisher and self-confessed Gene Wolfe fan, who regards The Book of the New Sun as one of the genre’s crowning achievements, my advice is to read it as soon as possible. And then read it again immediately; it really is that good.
The locked and rusted gates stand closed, but there is a remarkable literary experience in store for those who care to breach them.