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Severian of the Guild
Gene Wolfe
Gollancz, 912 pages

Severian of the Guild
Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is one of the most respected writers in the field, and one of the few authors in the genre whose stories have been accepted in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker. Nominated 19 times for a Nebula Award, he has received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He is known for strikingly audacious novels such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but most readers will probably have learned to appreciate his writing in The Book of the New Sun series, and the associated Long Sun series. Wolfe lives in Barrington, Illinois, USA.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Soldier of Sidon
SF Site Review: Endangered Species
SF Site Review: Innocents Aboard
SF Site Review: The Knight
SF Site Review: A Walking Tour of the Shambles
SF Site Review: Peace
SF Site Review: Sword and Citadel
SF Site Review: Shadow and Claw
SF Site Review: In Green's Jungles
SF Site Review: Free Live Free
SF Site Review: The Urth of the New Sun

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Raven

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Severian of the Guild is an omnibus edition of Gene Wolfe's seminal Book of the New Sun sequence, considered a landmark of science fantasy writing and Wolfe's magnum opus. The Book of the New Sun -- indeed, Wolfe's writing in general -- divides opinion sharply; it is rare to find someone who has read Wolfe who remains ambivalent to him, but lavish praise and fierce antipathy are commonplace. I've developed a fondness for Wolfe's short fiction, and as such I had long meant to read the New Sun sequence; the Severian of the Guild omnibus provided an ideal opportunity to do exactly that. It was time to find out what all the fuss was about. What I found was a book that was in equal parts amazing and infuriating.

For the sake of those who don't know the basic shape of the New Sun saga, I'll sketch it out. The eponymous hero Severian begins the series as an apprentice of the obscure Torturer's Guild in the city of Nessus, and he experiences a revelatory event in the necropolis near the Guild's tower which causes him to begin questioning the established dictums of authority -- both those of his guild and those of the society beyond it.

As a result, he later transgresses the rules of the Guild by helping a prisoner to commit suicide and is effectively expelled for it, though he is saved from the ignominy of death at the hands of his fellow guildsmen by the seeming compassion of his old Master. Instead, Severian is sent out into the world beyond Nessus to take up a post as the torturer and executioner of a distant city -- a form of exile that falls just short of excommunication.

The Book of the New Sun follows Severian's travels and adventures as he slowly departs the vast urban sprawl of Nessus and heads out into the wider world, meeting a variety of fabulous characters and visiting extraordinary settings along the way. It won't be spoiling the series to tell you that he eventually becomes the Autarch -- the ruler of Urth -- at the end, because this is telegraphed early on; the Book of the New Sun is written in the retrospective first person as by Severian himself, and hints as to his eventual fate are early and frequent.

However, one can never be entirely sure of what Severian has to say. He is a classic example of the "unreliable narrator," the literary device that has become Wolfe's trademark. Severian repeatedly tells the reader that he is afflicted by perfect recall and that he cannot forget anything he has experienced (even should he wish to), but small inconsistencies accrue through the course of the books that lead the reader to suspect that falsehoods are being told at a number of levels.

Whether these falsehoods are deliberate lies or simply the result of hindsight distorting Severian's past is impossible to tell -- for we only have Severian's account to go on. Has he perhaps written his own myth of ascent to power, deliberately or unwittingly?

As with anyone you suspect of committing an economy of the truth -- fictional character or otherwise -- the more Severian protests the accuracy of his account, the more you come to mistrust it. Severian has a blithe fascination with (and a willingness to philosophise about) truth, hindsight and perspective which adds to the confusion:

"It is said that it is the peculiar quality of time to conserve fact, and that it does so by rendering our past falsehoods true. So it was with me. I had lied in saying that I loved the guild -- that I desired nothing to remain in its embrace. Now I found those lies become truths." [pp89]

These mental sidesteps of Severian's can be jarring, welcome, fascinating and infuriating all at once. Incidentally, they also do little to discourage the image of him being a massively conceited blowhard.

Severian's narrative, then, gets one's brain working -- he has a tendency of creating more questions than he answers. But the setting -- the Urth of the New Sun -- is challenging too, and a spectacular feat of show-don't-tell world-building. The shape of the plot itself is pure high fantasy, and at the beginning of the series one would be forgiven for thinking Urth was a parallel world of the comparative past, complete with magic and monsters.

But as one progresses, Wolfe drops subtle hints that accumulate into the realisation that Urth is in fact our own Earth, just far into the future. The Book of the New Sun practically embodies the late Arthur C. Clarke's aphorism that all sufficiently advanced technologies are indistinguishable from magic, and as a literary device it enables Wolfe to bridge high fantasy and posthuman space opera in a single work.

It's a staggering feat of imagination. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- Wolfe's deliberate use of archaic but genuine words instead of invented linguistic novums, Severian of the Guild burgeons with passages and scenes that take your mental breath away. Wolfe's writerly eye for imagery is flawless, and he can paint pictures with words that have the bright emotional colour of impressionist painting combined with implied detail that would make Hironymous Bosch gnash his teeth in envy. Here Severian and his companions are passing through the massive wall around Nessus:

"The sides of the gate rose high above us, pierced at wide intervals by windows of some material thicker, yet clearer, than glass. Behind these windows we could see the moving figures of men and women, and of creatures that were neither men nor women. Cacogens, I think, were there, beings to whom the avern was but what a marigold or a marguerite is to us. Others seemed beasts with too much of men about them, so that horned heads watched us with eyes too wise, and mouths that appeared to speak showed teeth like nails or hooks. I asked Dr Talos what these creatures were.

'Soldiers,' he said. 'The pandours of the Autarch.'" [pp227]

Many times I found myself comparing Wolfe's writing to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy -- not necessarily because of stylistic similarity, but because of the sheer symbolic depth and pregnancy of meaning both of them conjure with their work.

So far so good, then. The only stumbling block is Wolfe's use of archaic language and the classic orphan-to-Autarch plot shape, but it's like reading Shakespeare -- it just becomes part of the wardrobe. But the deeper I got into the series, the more frustrated with it I became. Hand in hand with Wolfe's skill at imagery comes his love of allegory, and I became tired of being bludgeoned with Biblical stories.

At this juncture I need to be absolutely clear on a number of points. Firstly, I am an atheist. Secondly, Wolfe is a devout Catholic whose fiction is frequently informed by and intertwined with his faith. Thirdly, I am not the sort of atheist who thinks everyone should be an atheist; I'm a pluralist, and I think everybody is welcome to their own beliefs as long as they do not inflict them or their consequences on anyone else. Fourthly, I am not opposed to religious themes in fiction, genre or otherwise. Fifthly, whilst I consider the Bible to be a collated work of fiction and conjecture, I also consider it to contain a great deal of valuable and intriguing moral philosophy behind the dogma. Sixthly, I realise the latter point is a subject for debate, but for the purpose of this review it is sufficient for me to simply declare my standpoint.

With that said, and by way of summarising: I have no axe to grind against writers weaving themes from their chosen faith into their fiction whatsoever. However, by the end of Severian of the Guild, I was utterly sick of it. It distracted terribly from the actual story, to the point of beginning to feel like proselytism. That perception may well be a function of my own belief set, and I do not imply that Wolfe set out to convert readers with the Book of the New Sun, but all I can do here is describe my experience as a reader. That experience was one of mounting impatience.

It's a fuzzy line to draw, though. Simply by merit of our unreliable narrator Severian, Wolfe is already subverting the modernist notion of novel-as-literal-truth, and there are a number of moments where Severian draws back from the narrative to pass comment on the nature of narrative itself, straying into metafictional territory. Severian is often reading (or reminiscing about reading) other narratives within his own, and it feels like Wolfe not quite breaking the fourth wall so much as tapping the glass with a knuckle and winking at us before he carries on.

"'The third [meaning] is the transubstantial meaning. Since all objects have their origin in the Pancreator, and all were set in motion by him, so all must express his will -- which is the higher reality.'

'You're saying that what we saw was a sign.'

I shook my head. 'The book is saying everything is a sign. The post of that fence is a sign, and so is the way the tree leans across it. Some signs may betray the third meaning more readily than others.'" [pp207]

Allegory is a form of metafiction as well, and Severian's symbolic status as a Apollonian Christ figure makes him an ideal instigator and observer of events and characters with great symbolic weight, but once the reader passes the halfway point of the series, each episode of Severian's adventures becomes an increasingly transparent vehicle for rehashing an assortment of Biblical parables.

It's a masterly stroke by a skilled writer. If I understand Wolfe's intent (and I concede it's more than possible that I have misread him completely), by mirroring Christian texts and highlighting the unreliability of the viewpoint character he is making a commentary on dogmatic interpretations, conceding the failure of the Bible as a work of literal truth but defending its status as allegorically truthful -- and hence as meaningful now as it was when written. That's an idea with which I have some sympathies, and a fascinating premise for a work of science fiction to take.

Allow me to reiterate -- it's not the fact that the parables are Biblical that bothers me, even though Severian does end up as a mouthpiece for some dismayingly archaic patriarchal and sexist attitudes, which I am willing to assume are meant to reflect the attitudes of Urth at the time rather than contemporary mores. What bothers me is that what begins as a series of adventures where incredible sights and events are commonplace becomes so focused on the metaphysical that it loses a great deal of its narrative momentum. Severian's journey becomes more and more internalised and introspective. It began to bore me.

I like a good helping of philosophy in my fiction. I'd even go so far as to say I wish most novels had more of it. But the Book of the New Sun builds into a crescendo of speculations on the nature of man and God and the relationships between the two, and by the final half of the fourth book I had to force myself to return to it each time.

And that's a shame. Urth is an incredible setting, Severian a complex (if more than occasionally unlikeable and arrogant) lead character, the supporting cast and backdrops of the production are nothing short of magnificent, and while there was a story taking place within them rather than predominantly within the super-ego of the narrator, I was enjoying it greatly. Wolfe is renowned as a difficult writer to appreciate fully, and I had thought that my experiences with his short fiction would stand me in good stead with this widely acknowledged classic of the sf-nal canon.

And I can well see why it earned its place there; the Book of the New Sun is a staggering work of invention, and I'd fight in its corner on literary merit without hesitation. But I must confess that the joy of reading the tale had left me long before I crawled my way to the end of it. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Raven

Paul Graham Raven does a ridiculous number of things, including publishing the near-future sf webzine Futurismic, developing and managing websites for various authors and agents in the genre field, and online public relations for the UK's foremost boutique genre publishing house, PS Publishing. He also answers tedious and easily-Googled questions about Naval history at his day-job in a museum library, reviews sf novels and music by hirsute tattooed lunatics, and spews the contents of his brain and browser bookmarks onto the web at the Velcro City Tourist Board .


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