Sometimes when you come back to a book for a second time it’s not quite as good as you originally thought. Not in the case of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. For me the second time round has been a fantastic experience so far. I’m 115 pages into my reading of the first book in the volume: the Shadow of the Torturer. I think this time I am taking more time to appreciate the fantastic quality of Wolfe’s writing. Whereas the first time round it was perhaps more of a struggle to keep a grasp on what was happening in the strange new world I was reading about, this second time I am slightly familiar and instead deepening my appreciation of it.
After reading The Book of the New Sun the first time I went on to read Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I found this more accessible and just as good if not better than the New Sun. I was slightly concerned about returning to the world of Severian again, but I am glad I’m there. The symbolism and the language is more evocative and there are passages that I can’t believe I didn’t gasp in wonder at the first time round – for instance Severian’s visit to the gloomy library, like something straight out of Borges, was quite bizarre.
I heard about this first about a year ago, it’s a great idea, an anthology of stories by top fantasy writers based on Jack Vance’s Dying Earth (an inspiration for Gene Wolfe’s Earth of the New Sun of course!). The book is edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, and there will be special signed editions available. Looks great!
* Robert Silverberg* Terry Dowling* Glen Cook* Tanith Lee* Liz Williams* Kage Baker* Elizabeth Moon
have already been contribued.
However, there doesn’t seem to be a release date yet as stories are still to be contributed from:
* Neil Gaiman* Dan Simmons* Elizabeth Hand* Matt Hughes* Mike Resnick* Phyllis Eisenstein* Paula Volsky* Howard Waldrop* Tad Williams* Walter Jon Williams* John C. Wright* Lucius Shepard
It was with interest that I read the review by Paul Raven of the 2007 Book of the New Sun edition, called Severian Of The Guild – essentially a repackaged version by Gollancz.
Paul, despite acknowledging Wolfe’s genius, also describes the problems he has with the allegory and particularly the Christianity in the book. I, like Paul, am an athiest, but I didn’t really find the allegory a problem – I guess I expect authors to not necessarily share my belief systems and to have their own agendas. Also, because the narrative is so dense and complex, it is actually possible to ignore the allegory – it all depends how much you want to interpret I think. It didn’t spoil the pleasure of reading the book for me.
I was also puzzled that Paul grew impatient with the narrative style of the Book of the New Sun:
“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.”
Narrative games are an essential part of Wolfe’s work, and to be quite frank it can take a sophisticated reader to appreciate them. However, to say that somehow there is a modernist mainstream that Wolfe is subverting is wrong. Post-modernist questioning of the narrator has been with us for a long time – see my previous blog posting on The Wasp Factory and The Tin Drum for instance. With any text that has a narrator in the first person, the reader should beware. Unfortunately a lot of fantasy and sci-fi can be quite unsophisticated and perhaps its readers are missing out as a result. Which means that unfortunately that great writers like Gene Wolfe don’t get the credit they deserve, even from their own constituency – i.e. SF/F readers.