Since the series was completed in 1983, I estimate that I have read Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun at least twenty times, with familiarity breeding not contempt but an ever deeper satisfaction at what I immerse myself in: should I ever be shipwrecked on that infamous Desert Island, there is no question as to the book I would take.
I love the series, originally published in four volumes, but for many years available in two, so much so that I actually have it in three different formats. First, and most beloved, are the original Arrow paperbacks, published between 1980 and 1983, and signed by Mr Wolfe himself, at the long gone Odyssey 7 comics and SF shop in the (now-demolished) Manchester University precinct. Secondly, the massive, one volume paperback edition, published in the mid-2000s under the title Severian of the Guild. And now in the collection of first edition hardbacks published by Sidgewick & Jackson, which I have acquired a year or two ago.
More than anything, The Book of the New Sun has previously deterred me from blogging on Gene Wolfe. Let me remind you that, though he’s never been a bestseller, Wolfe has been one of the finest writers in the world – not finest SF/Fantasy writer, writer – and his books are full of hidden wonders and connections.
I mean that literally. The surface story, the one that you read on the page, is never the whole of things with Wolfe. Sometimes, it’s not even the most important of things. The Book of the New Sun is a superb example of this for, in the final pages, Wolfe’s narrator, Severian the Lame, concludes that all that has come before is a corrected replay of his otherwise ordinary life, a clue from Wolfe to look between the lines – all the lines – and underneath the page for a story full of connections that only the thoughtful, alert reader can tease out.
This is one of the reasons why, after twenty-odd readings in thirty years, I am still not done with this book.
The Book of the New Sun consists of four volumes: ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’, ‘The Claw of the Conciliator’, ‘The Sword of the Lictor’ and ‘The Citadel of the Autarch’. A very rare companion book, consisting of essays upon a huge variety of matters concerning ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’ and titled ‘The Castle of the Otter’ (after an early and incorrect announcement of the final volume’s title) is available as part of the omnibus collection Gene Wolfe’s Castle of Days, and in 1987, Wolfe wrote a somewhat reluctant but equally fascinating sequel, The Urth of the New Sun.
Subsequently, he went on to write the related series The Book of the Long Sun (four volumes) and The Book of the Short Sun (three volumes) both set in the same universe and connecting back to The New Sun. The whole twelve book sequence is informally known as the ‘Solar Cycle’. What’s more, The Fifth Head of Cerberus can be seen as an informal preface to the whole sequence, it’s three widely different novellas creating templates for the three series that comprise the ‘Solar Cycle’.
Am I suggesting that in writing Cerberus, Gene Wolfe was consciously creating for himself a template to govern his substantially later writing of the Solar Cycle? No, but I am suggesting that Wolfe is that damned good a writer that he could utilise the pre-existing book as just such a structural template.
The Book of the New Sun began as a long short story, set in the world of the Torturers. It sprung, in part, from the desire to offer a character for cosplayers, fans who attended SF Conventions dressed as characters from their favourite fiction.
But ‘Holy Katherine’s Day’, despite centring upon the death of a young woman held by the Torturers, with the complicity of a young guildsman who, years later, as a Master, receives a letter from the ‘dead’ woman, was merely the wellspring for a book of major proportions, a trilogy.
Having worked out most of the Book, Wolfe found himself with a third volume half as long again as its two predecessor. Unable to cut it without wreaking severe damage, Wolfe enquired as to the commercial viability of making the trilogy into a tetraology. Fortunately, a suitable volume break occurred halfway through the third volume, leaving Wolfe with two slimmer volumes to build up to the right length.
It’s been suggested, inaccurately, that Wolfe had written the entirety of the tetraology before the first volume had been published, and whilst that wasn’t so, the story had been comprehensively outlined in full, and built up in its various parts in sufficient detail for Wolfe to have the virtual totality of it available to him even in the writing of The Shadow of the Torturer.
Over the next few blogs I’ll be writing detailed accounts of each of the four books of The New Sun, before following that with some words about the tetraology as a whole. I’ll be adopting the same approach for The Long Sun and The Short Sun in due course.