Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, Part 1: A Magnificent Saga, Executed Perfectly

I’ve reviewed a fair number of Gene Wolfe novels and series and short story collections on here (and back in the Ferretbrain days), but I’ve held off on trying to tackle his longest and most elaborate series – the Solar Cycle, comprising the constituent series of the New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun novels. I did that because I was seriously intimidated about the prospect of tackling it.

The first series in the cycle – the New Sun novels featuring Severian the torturer, is particularly challenging. The series uses a lot of archaic language – though less neologisms than you may think, and generally speaking you can get a rough sense of what the unfamiliar words mean from context. It is presented from the perspective of an unreliable narrator who doesn’t seem to be purposefully trying to trick you, but doesn’t always understand what he is encountering. And its setting superficially appears to use a lot of standard fantasy tropes, only to be revealed as a far stranger science fantasy affair as matters progress.

Still, I think it’s high time I tackled it, not least because the longer I spent prevaricating about reviewing it, the longer I was putting off re-reading it, and I loved it when I last tackled it over a decade ago. Let’s see how well it’s aged – and how much I can get out of it on a second read-through.

The Shadow of the Torturer

It is a staggering number of years in the future. The Sun has dimmed and begins to turn red; the Moon was terraformed long ago, and so rather than being silver it is green; and the Earth (or, as it is now known, Urth) has become a cosmic backwater. Here and there evidence can be found of its inhabitants travelling among the stars – flora, fauna, and visitors from offworld crop up here and there, and ancient towers may prove to be decommissioned starships.

One such tower sits in the Citadel of the vast city of Nessus; known as the Matachin Tower, it is the residence of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence… otherwise known as the Guild of Torturers, tasked with the excruciation, interrogation, and execution of the “clients” the authorities commit into their care. Like the rest of the innumerable guilds of the Citadel, the Torturers have accumulated a mass of traditions, rituals, and their own curious internal ethics over the long years of their service to the line of Autarchs who have ruled over this portion of the world (the Commonwealth) since time immemorial.

Severian was, as tradition demands, adopted by the Guild when a small child, having been a foundling. He has been raised among his brothers in the Guild; he knows of little else. However, one day on a night-time jaunt outside of the Tower, Severian gets separated from his friends and encounters Vodalus, an infamous rebel against the Autarch, and Vodalus’ partner Thea. Later, as Severian rises through the ranks of the apprentices, the Chatelaine Thecla – the sister to Thea – is confined to the Matachin Tower, in what is rumoured to be a bid to exert leverage on Vodalus.

Tasked with the care of Thecla, Severian falls in love with her; complicit in the first of an extensive schedule of tortures to be inflicted on her, Severian leaves his knife behind in her cell on purpose, allowing her to commit suicide to escape the rest of her mandated punishment. To save face, the Guild decide to send him away – members of the Guild have on occasion been called on to act as executioners outside of the capital, and the northern town of Thrax is in need of just such an official. But with Nessus so vast it takes days to merely walk out of town, there is plenty of opportunity for Severian to encounter danger before he even leaves the city. Danger, and perhaps also miracles – but will he recognise the latter when he sees them?

As the first book in the series, The Shadow of the Torturer has the crucial task of laying the foundation of everything that is to come, and in particular introduce us to Severian. In the process of doing so, Wolfe not only seeks to give us insight into Severian as a character, but also establish him as an unreliable narrator, provide hints as to the context in which he is writing his memoirs, and illuminate his world without prompting him to laboriously explain stuff which he would expect to be obvious to his readership.

Here, Wolfe follows in the footsteps of Tolkien by entertaining the idea that he himself is not the author of the material but is merely its translator. Just as Tolkien adopted the pretence that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are adapted from the Red Book of Westmarch as compiled by Bilbo and Frodo, Wolfe here poses as a student of “posthistory”, having received this artifact which has survived long ages of “futurity” and attempted to translate it.

In fact, Wolfe takes this further than Tolkien, for whom the Red Book concept was basically a fun affectation and a mild nod to the Mabinogion but which he didn’t allow to constrain himself – hence how in The Hobbit there’s allusion to more modern things, like the goblins/orcs being responsible for present-day military technology and hobbits inventing golf, which you wouldn’t expect to be present in those terms, or in terms close to them, in the original text.

Conversely, Wolfe here is trying to tell us that he’s giving us Severian’s words as straight as he can, accounting for the fact that Severian is writing in a language which won’t exist until many ages into the future. This explains Wolfe’s regular use of archaic terms and words throughout the story. I don’t recommend having a dictionary (or Google) to hand when you first read – better to let it wash over you, especially since Wolfe is good at making sure you have sufficient context to broadly follow what Severian is saying, but on my readthrough to do this review I looked up the words and found that this deepened the flavour nicely.

In particular, the blended use of vaguely Latin, vaguely Greek, and vaguely German terms – particularly in relation to clergy and the military – suggests that the realm of the Autarch takes on a mingle of qualities from the Byzantine Empire, late Western Roman Empire, and Holy Roman Empire. All three of these were nominally Christian empires in which ultimate power in principle resided in the hands of the Emperor, but the realities of politics and the sheer size of the empire meant that often this authority could be more nominal than actual, and in practical terms the person with real authority was the nearest local mayor, magistrate, or military commander.

This in itself gives clues to the character of the Commonwealth itself – with the Autarch apparently isolated in the House Absolute, a palace kept so secure its true location is kept a secret and, rumour has it, you could walk straight through it and never realise you’d been there. In addition, it becomes apparent that the religion of the age is Autarch, after a fashion – at the very least, people believe in an Increate who created all things, a Conciliator who came once, died, and will come again to bring a New Sun and a renewal of the world, and so on.

But this is like saying that modern-day Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism are all roughly the same as Atenism – there are principles in common, but the passage of time has led to extensive divergence in the specifics. Likewise, comparing the politics of the Commonwealth to the Christian empires I mentioned is like comparing, say, the late Holy Roman Empire to Constantine’s Rome – we can’t assume they map directly, and indeed they probably don’t, but the parallels Wolfe suggests allow us to get a rough picture of what the Commonwealth is like without him needing to spell everything out.

Wolfe’s commitment to the bit when it comes to treating the book as a historical document helps him with his signature party trick – playing games with unreliable narration. It is probably sensible to assume that Severian isn’t lying to us, or at least isn’t lying to us most of the time, because if we doubt him to that extent then there’s nothing we can rely on and there’s no actual story here. However, Severian does sometimes miss things out, gloss over things, and sometimes overlooks the importance of things – and it’s down to us to speculate as to whether this is because he is ignorant of their importance (or was ignorant at the time the incidents happened) or is working to an agenda. Miracles happen in this book, but he either doesn’t realise it or doesn’t acknowledge it; at one point someone comes back from the dead and it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

Severian’s memory also has something funny going on. On the one hand, he claims to have perfect recall – on the other hand, there are points where he claims to have forgotten something. If we read closer, we can reconcile these statements: Severian can eventually recall everything he has experienced, but these recollections don’t necessarily come in the blink of an eye and it can sometimes require effort to dredge up the memory in question. In at least one incident in a later volume, Severian discusses how his practice of perfect recall can often take him out of it, since his memories seem so real it’s like he is reliving the experience.

(Of course, as readers we can share Severian’s gift – when he says he is casting his mind back to remember an incident, we can turn to that part of the book and remind ourselves of the specifics again, the better to understand the import of what he is recollecting in the “present”.)

Furthermore, Severian is not writing from the perspective of the young torturer that he was in the period of which he speaks – though he retains that knowledge, and there’ll be points over the series where he starts expounding of the traditions and techniques of the Guild which reveals his pride in his profession. By the time he’s writing, he has become the Autarch – and so he writes as a political leader. (Confessing to the fascination he had in his early life with the rebel Vodalus is a particularly interesting move from this perspective.) Moreover, as we will see over the course of the story he is a leader writing this before he is about to undertake a crucial, make-or-break ordeal which will largely define his legacy – and so this could well be his last statement to his people. It is legitimate to wonder what he is attempting to advocate here.

The Shadow of the Torturer also has Wolfe wearing his influences on his sleeve to an extent. The obvious comparison, given the setting concept and the fact that the Sun is clearly dying, is Vance’s The Dying Earth; this parallel is most apparent in the latter part of the book, as Severian journeys through Nessus on his way to Thrax and ends up sidetracked and caught up in schemes and scams he’s been left unprepared for, and things take on a certain picaresque tone. In particular, the mountebank playwright Dr. Talos and his travelling companion, the foreboding giant Baldanders, come across like they’ve just stepped out of a Vance story.

The earlier parts of the novel, unfolding in the Citadel and environs, put me more in mind of the Gormenghast trilogy – indeed, I would even argue that The Book of the New Sun is an application of the premise of the Gormenghast books to an entire world. Sure, sure, Peake tried to do that somewhat with Titus Alone, though ultimately that’s less about painting a picture of the world beyond Gormenghast itself and more about a deep dive into Titus’s psychological state (filtered through Peake’s own tenuous state) and you didn’t have the same sense of layers of layers of history and tradition being piled on top of each other long beyond the point where anyone could figure out their origins. Here, the world of the Guild and its ancient traditions gives the sense of an institution which, like Gormenghast, has been going for aeons on a particular pattern – and then when Severian leaves the Guild he finds the world in much the same state.

(It is this which makes the occasional gender assumptions of the book more palatable than they might otherwise have been – Severian’s is a gendered society, and it makes sense that it would be because it is the sort of traditionalist world in which gender roles become very entrenched. We are told that in the past there were women among the torturers, but they were cast out at some point; Severian gives his own explanation for why this should be the case, but it is entirely legitimate to read this as him citing the reasoning he was given without criticising it, whereas Wolfe might want us to consider why it might be from a less subjective perspective. One of Severian’s avowed biases is that he genuinely loves the Guild, despite the brutal nature of its work, and it is fairly apparent that his strange upbringing has left him with an unusual emotional response to that work; early in the next book his reaction after an execution comes across less as guilt or questioning the legitimacy of execution and more like a comedown from bad stage fright.)

Other influences are doubtless at play; the characrer of Ultan the blind librarian is surely a nod to Borges, much as Umberto Eco included a blind librarian as a nod to Borges in The Name of the Rose. (This is likely parallel inspiration, since both books came out in the same year.) The mysterious Erebus and Abaia, referred to as vast alien entities who came to Urth an astonishingly long time ago, reside in the oceans, exert influence through dreams, and plot to one day eventually rise and devour the continents sound an awful lot like cousins to Cthulhu – almost certainly a deliberate parallel, since Wolfe would later write a much more overtly Cthulhu Mythos-based novel.

At the same time, there is much in here which is distinctly Wolfean, and picks up on ideas that Wolfe played with in his preceding books. An institution of torture which has carried out its activities for generations hides at the centre of The Fifth Head of Cerberus; Urth’s decline into a cosmic backwater mirrors the decline of the USA in Seven American Nights; the lure of Vodalus puts me in mind of the charmingly cruel outlaw in The Devil In a Forest; and of course Wolfe emphatically made the unreliable narrator schtick his calling card with Peace.

As such, Wolfe’s drawing on the techniques of other authors here should not be trusted. It’s how he gets you to let your guard down. The first time I read this I took Dr. Talos and Baldanders as what they appeared to be – amusing picaresque characters, suitable to a Jack Vance story. Oh, no. There’s more horrifying revelations yet. Just as Severian’s world holds more miracles than Severian at first appreciates, it is also home to greater terrors than we are yet aware of.

The Claw of the Conciliator

Severian has made it out of Nessus – but on his way through the city walls, at the end of the last book, some sort of disorder broke out. There appears to be a gap in the manuscript after that; Severian picks up his narration in the sleepy village of Saltus, where he’s earning a bit of travelling money by providing executioner services to the local authorities. In the kerfuffle at the wall, Severian got separated from Dr. Talos and his troupe, but has ended up in the company of Jonas, a traveller of far broader experience than him.

He also ended up leaving Nessus with the fabulous gem known as the Claw of the Conciliator – a religious artifact which, if we believe his account, was planted on him by a false ally who wanted to use him as a patsy. The Claw can do all that good miraculous stuff – heals the sick, raises the dead, turns water into wine – but it’s awfully temperamental. Severian really, truly, wants to return it to the Pelerine nuns who previously kept hold of it, but they’ve gone off on a pilgrimage. In principle, Severian just needs to wrap up his business in Saltus, head to Thrax, and then figure out a way to get the Claw to the Pelerines. But between a letter from an old acquaintance and a run-in with agents of Vodalus, it’s clear that things aren’t going to be so simple. Eventually, Severian’s route to Thrax will take him through the House Absolute itself…

After spending The Shadow of the Torturer establishing Severian’s world and working in some nods to fantasy greats of the past, in The Claw of the Conciliator Wolfe forces us to question what we know so far, just as Severian himself runs into some things which challenge his perspective (even if he does not always realise that).

For instance, we’d been introduced to Baldanders and Dr. Talos as a Vancian double act; by the end of this novel, we’ve learned things (if we’ve paid attention) which not only invert what we believe about the interaction between the two but also makes them seem far darker and more malign than the sort of Cugel-esque rogues they’d come across as (and Cugel’s no angel). We’ve been led to expect that the Autarch is this distant, out of touch figure, only to be confronted with evidence (should we be smart enough to spot it) that he has his finger much closer to the pulse than expected – especially if the extent of the House Absolute goes as far beyond the typical three dimensions as I suspect.

We’ve been beguiled by Severian’s youthful hero worship of him into thinking that Vodalus is probably a pretty cool dude, but one of Severian’s mentions of Vodalus suggests that he believes Vodalus’ agenda to involve brushing away the corruption and decadence of the Commonwealth and bring about a new era of revived civic virtues, which sounds an awful lot like the declared agenda of fascists, though it is also the typical way Roman emperors coming to power via a coup would characterise their actions. And as it turns out, Vodalus’s dreams of Urth reasserting itself in the wider universe is being used by darker powers; Vodalus holding court in the forest not only makes him seem more Robin Hood-like, it is also the setting for things we learn about him which make the Devil In a Forest parallels seem all the more relevant. (Then, when we discover the true nature of the House Absolute, it seems like Vodalus’ court may be no more than a drab parody of it.)

This sequence also sees Severian partake in a strange sort of communion ritual which will go on to create further questions about his memory, and even the identity of the person who is writing this account for us – for through extracts of the strange alien animal known as the alzabo, Severian ends up absorbing some of the memories of Thecla. Thus we have to ask whether Severian is really the same person after this – for if we are the sum of our memories and experiences, is Severian not at least partially Thecla now? He suggests that he partially is – and he certainly seems to handle a horse a little easier once he’s digested her memories of riding. Moreover, other people seem to perceive her. Thecla being dead and lost forever has been an axiom of the series since the end of the first act; now she’s is returned to a curious sort of life. (And some of her memories suggest a more callous side to her than Severian has admitted to so far – one in particular unambiguously points to her involvement in a cruel pastime that the aristocracy of the House Absolute partake in…)

Most of all, we have been cozened into thinking that Severian is, despite his upbringing, an honourable man of a sort – although his upbringing has left him with a curious relationship with state-inflicted violence, he nonetheless has his heart in the right place. Over the course of this novel we are forced to face up to the fact that he is this incorrigible horndog. He talked a good talk in the earlier book about how, after only one visit to the House Azure in Nessus to visit a prostitute there (mandated by his superiors, who believed that doing so would divert any temptation of his to become intimate with Thecla), he never went again; by now we have had hints that this may not be the case, and his relationship with Thecla may not have been as chaste as he made it out to be earlier.

Moreover, Severian in this book reveals a distinct tendency to assess any woman he encounters on the basis of his sexual yearning for her. He dresses this up sometimes in all sorts of philosophical talk about the balance between love and desire, but the gap between his professed ideals and the attitudes which creep into his writing is noticeable. This will be of significant thematic importance by the end of the series – Severian’s horndoggery is a character flaw which plays directly into the most important decision he must eventually make as Autarch – and were it not, it would be tempting to lay this charge at the feet of Wolfe himself, but as it stands Wolfe seems to be entirely aware that Severian’s attitude to sexual relationships is perhaps not what it could be.

He is, after all, a young man who has led a fairly cloistered existence until he has been set loose in the world; he is making rash decisions here in exactly the sort of way young men in his position and with that sort of background often do. Moreover, a big theme of the book is how Severian’s horniness is making him an easy mark and prompting him to make silly mistakes – he is lured into a trap out of his passion for Thecla (a continuation of the trouble caused by his dalliance in the previous book with Agia), he becomes bound to Vodalus in a curious way in part because of the prompting of Thea, he badly hurts the feelings of the enigmatic Dorcas by banging the voluptuous Jolenta, and when a direct representative of the Cthulhu-esque Abaia makes a pitch to recruit him, it uses his horniness as a central plank of its pitch.

The novel culminates in some intriguing timey-wimey stuff, which will go on to have major implications later on, but the thing which resonated with me the most this time around is the fate of Jolenta, and the revelations of how she’d been manipulated by Dr. Talos and Baldanders. Jolenta, alas, does not survive this book. She was recruited by Dr. Talos and Baldanders to join their theatre company in the previous novel – but was rendered almost unrecognisable between Severian’s first encounter with her and his later one, after she’s joined the troupe, because they have subjected her to an extensive battery of cosmetic, biochemical, surgical, and hypnotic techniques.

Though if you were feeling ill-disposed towards Wolfe you could read the whole thing as a slam on Jolenta herself – an exercise in slut-shaming her and making it out like elective cosmetic procedures are bad and wrong. However, contextually it very much seems like Jolenta didn’t give 100% informed consent to this. Evidence emerges that her mind has been tampered with, in part to better play the femme fatale role that Dr. Talos and Baldanders intended, but perhaps also to secure her consent. Her wrist gets badly wounded with an injury which the Claw is not able to heal, and whilst Severian seems to believe it was some sort of wild animal attack, it feels to me more like it was a suicide attempt (and the Claw perhaps either does not exert its divine power to save suicides or – taking a kinder interpretation – won’t try to save the life of someone who point blank does not want their life to be saved).

This comes after an absolutely shocking act of violence towards her after she tries to head off with Dr. Talos and Baldanders, when the party split up after their performance of Dr. Talos’s play for the Autarch and his court. It may well be one of the darkest moments in Wolfe’s entire bibliography, not least because if you haven’t read the series before, you don’t know the maliciousness the duo represent. Despite some red flags, one can still see them as a Vancian duo – their threat to kill Jolenta if she follows them a cruel barb, but surely not sincere… surely? Severian himself doesn’t believe it until they do it.

As such, Jolenta’s depiction comes across less as someone who consensually got cosmetic surgery to become a sex symbol because that was their overall intention so much as it is a sort of microcosm of the entertainment industry (particularly that when Wolfe was writing) cajoling and coercing women into presenting a very particular highly sexualised ideal, despite the discomfort involved, and then discarding them when they are no longer considered of use. Jolenta’s dreams of landing an exultant spouse and living a life of luxury may have been selfish, but she’d been plucked out of poverty – why would she not seek such advantage? The worst thing we see her do in this novel is upset Dorcas by sleeping with Severian – and Severian is just as complicit in that as she is. (Indeed, by his own account he initiates it – when Jolenta is asleep, no less, so a question arises as to whether this was the romantic seduction Severian frames it as or a sexual assault Jolenta opted not to make a stir about, lest doing so cause her performance to be cancelled.)

And to have so much radical work done to her in the comparatively short space of time it must have been done in itself suggests not a carefully considered process but a radical transformation imposed in a manner which, bar for the mental stuff, would have likely been profoundly traumatic. All this is important because it not only ties into the way sexuality is used as a weapon and a technique of control in Severian’s world, without him necessarily being fully conscious of it, but it also establishes Jolenta as the first clearly identifiable victim of Dr. Talos and Baldanders’ malevolent work in the novel – something it is important to establish for later on.

Speaking of Dr. Talos, we finally get to enjoy his play this time around; there’s a performance of it in The Shadow of the Torturer, but Severian glosses over the actual plot when he describes it. Here, he gives us the full script as a chapter – a deeply enigmatic affair which poses riddles even if you have a pretty good handle so far on what’s going on. This is one of a couple of instances of a clearly-delineated story-within-a-story in the book, a technique the Book of the New Sun will keep coming back to. We sort of had something like that in The Shadow of the Torturer, when Severian relates to Agia a tale Thecla told him about her childhood, and a friend’s strange encounter with Father Inire, the Autarch’s alien vizier, but here the pocket stories are much more clearly delineated.

Alongside Dr. Talos’s play, we get The Tale of the Student and His Son, presented as a selection from The Book of the Wonders of Urth and Sky, a favourite of Thecla’s which Severian keeps with him. In itself, it seems to be a curious take on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, perhaps with additional wrinkles and strangeness to reflect the legend’s mutation over the course of thousands of years of future history.

At the same time, some of its themes – in particular, the way the “son” could be interpreted as being a robot created by the student who pilots a starship – seem curiously apt to the context in which Severian tells it. He tells the story to Jonas, who is freaking out after he and Severian have been placed in a jail cell in the House Absolute, and if we are to believe Severian’s narration he hadn’t twigged to Jonas’s true nature at this point. But if he hadn’t, that’s a very weirdly appropriate story to pull out and tell Jonas – which makes me think that Severian was more on the ball than he purports to be here, and picked out the story specifically to probe Jonas. Why would he pretend to this ignorance? It’s one more reason to mistrust him.

The character of Hethor, met towards the end of Shadow of the Torturer and returning here, is a rather damaged man (it is implied that he is a former member of a starship crew, abandoned on Urth and gone to seed), and part of his damage is a slavish hero-worship of Severian and a fetishisation of Severian’s work; one almost thinks he is there as a warning against being the wrong kind of fan, a ghastly warning to the reader that, for heaven’s sake, you shouldn’t be giving Severian your full trust. Even Severian himself seems to acknowledge that his line of work can be taken in the wrong way if you get too fond of it; after the first execution he performs in Saltus, he throws in a note in which he tells the reader directly that for the sake of not making his story cumbersomely long, he’s going to skip over any subsequent practice of his trade unless it is of importance to the narrative, and that we should simply assume that he was plying his trade as he travelled to pay his way without narrating the fine details of such, and if we’re here to get off on depictions of torture and execution then we’re in the wrong place.

In the end, this is ironic; Jolenta gets abused, tortured, and eventually killed over the course of the book, and all the while it’s happening Severian is getting all flustered about her. Who is worse – Hethor, who gets all excited about torture and state-sanctioned murder which he is fully aware is such, or Severian, who is happy to drink in the intoxicating vision presented by Jolenta without thinking too hard about what actually needed to happen for her to present that – and doesn’t realise the abuse which has been inflicted on her until it is already entirely too late? Or at least he claims he didn’t.

Gene Wolfe was quite precise in talking about Severian, and the way the Claw gives him an ability to perform miracles similar to Christ’s: he was quite clear that Severian is not a Christ figure, he is a Christian figure. He is not the sinless Son of God; he is a sinner like the rest of us. And if you read close enough between the lines, The Claw of the Conciliator presents strong hints as to what those sins are.

The Sword of the Lictor

Severian has made it to Thrax and taken up his office as its Lictor – the custodian of its prison and its chief executioner, serving the Archon. Alas, his old failing strikes once again; called on to execute a noblewoman he’s fallen for (having banged her at a fancy party behind Dorcas’s back), he instead aids her escape. This prompts two realisations: that he really isn’t cut out for this line of work, and that the Archon will have his head if he sticks around in Thrax.

Deciding to travel north, where he may lose himself amid the forces fighting on behalf of the Commonwealth against the invading Ascians, little does Severian realise that his route will bring him into contact with several great dangers – including some which give insights into the history of his world and others which reveal secrets about those he has been travelling with. Some pursue him; some lie in his path – and at the end lies a battle in which Severian will lose something which has so far defined him, and come closer to the truth of one of his other prized possessions…

In some respects, the title of The Sword of the Lictor is odd, given that Severian quits being the Lictor of Thrax early on. On the other hand, it’s possible to see him as acting as an executioner for a higher power all the way through this novel, because it essentially consists of a series of confrontations with dangerous entities and individuals, who generally don’t survive their confrontations with Severian. He’s killed before in his saga, of course, but here things really seem to step up, and the foes that Severian must face arguably all need to be taken down for the greater good.

Some are wild beasts – the Salamander entity which a certain foe sends after him, for instance, or the alzabo, the horrid creature from which the memory-absorbing drug is derived and which is able to perfectly mimic those it consumes, due to having access to all their memories. Others are humans – or superhumans – who exert a baleful and unjust power over others. The cult of magicians, for instance, try to control and exploit others through a mixture of charlatanry and genuine mysticism; at the end of the book is Baldanders, who is feared, loathed, and reluctantly served by those in the vicinity of his castle due to his command of powerful technology and his absolute lack of any sort of higher moral philosophy. The one represents spirituality turned to malign and negative ends, the latter materialist utilitarian pragmatism gone in a similar direction.

Perhaps the biggest deal here, however, is Typhon – a long-dormant ruler of Earth and its interstellar empire, inadvertently awoken by Severian. The Typhon section includes what may be far and away the most shocking event of the novel – the death by electrocution of a child that Severian adopts when the boy is left orphaned by the alzabo – and also perhaps finds Severian faced with one of the most important incidents in his story. If Severian as a character who is asked to play the role of Christ, even though he is not Christ, Typhon is playing the role of Satan – and is perhaps closer to the Devil than Severian is to Jesus. There is even a bit where Typhon takes Severian to a high place and literally offers him rulership of the kingdoms of the Earth, a sequence which would be risible in the hands of a lesser writer.

If one wants to read a religious allegory into The Book of the New Sun, it’s in this volume where we perhaps come towards the crux of the Christian-specific question raised by the whole premise: if we posit a time so far in the future that the Bible itself has been more or less forgotten, any Christ-like narrative has become attributed to similar figures of the future (like the Conciliator, who we learn here arose in Typhon’s time), would it be possible in that era to serve God’s will, or would it be impossible?

In a tasty twist, Wolfe seems to believe that it is – though in the same way that in Tolkien, Eru Ilúvatar directly says to Morgoth that it doesn’t matter if he rebels because everything he does will end up serving the ends of Ilúvatar anyway. If we want to posit that Severian was, on one level, unwittingly acting as the axeman of the divine in leaving Thrax and facing down this string of terrible threats to the world that nobody else seems to be in a position to tackle, then an argument can be made that all this is happening because he decided to fuck a foxy noblewoman and then, after developing affection for her, couldn’t bring himself to kill her; if God is working through Severian he is working through his sins as much as, if not more than, his virtues.

Wolfe’s perspective may seem unusual, but it’s evident that he does not intend through the text to present a sort of doctrinaire One True Way-ism. At one point late in the novel, Severian notices a fish amulet worn by the lake folk representing the deity Oannes, and infers a bunch of properties of Oannes from this, and whilst he finds he does not believe in Oannes, he also realises that his own concept of divinity most likely looks equally ridiculous from other perspectives, and this and other incidents hint at the idea that the divine or the transcendent or the ultimate truth or the fundamental principles of the universe or whatever you want to call it is not definitively knowable, and that all we can get is a very fragmentary picture which cannot encompass the whole thing. (You know, like the blind sages and the elephant analogy.)

Beyond the religious and philosophical realms the story gets into, the novel also gives us more insights into the Commonwealth. It is evident that it is some manner of colonial empire, with its heartland and homeland being down south and taking in the regions around Nessus and the House Absolute (at the very least), whilst here we’re getting into the hinterland. There’s more mentions here of “autochthons” – in other words, native or indigenous peoples – who seem to be regarded by Nessus-raised folk like Severian as being somewhat backward and primitive, though Severian does question these assumptions. Between this and what we learn of the wars with the Ascians, it seems that control of the region may well have passed back and forth over the long ages, and it has only comparatively recently been reconquered by the Commonwealth – not in Severian’s lifetime, perhaps, but recently enough that the locals are still treated as indigenous inhabitants of a colonised region.

At the same time, though, it is apparent that the region used to be the centre of power – and therefore was more likely a colonising hegemon rather than a colonised vassal at some point in the sweep of history. It’s where Typhon has his headquarters, for one thing, and the mountains have all been carved into the visages of long-ago rulers. (Severian uses the term “Autarchs”, but he refers to Typhon as an Autarch and it seems apparent that the Commonwealth is a much smaller polity than that which Typhon ruled over; if it is a successor state to that, it is in the same sense that Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany was a successor state to ancient Rome.)

Whatever their status was in the very distant past, the autochthons are a colonised people now, and Wolfe does a good job of avoiding the usual fantasy adventure story tropes around such; there’s no roving bands of savage autochthon engaged in banditry or devilment. There are “zoanthropes” who take that slot, but as it turns out these are not mere cavemen or similar – they are people for whom possessing higher cognitive faculties are such a burden they have arranged to have that capacity surgically removed, literally making themselves beasts to get rid of the pain of being a man (as Dr. Johnson put it). Even the clique of magicians Severian and his ward encounter are highlighted as perhaps superficially riffing on autochthonous traditions but, crucially, are mentioned as being from several ethnicities, including that of the majority population of Nessus.

Severian lacks allies for much of this story, but he does at least have a chance to tell a self-contained story – this time it’s The Tale of the Boy Called Frog. This is a bizarre mashup of the story of the birth of Moses, the legend of Romulus and Remus, the original Thanksgiving narrative, and The Jungle Book, thrown in perhaps for some thematic reasons but, at least at this point, the main point seems to be how this far into the future all that remains of those stories, all of which are well-understood today, are a clutch of strands and motifs and ideas which intertwine into new legends rooted in a different cultural ethos altogether. One can imagine that the myths of Greece, Persia, and the Germanic peoples in the classical world, as we understand them now, carry in them similarly faint echoes of proto-Indo-European legends whose original contextual meaning is now lost but whose brightest images echo in the stories which have come down to us from their successor cultures.

In this way the historical and the religious themes of the novel end up intertwining. It may be that if we jump ahead several thousand years, we’ll come to a time when Christianity – and anything else held dear by anyone today – is essentially forgotten other than a few symbols. However, one thing that Wolfe introduces early on in the series is the idea that symbols have a power in and of themselves – so perhaps a few fleeting images preserved into the future is enough.

The Citadel of the Autarch

After his terrifying confrontation with Baldanders, Severian resumes his journey north. He eventually falls into a fever and ends up in a field hospital run by the Pelerine order – the former keepers of the Claw of the Conciliator. After recovering his strength and attending to a long-standing errand, he eventually falls in with a group of irregular mercenaries and must face the Ascians on the front line of the war – only to realise that the Ascians are no inhuman foes, mere pawns of higher forces, much as the rank and file of the Commonwealth’s armies are.

Eventually, as chance would have it, he has another encounter with the Autarch – and this time he will learn the true nature of the Autarch, and the responsibility given the office next to which the administration of the Commonwealth is a mere secondary concern. When the Autarch is grievously wounded, he is intent on bestowing the office on Severian – but will he have the chance, and will Severian be equal to it?

Whatever you were expecting the end of the main body of The Book of the New Sun to be, Citadel of the Autarch probably isn’t it. The typical approach for fantasy or science fiction would be to have some sort of big, badass confrontation with a villain figure (like the original Star Wars trilogy), or some sort of big final trial which sees the culmination of a quest which the main character has been on for the entire story and which causes the dramatic climax of the whole process (like The Lord of the Rings).

Severian does, in fact, manage to complete a mission he’d taken on since The Shadow of the Torturer here – namely, returning the Claw of the Conciliator to the Pelerines – but whilst the moment carries a lot of emotional weight for him, at the same time it does not obviously resolve anything. Indeed, some of the revelations about the timey-wimey nature of the Claw this time around mean that the mission was pointless – and strongly suggest that actually, Severian had more claim on the Claw than the Pelerines did anyway.

Likewise, for an author who is as famously cryptic as Wolfe, you might expect that The Citadel of the Autarch would end on a mysterious note rather than offering much in the way of direct answers. Actually, at least on this reread, I found that it was more than happy to explain itself – and that, in fact, much of its power relies on that explanation.

By my reckoning, what Wolfe is going for here isn’t a big slam-bang-boom resolution of the major crises facing Urth, or just the Commonwealth, or just Severian personally – indeed, in many respects becoming Autarch is only the start of Severian’s problems. At the same time, we really don’t need to read about how Severian handles matters like the war against the Ascians or the reform and renewal of the Commonwealth, both tasks he must complete before he undertakes the grand task that it falls to each Autarch to either tackle (knowing that if they fail they will be returned to Urth a eunuch, so that they must live out their rule knowing that they will not be able to found a dynasty but must instead look to others to continue their legacy) or reject (and thus pass up the chance to restore Urth’s fortunes for good). It’s been flagged well in advance that Severian is writing this memoir because he is about to go forth on that grand mission, which means he must have completed those preliminaries through some means or another.

Similarly, it isn’t strictly speaking vital for us to know whether or not Severian succeeds at that task (though it will become the subject of The Urth of the New Sun), because if we have paid attention, Wolfe gives us ample reason to believe that he will – or rather, that a version of him already has, and that this accomplishment has had ripples forwards and backwards in time which have shaped Severian’s life.

This, to my mind, is what Wolfe was aiming at. If The Lord of the Rings was Tolkien’s exercise in depicting what he termed a “eucatastrophe” – that moment when, just as everything seems to be about to go wrong, it all suddenly comes right – The Citadel of the Autarch depicts not the eucatastrophe itself, but the signifying of the eucatastrophe, the network of omens, clues, and other indications that the eucatastrophe will indeed come.

In other words, whereas so much trite fantasy applies itself to the resolution of some prophecy or another, The Book of the New Sun is about the writing of the prophecy itself, not by someone who has some sort of special insight into the future – Severian is not precognitive – but by someone who through recording the incidents he encounters sets down the the signs and portents from which the prophecy can be inferred, even if he doesn’t necessarily spot all of it at the time, or find it in himself to believe that the prophecy is true.

This is also the book where Wolfe tackles warfare, now that Severian has made his way to the front. Some inattentive readers believed the “Ascians” were meant to be “Asians”, but it’s evident from clues in the text that the heartland of their totalitarian, quasi-Maoist dictatorship is, in fact, the former North America. (One can even imagine the linguistic drift here: imagine US-Canada contracted to USCA contracted to “Usca” shifting to “Ascia”.)

That said, Wolfe was a Korean War veteran, and as I mentioned the Ascians’ political system is reminiscent of hardline Communism, or rather the spoof version of hardline Communism which lines up with how US right-wingers depict it and how North Korea’s depraved leadership actually practices it. The Ascian we get to know best is Loyal To the Group of Seventeen – apparently they all have names like that – and poor old Loyal is only able to speak in propaganda catchphrases, because after childhood Ascians are only allowed to speak in propaganda phrases.

However, there’s two clever things Wolfe does with this which saves this plot element from being doctrinaire political sniping. The first is that he has a character explicitly point out that, actually, everyone uses these little frameworks and patterns in the way they use language which aren’t necessarily 100% structurally vital, but nonetheless end up part of speech anyway. How many of the things we say in day-to-day conversation are actually bespoke things we made u on the spot, and how much is just repeating conversational patterns?

The other thing is that he uses Loyal as a means of rebutting Orwell’s ideas about Newspeak. Yes, the ability of Loyal to enunciate ideas is hampered by his vocabulary of catchphrases – but as it turns out, it is possible for him to deploy these in a way which imply more than the Group of Seventeen would necessarily be happy with him saying. Orwell’s conceit in with Newspeak in 1984 was that because language shapes thinking, a totalitarian system could theoretically limit the language in such a way as to eliminate the possibility of dissent by making it impossible to express dissent. Wolfe’s view is that you can make expressing dissent awkward and difficult, but you can’t shut down the human ability to attempt to express new ideas by adapting existing language for that purpose – indeed, that often is the way we express new concepts.

The latter aspect comes out in Loyal’s contribution to the story contest Severian is called on to judge when he’s in the hospice, which is Wolfe’s last big indulgence in providing self-contained stories and celebrating the art of storytelling itself within the confines of the wider narrative. Of course, since the wider narrative is a story being told to us by Severian, it is in itself an exercise in that art – which means that it’s worth our while paying attention to the storytelling techniques involved here, because they reveal stuff about the philosophy of storytelling which Severian might be employing (consciously or otherwise) as he regales us with his tale.

As I said, The Book of the New Sun could have happily stopped here – since we have clear and fairly direct confirmation here that Severian will succeed in the grand mission of the Autarchs to reconcile Urth to the wider galaxy and secure the healing of Sol which is the meaning of the coming of the New Sun, and some damn strong pointers to what will happen to him after that happens. However, a few years later Wolfe was inspired to tell the tale of how that ends up coming about, which leads us into the end of Severian’s saga…

The Urth of the New Sun

A decade has elapsed since the events related in The Book of the New Sun. After writing the account of his rise to power, Severian must now apply himself to the great task of the Autarchs, which none have previously succeeded at (and many refused to even attempt): he must travel to the higher universe of Yesod, that the Hierogrammates of that realm may assess him and the chances for Urth and decide whether a) it is necessary to send the New Sun to repair Sol and reinvigorate Urth, and b) whether Severian has what it takes to be the New Sun’s human avatar on Urth.

After some shenanigans in the vast starship that travels between the stars and out of the universe itself, Severian is assessed as equal to the task, and returns to Urth transformed by the experience – but thanks to the timey-wimey consequences of the journey he has been on, he does not arrive in the era he expects. Severian must not only adapt to having the powers of a messiah, but also navigate the history of his world – literally, once he becomes able to navigate the Corridors of Time. And when the New Sun finally arrives, he must face up to the tumultuous consequences it has for the world he knows – and figure out what to do with himself next, now that his tasks as Autarch and messiah are complete…

This is very much a sequel to The Book of the New Sun, not a continuation of it in my mind. The Book of the New Sun is in essence the tale of a very tightly defined period in Severian’s life, spanning from his first encounter with Vodalus to his ascension as Autarch, with the bulk of the four volumes taking place within a matter of months. There’s then ten years of downtime when Severian applies himself to the business of ruling the Commonwealth and ending the war with the Ascians, and then the narrative here picks up to tell what is in essence a whole distinct adventure from that which Severian embarked on in the Book.

At the same time, it is also very much a coda to the New Sun series, rather than something of the same stature as the Book. It’s shorter, for one thing; for another, it is relating the coming to pass of events clearly and unambiguously signposted in the Book; as I said, the point of interest here isn’t in what is going to happen, because at least in the broad brushstrokes we already know, it’s more that we get to take pleasure in watching how it happens.

Equally, it’s also a crucial part of the overall sequence. There’s some important further answers and new mysteries we tackle here. The how all of that prophesied stuff pans out provides further closure to plot threads in the Book, and The Urth naturally takes the story to the final logical step which the preceding four volumes sets up. In other words, the relation of Urth to the rest of the sequence is complicated enough that I think it is definitely worth reading it in conjunction with the others, and perhaps regarding it as a fifth volume in the quartet.

Naturally, a big part of the story involves the fairly messianic themes which have been percolating throughout the entire series, though once again it is worth noting that Severian is not Christ, despite the fact that many of the things that happen to him have parallels in the Christ narrative. I would liken him, rather, to the Old Testament prophets – and, specifically, figures like Jonah, who very much are depicted as having significant character flaws but end up doing the job that they have been tasked with anyway.

In fact, Wolfe seems to take a certain pleasure into seeing how many different flavours of saviour figure he can sneak in references to here; it never degenerates into a Ready Player One of messiah figures, mind, in which references are tossed out for the sake of it, they all seem to have significant and useful thematic roles in Severian’s overall story, but the depth of Wolfe’s pool of such stories to touch on is quite impressive, and goes well beyond the Bible.

For instance, at one point Severian climbs inside the chassis of the robotic Sidero, who is in essence a self-aware space suit/exoskeleton, and through doing so is able to escape danger amid the chaotic situation aboard ship when mutineers try to prevent him reaching Yesod and bringing the New Sun to Urth. A quasi-messianic figure, caught up in circumstances beyond his control, who is provided with somewhere to hide by a friendly android? That’s literally the plot of Styx’s Mr. Roboto music video!

Severian is very much up to his bullshit again here: ten years of being Autarch has not prompted him to slow his roll when it comes to sleeping around, and he’s still not read The Ethical Slut and so keeps hurting people like that. Indeed, Severian’s rootlessness comes back with a vengeance here; yes, he spent 10 years being the Autarch, but that was in the service of getting to the point where he can stand before the Hierogrammates and be judged for the sake of Urth, a cause he deeply believed in.

Once he’s handled that, he’s near-incapable of staying put, and whilst sometimes his shifts in time and space are prompted by circumstances beyond his control, he seems decidedly comfortable with just vanishing out of people’s lives and coming back into them again like it ain’t no thing. (Indeed, many of his adventures on the ship going to Yesod arise from the fact that he won’t just sit patiently in his stateroom and wait.)

These and other flaws are crucial because the book is no simplistic exercise in giving a beloved character godlike superpowers and letting them be a badass. For one thing, Severian’s stint as a messiah is depicted with far more care and sensitivity than that sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy involves; for another, the whole arc of the novel is set up to get Severian past the point when he has these capabilities, so it can then depict what happens when he is largely left without them, is deprived of his overarching purpose in life (because he has accomplished it), and is left only with a sense of immense guilt for the destruction which comes when the New Sun reinvigorates Sol (because hey, he just brought about massive climate change, things don’t happen smoothly) and his unaddressed personal flaws.

Indeed, the novel closes on Severian contemplating the fates of three people he left behind in the wake of the New Sun’s arrival in favour of going on one of his time jaunts, and it’s notable how the culture these three were the original leaders of has revered them just as much as Severian, and have deified them alongside him. Severian ends up deified because he vanished, and because the others knew something of his role in bringing about the end of the old world; the others end up deified because they stuck around and did the work. Wolfe brings the saga to an end there, and perhaps that is because at this point the narrative arc of the cosmos has moved past the point where a Severian is needed; we’re left with a world which doesn’t need roving ex-torturers going on adventures, it needs people who will stick around and build new communities from scratch.

(There’s also an interesting departure here in terms of the conclusion; the previous four volumes all have Severian signing off with a few concluding statements, but here Severian’s narrative just stops. The inescapable conclusion is that, in-universe, Severian never finished his book – that he died at some point after the last incident he describes and the point he opts to sit down and write his story.)

Wolfe shows admirable restraint in not feeling a need to fill the rest in, not least because this comes right after a conclusion which is all about the existential philosophical problem of finding value and meaning in your life when your magnum opus is in the rear view mirror and you know it. Perhaps Wolfe was drawing on a little autobiographical inspiration there; The Book of the New Sun was rapturuously received, and remained his most celebrated work to the end of his career, and perhaps it was dawning on him that regardless of what else he wrote, people would still be coming back to Severian’s saga as the primary touchstone in his career. As well they should, though – it’s perhaps his greatest imaginative accomplishment.

One thought on “Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, Part 1: A Magnificent Saga, Executed Perfectly

  1. While I found all the 4 original Sun-Books extraordinary (I think I had written something on them during the last days of ferretbrain), the 5th book seemed to me less well structured, a bit hard to follow. But thats the only one I only got as an audiobook, so that might be one reason for the impression.


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