The Book of the New Sun Vol 1 - The Shadow of the Torturer

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The Book of the New Sun Vol 1 - The Shadow of the Torturer

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ag. 8, 2008, 5:03 pm

Please use this thread to discuss The Shadow of the Torturer.

ag. 8, 2008, 5:21 pm

I guess this will be a spoiler thread, so we shouldn't really read it until we've finished (unless you don't mind about spoilers)?

ag. 8, 2008, 5:29 pm

I would think there could be discussion as we read, before we get to the end of the book, at least for those who start right away. Unless, of course, some people zip thru it in a day or two, or post based on reading it previously.

ag. 8, 2008, 7:21 pm

I have had this book on my TBR shelf for over 10 years. Many years ago I read The Fifth Head of Cerberus and absolutely loved it, so am not sure why I never read this. Perhaps the theme of the title put me off. Now at last I shall give it a try with group support.

ag. 8, 2008, 10:30 pm

pooh our Borders didn't have this in stock. i'll check our local library tomorrow.

ag. 8, 2008, 11:02 pm

PaperBackSwap has one copy available.

ag. 8, 2008, 11:20 pm

I've amazoned both volumes. They'll arrive in a couple weeks, since I'm moving I had them snail mail 'em tot he new house. Soon as I get there, about the 25th, I'll start in.

ag. 9, 2008, 10:58 am

geneg - thanks for doing all the grunt work on this project!

ag. 9, 2008, 11:30 am

You're welcome. The real success of this effort depends on whether or not we, as a group, continue this project beyond the first book. Now that everyone sees how it's done it should run more smoothly next time. We can always hone the process tighter and tighter, too. Suggestions are most definitely welcome.

ag. 10, 2008, 8:42 pm

I just finished Shadow of the Torturer. So far so good. I did get this odd feeling at the beginning that I would get more from rereading it (after finishing) than the first time around. I guess it kind of dived in at the deep end, but I soon got my bearings.

ag. 12, 2008, 8:07 pm

OK ... I've finished Shadow of the Torturer and I'll just throw this out there to get things started.

Does anyone else see a bit of a reverse Hamlet thing going on here? Death, the ambiguity of reality, et al. all explored not by a prince, and here's the reverse part, but by a parentless professional killer.

There. I've done it. Have at it all!

ag. 13, 2008, 8:36 am

Interesting thought about Hamlet, BigJoel. You might be amused to see the play that comments on the book as a whole coming up in the next volume.

Some random thoughts on the first book:

1. The title of the first chapter is "Resurrection and Death." Backwards from the usual order, isn't it? What does Wolfe mean by it? Whose are the resurrection and the death?

2. I love the casual way he introduces odd ideas without calling much attention to them. For example, after he has sutured Triskele's leg, Severian reports that the dog licks at it "as if he were a bear and could lick a new leg into shape." Does Severian believe that? Is it just colorful, or is there any deeper significance to it?

3. Severian certainly has some interesting dreams. What are they intended to tell us?

4. To me, each chapter is a gem, its purpose becoming clearer as we progress... except the visit to the jungle garden. What on earth (or elsewhere) is that all about? Why do we go there, and what do we learn? Does it prepare us somehow to meet Dorcas?

5. If anybody is tripping over unfamiliar words, I will be glad to post definitions or descriptions. I think there are others who could help with this as well.

6. We know from the end of chapter 1 that Severian will gain a throne. Does knowing that affect how we read the rest of the story? Why does he tell us at that point? Is it because he is writing this later and expects his readers to know already of his achievement?

ag. 13, 2008, 9:57 am

The "backed into the throne" line seems to indicate that they may well be a lack of willingness on Severian's part. This could be enhanced when we read of Severian's growing questioning, and disobedience, of authority.

As for the vocabulary I just love the line "He mispronounced quite common words urticate, salpinx, bordereau." The archaic, obsolete and unusual words help convey a semi-permanence, a sense of history, a weight of culture. The only thing close to that I can think of is Gormenghast. Although we can find out meanings or unfamiliar words we do not know that they have the exact same meaning in the world depicted - the appendix says such words are suggestive rather than definitive.

Finally how much are we supposed to trust Severian's story? It rapidly becomes apparent that he is an unreliable narrator. He tells us himself that "he is in some degree insane" and that he "could no longer be sure my own mind was not lying to me" and that he "could not be certain those memories were more than my own dreams". Does the amount you trust Severian depend on how far you have read? Does re-reading the book affect how much of the story you believe at face value?

ag. 13, 2008, 8:57 pm

This is my first read of this series. How much does what age you first read a series affect your response to it? As I read this, I make connections to MacAvoy's Lens of the World series and then to her later work as Hobb on the Assassin series, with echoes of "this has already been done" while still realizing that Wolfe did it first. Had I read it 25 years ago, I suspect my sensawunda would have been much higher and I would have been more appreciative of the evoked atmosphere and world-building. As it is, at the end of the first book, I am intellectually somewhat interested in Severian and his path, but not really emotionally invested. Is this because of Sevarian himself, the unreliable narrator, or because of the intervening years and experiences that have placed a distance between me and the book? Yet there are books much more than 25 years old that have engaged me far more fully. Ah well, I must leave you for a few days to go read McDevitt's Seeker for another discussion group, but I'll be back for the second book after that.

ag. 14, 2008, 2:15 am

Robin Hobb is Megan Lindholm, not RA MacAvoy.

ag. 14, 2008, 4:29 am

I have to agree that Severian is a little remote from us - Wolfe's protagonists often are. I think this is a stylistic device that he uses. The protagonists often are distanced from the world in which they live, this lack of total connection with the reader echoes that. With Severian it is a multiple distancing - he was brought up in a guild away from the normal world, that guild was the torturers (we are told a lot of normal people fear and shun them), and Severian becomes the Autarch (and hints of his future destiny as saviour).

ag. 14, 2008, 6:37 am

You are quite right, Ian. My error. That's what I get for writing off the top of my head and not checking my sources. I tend to confuse Alis Rasmussen and Megan Lindholm in their second incarnations (probably because I like their original work much better than their later work under another name) but that's the first time I managed to pull in yet another author!

ag. 14, 2008, 9:14 am

#13 the other interesting part of the "how much do you trust Severian" question is: how clearly does Severian see what's going on around him? Is he truly acting freely, or is he being manipulated? Is he unknowingly performing miracles right and left, or are there other explanations for each instance?

ag. 19, 2008, 8:45 pm

#165 Lola, I don't understand your complaint about the avern attacking Severian. All his knowledge of it comes from Agia, who was plotting against him. It makes perfect sense that there would be a surpise.

Well, not to me, not that kind of surprise. Agia also tried to stop him from duelling, and that mutterance (look, I just made a WORD!) of Severian's about "you knew what it would do..." was addressed to Agilus, not her--a psychological nuance, but confusing. Severian was involved with Agia, he spent all day plotting to roll her in the hay, if he was going to rehash the events with anyone, it should have been her (You betrayed me?! After all we've been through?!) The flower thingy read just like a variant of deus-ex-machinations. Still, as I said, it's a minor thing, but I sure hope there won't be too many undisclosed features of unimaginable things popping into action for a fraction, never to be mentioned, explained or used again.

I have to wonder about the Claw too. Agia stole it and slipped it into Severian's "sabretache". Now, I don't want spoilers, but are we supposed to believe this was purely coincidental--they raced someone (it was Agia's idea), crashed into a church, broke the altar, and ended up with THE gem of the realm in the mess? My problem here is that the whole thing makes no sense either as pure chance or as planned--in fact, it's hard to say which option makes less sense.

We'll see, we'll see...

ag. 20, 2008, 12:44 pm

I love "mutterance." Well coined.

Editat: ag. 22, 2008, 6:48 am

Sad to say that "mutterance" already exists. It was added to OED in 2003; and for years before that it was in dictionaries of American slang.

We could always go for nutterance (mutterance by mad person) or putterance (mutterance by golfer leaving green after bad putting experience).

>20 Jim53: - since you and Ian have the bible to understanding the series any interesting insights you would like to share with us about the first book.

ag. 22, 2008, 7:32 am

I think the Lexicon Urthus although it has loads of stuff which might lead you to a particular interpretation doesn't actually try and interpret the book. Some of the facts I find interesting is that a lot of characters (the citizens of the Commonwealth) are named after saints - Severian, Thecla, Agia, Agilus, Vodalus, Jolenta etc. Which characters aren't? Does that add another layer of understanding onto the book?

ag. 22, 2008, 7:38 am

BTW there are numerous books of criticism on tBotNS - Solar Labyrinth and Shadows Of The New Sun being two.

ag. 22, 2008, 9:25 pm

Why with all the typically unique scifi names for places and characters in Shadow of the Torturer is there one character named "John" who used to be a poet in "Paris"? Does he figure in a later book so there is some time travel explanation or something? Or was this just a quirk of Wolfe's?

ag. 23, 2008, 4:34 am

Well it is set on a far future Earth - although the name is changed to Urth. Maybe it is just a hint to the reader that that is the case or maybe there is something more to it.

Also as I noted above nearly all the names are proper names from our Earth (names of saints) John fits that although it sounds commonplace to us. Would it sound exotic or would it be a name from antiquity to Severian?

Editat: ag. 23, 2008, 11:27 am

There's a hint in several places of parallel (or multiple) worlds, once explicitly, I think, almost in the very beginning, and then during the jaunt with Agia in the botanical gardens, when they come across... a treehouse in a rainforest, with the missionary couple, and the naked savage? (Is that where "John" occurs, the missionary?) If so, those two were clearly of some other EA/Urth.

ETA: Oh, and Domnina's experience with Father Inire's fish is also a taste of another world, I think.

ag. 23, 2008, 5:31 pm

The missionary couple are named Robert and Marie. I don't remember John; where does he come in? That episode in the jungle garden is the toughest one for me to explain.

As Andy said, the Lexicon is more a dictionary of terms and name origins than an encyclopedia, although the second edition has longer versions of some articles and provides summaries of some topics. It treats the Book as a whole, though, so it's tough to provide excerpts that deal with only the first book.

One of the most interesting moments in the first volume, to me, is when Severian visits the House Azure. He notes that the prostitute is not the real Thecla, and she responds that the real Thecla is not the "real" Thecla, "the one in your mind, which is the only one that matters." I think Wolfe loves to put these lines, which IMHO are very significant, into places where they'll be overlooked, here into the mouth of a prostitute who isn't even human (although we don't know that yet). To me this statement of the false Thecla's is a powerful evocation of the concept of subjectivity, which is important to Wolfe: how we shape our experience of the world in our minds.

ag. 24, 2008, 8:26 pm

I have read the series of books before, and I must say that it is quite interesting to see all of the alternative viewpoints and perceptions for the book, given that I can be as thick as two planks at times.

ag. 25, 2008, 11:49 am

Jim, that's a spoiler in your post.

Frankly, I find Wolfe's "metaphysics" trivial so far, and the linguistic mix faintly irritating if you happen to know what words like alcalde, spahi, chiliad, archon, pantocrator etc. mean--where they come from, that is.

And since Wolfe writes with the conceit of "translation" (into English), the only reason to choose non-English terms is to "exoticise" the narrative, there is no organic need for it. He goes for the aural effect, not the meaning--in fact, the meaning is obscured by the sound.

ag. 25, 2008, 8:47 pm

whoops, mea culpa. It was an eensy teensy one that I didn't think would affect anything. what's the protocol?

Editat: ag. 26, 2008, 4:21 am

I started the book yesterday. I'd forgotten how intrusive the vocabulary was. Usually the archaic words works, but occasionally they feel unnecessary. It's also annoying that every time Wolfe describes a coat of arms or a picture, you try to decode it. The man in armour with the gold visor on a desolate landscape is obvious enough (in fact, the visor should also show a reflection of another man in armour...), but some of the others are beyond me. The fountain, ship volant and rose? Even Lexicon Urthus isn't very clear on it...

ag. 26, 2008, 5:17 am

Ian I think the man in armour is only obvious if you are reading the book from a particular viewpoint. For someone reading it cold it has the form and feel of a fantasy and they might not make the same 'obvious' leap that you did.

I'm not certain when I made the cognitive leap when I first read the book. I don't think I recognised the Matachin Tower (and the others) for what it is supposed to be when I first read its description all those years ago.

ag. 26, 2008, 8:05 am

Point taken. I might have immediately spotted the man in armour for what he was because I've been reading lots of books about Apollo - see here.

Matachin Tower... You must have missed this bit then: "... for the examination room was the propulsion chamber of the original structure..." (p 29, Arrow 1983 paperback)

ag. 26, 2008, 9:29 am

Yeah I spotted that this run through. The first time I must have skipped over it or thought that Severian was mistaken or wrong (we had already been told he was half insane and didn't always know truth from lie). Of course it is obvious when you read the other sentences describing the tower.

I think that this is quite common through the entire 4 volumes - the form is trying to drag your thoughts away from the real story. The fantasy trappings, the symbols of fantasy, are shaping our thoughts away from the story. When I read BotNS I am constantly fighting myself to keep the surface gloss from clouding or even defining my understanding.

ag. 26, 2008, 9:50 am

I still haven't figured out how I'm going to review Lexicon Urthus for Interzone...

Editat: ag. 26, 2008, 10:29 am

I tried, I really did, but Wolf's series is just not the right books at the right time for me.

One thing that put me off was the oppressive nature of the book. That Wolf could effectively establish that mood so quickly is a credit. However, I found it a bit of a torture to read. The subject matter and the vocabulary contributed to this. I just kept having this image of Wolf scouring a thesaurus, chuckling gleefully every time he found an obscure word that he could use.

Another problem was the view of women in the book. I suppose eventually there will be males tortured, and I suppose even the torurers might become victims of a sort, but I was put off that the body dragged from the cemetary was a woman, then the first three torture victims were women, and yet women were no longer allowed in the guild because of "how cruel the women were" and "how often they exceeded the punishments... decreed." An author can legitimately create whatever worldview he wants. I just don't have to chose to reside in that world and currently I really don't want to.

I may well read Wolf at a future time. I know one SF author (Greg Benford) who declared Wolf's books were the only fantasy he would read. I really gave this a go, but it just wasn't enjoyable in any way for me, and I voted for this book too. It's me, not the books. At least I'll know what I'm in for if I should decide to try this series again.

I'll definitely be back for the next book choice.


ag. 26, 2008, 1:24 pm

I am only half-way through this book. I agree with Gwen, it is somewhat oppressive in atmosphere. However, with a name like the Shadow of the Torturer I pretty much expected it to be grim in places. I have to admit I missed the import of the description of the Matachin Tower. I suppose the metal walls should have given me a clue. The language is annoying to me also. I hate having to translate as I read, so I more or less gloss over that and go for context where possible. I will finish this book and probably the next. Don't know yet about the rest. It is kind of obvious where this is leading as far as our "hero" is concerned, even without the spoiler, but I will enjoy the journey for now.

ag. 26, 2008, 4:07 pm

When I finshed Shadow of the Torturer I decided I definitely was not interested in reading three more books about Severian and his world. I had decided to just jump to the fourth book so I'd know how it ends, but as time has passed my disinterest has increased, so now I no longer plan to waste anymore of my time with Wolfe.

#33 & 34 Somebody please tell me what on earth I am missing about the description of the Matachin Tower? What is it actually?

ag. 26, 2008, 4:11 pm

A spaceship - one that has long since passed into disuse (although not quite as bad as some of the other towers).

ag. 28, 2008, 12:04 am

Amazon shipped my copy i'll be behind most of you...

ag. 28, 2008, 2:47 am

andy - loads more clues later in the book: references to the drive-tubes in the examination chamber, and even a description of the bridge when Severian goes there to ruminate after being exiled to Thrax.

ag. 28, 2008, 4:15 am

My Latin's a bit rusty - I've not looked at it since I left school. But I know enough to know that when Severian meets Valeria in the Atrium of Time, and she quotes Latin at him, her translations are wrong (p44, NEL pbk 1983 edition)... She says:

- "lux dei vitae viam monstrat" is "the beam of the New Sun lights the way of life". "Lux dei" is surely the "the light of god" and "vitae" is "lives", but I'm not sure about the rest.

- "felicibus brevis, miseris hora longa" is "men wait long for happiness". It looks more like "happiness is short, misery lasts longer" to me.

My question is: a) what are the proper translations? and b) what's the significance of Valeria's mistranslations?

ag. 28, 2008, 5:38 am

Vitae is life as in the common phrase Curriculum Vitae. Lux dei vitae viam monstrat - is literally "The light of God shows the way of life". It is only one small word that has been mistranslated.

"felicibus brevis, miseris hora longa" is "(the hour) of happiness is short, the hour of sadness is long"

The other one was "Aspice ut aspicari" (which Valeria didn't translate I think) which is "look, so that I may be seen".

As to any significance to mistranslation. Well I will leave that to you to make up your own mind.

ag. 28, 2008, 6:07 am

I thought that was why we formed this reading group, so we could discuss the book? Seems a bit pointless to all read the same book at the same time and then say nothing more than, "finished it - liked/didn't like it" (delete where applicable).

ag. 28, 2008, 7:18 am

Well yes but I'm not certain as to what I necessarily think about the second. The third isn't translated and I don't think that too much should be attached to it.

The first. Well how much can you say about the religious stuff without letting on about some of the stuff that happens in the subsequent books. This is the problem of picking a multi-volume work like Book Of The New Sun. Hopefully everyone has realised there is a large religious (or quasi-religious) aspect to the work - the epigraph gives us a big clue even before we start.

ag. 28, 2008, 8:45 am

I don't think we have much choice - given the nature of the book, spoilers are inevitable in any discussion of it.

ag. 28, 2008, 9:59 am

I think the significance of Valeria's translation has to do with making sure the reader understands the association of the New Sun (New Son?) with the deity. I can't recall any use of the word "God" in TBotNS; Sev tends to say "the increate" (i.e., the one who was not created), and others use a variety of other terms.

We see similar variation in the ways different characters translate "Terminus Est." Wolfe might be saying to us, "hey, look at all the different interpretations of these phrases; now apply that to everything in the book; every personal name, place name, etc., has more than one possible referent, each of which sheds new light on the meaning of the character, scene, or whatever." I have certainly found this to be true in several instances, although I can't immediately come up with one from Shadow.

ag. 28, 2008, 12:25 pm

I noticed the mistranslations, but I thought they were too gross not to be intentional. However, I am still as much in the dark about Wolfe's intention as I was then. Yes, there's the usual Light/Darkness, Apocalypse/Redemption associative possibilites, but, frankly, I've been a bit lazy in concocting a plausible scheme.


Aw, Gwen! And miss out on the gutted-but-still-alive naked woman exhibited under a bell jar in book 3, for no better purpose than decoration? Must you be such a girl? ;)

ag. 28, 2008, 4:23 pm

On the translation issue: taking a little artistic license with translation is common practice, especially with Latin to English.

Nonetheless, Wolfe is clearly using the obscurity of the Latin to obscure his meaning and intent. It also seems to me that uncertainty over the nature of reality and the importance of perspective and knowledge to perception are some of Wolfe's main interests - hence my Hamlet reference some time ago. The subject is no less than a rumination on the nature of being. "To be or not to be?" turned into "Am I what I thought I was or am now, or does it really matter?".

I also think that the relative solidity of the first hundred pages or so detailing Severian's time in the Torturer's Tower are meant to stand in contrast to the variability and uncertainty of the world he encounters outside of it. What it all means in the longer view I'm not sure yet.

ag. 28, 2008, 7:56 pm

#49 LolaWalser "Aw, Gwen! And miss out on the gutted-but-still-alive naked woman exhibited under a bell jar in book 3, for no better purpose than decoration? Must you be such a girl? ;)"

Hah, ok , call me names. I just wasn't in the mood. I've also started a couple of classes with lots of reading. Some of it SF even. I'll revisit Wolf someday. I read about 1/3 of the book, so I now have some idea of what's involved. p.s. -hope you're kidding about the bell jar, that's pretty gruesome sounding.

ag. 29, 2008, 5:20 am

Finished The Shadow of the Torturer. The vocabulary struck me as a little obtrusive on this read - Severian doesn't see a boat on the river, he sees a dhow, or a caique. He doesn't carry round his belongings in a bag or a pouch, but in a sabretache. In cases like this, I see no reason not to use a more common term. It also means there's a tendency to try and decode every such less common term... and at least for some of them there appears to be nothing to decode.

It's interesting reading The Book of the New Sun having read both The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun. The former I enjoyed, and thought the various puzzles were well-integrated. The latter... I didn't like at all, and it struck me that Wolfe was being too clever for his own good.

I've also read and tried to figure out The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and while I can see how some of the answers to the various puzzles in that text are arrived at... some of the "answers" given in Solar Labyrinth to parts of The Shadow of the Torturer seem far too elaborate. For example, the black stripe Severian sees on Agilus' temple in his shop and when he fights him at the Sanguinary Field. Or indeed, the way in which Wolfe uses sunlight imagery to describe both Agilus and his sister, Agia. I know Wolfe is very clever, and is being very clever in The Book of the New Sun... but how much of it is really there to be found?

ag. 29, 2008, 2:31 pm

Gwen, totally serious. Don't worry if you don't pick up Wolfe again, you aren't missing much. If he's some sort of a sf grandee, no wonder the genre is a literary joke.

ag. 29, 2008, 2:57 pm

Well Wolfe has never won a Hugo. I also don't think that you can call the genre a literary joke because of Wolfe. If anything I think his fiction is more likely to elevate the genre amongst the lit-crit crowd rather than hurt it.

However Wolfe does like to play literary games in a lot of his fiction. Nearly all of his serious fiction does. Nearly all of it has unreliable narrators and approaches the story from an oblique angle. If you don't like that Wolfe isn't for you.

ag. 29, 2008, 3:27 pm

I said, if he's the measure of excellence, then... This to me is below-average quality literature.

ag. 29, 2008, 9:18 pm

Wolfe definitely requires a different approach than most writers, particularly most SF writers. To get out everything he's putting into a novel, or even just a lot of it, you have to be willing to do some work. I, for one, enjoy solving literary puzzles and think TBotNS is the finest piece of literature to emerge from the genre. Not everybody enjoys reading in the attentive, inquisitive way that is necessary to really appreciate Wolfe.

Note that I am not saying that anyone who doesn't enjoy Wolfe just doesn't want to work at reading him. But you need to read him as if he's Borges (to whom, by the way, I believe Master Ultan is a nod), not Heinlein.

By the way, I think Borski and others go a bit overboard in analyzing Wolfe's work. Yes, I believe Wolfe carefully worked several sets of images into TBotNS (for example, images of suns/roses, light/dark, different animal symbols, etc.), and one's appreciation of the work as a piece of literature is enhanced by recognizing them, yet... occasionally a tree is just a tree, even in Wolfe. But not all that often ;-)

Editat: ag. 29, 2008, 10:18 pm

Having literary puzzles to solve in a book doesn't equal good writing. For instance, I recently read The Inverted World and there were no puzzles but excellent, almost lyrical prose with not one word more or less than needed. Obscure words and literary references don't of themselves make for good literature. I'm not saying it can't be good literature, but those things aren't perequisites to good literature.

"Not everybody enjoys reading in the attentive, inquisitive way that is necessary to really appreciate Wolfe."

I think it would be fairer to say that although someone may enjoy reading in an attentive, inquisitive way that is necessary to really appreciate Wolfe, not everyone find his writing, in particular, worth the trouble..

More than the writing style, I would say his focus on torture in general and of women in the particular is a possible deterrent to enjoying his writing.

I can't speak for anyone else, but if I'm going to go to the trouble of reading slow moving prose filled with antiquated words, I don't want as my reward the subject matter he chose. At least not at this time. It has nothing to do with not being able to read in an "attentive, inquisitive way".

ag. 30, 2008, 4:42 am


, I would say his focus on torture in general and of women in the particular

But aren't you over-generalising from one particular work? It is true that sometimes he creeps into misogyny but that is true for a lot of celebrated mainstream writers too, however generally I don't think that is the case.

In tBotNS's case it isn't surprising that female characters get short shrift. The entire book is written from Severian's pov. Because of his upbringing he does view torture as common place. Certainly part of the description of women and Severian's amorous success is self-aggrandisement, part upbringing (again), and part his very nature. However it is certainly true that Severian treats women badly by our standards, he even treats them badly by the standards of Urth as well*. I think some of it ties in with some of the theme of the book. Severian is destined to be the world's saviour yet he is the one most in need of saving (redemption).

* I think he admits that in Urth Of The New Sun.

ag. 30, 2008, 4:57 am

But aren't you over-generalising from one particular work?

I was only talking about Book one in this thread. However, posts in this thread indicated to me that the worldview continues through the Book of the Sun series.

I can't speak to the rest of his work, but there are so many tempting SF authors and books out there that I did generalize for the sole purpose of bumping Wolfe a ways down my list.

ag. 30, 2008, 12:39 pm

#57 I can't decide whether my post was as unclear as it seems or whether you're putting words into my mouth. I certainly didn't intend to equate literary puzzles with great writing; I was merely saying that because I enjoy them, I am willing to put forth the effort that is required to read Wolfe, and in particular, TBotNS. I think that in this particular case, the effort is rewarded. There are those who agree, and those who don't.

Many books, particularly within genre fiction, attempt no more than to tell an enjoyable story. Some, of course, don't even manage that. All too many are like movies, presenting an experience whose creation requires minimal contributions from the reader. Some writers create a world that effectively renders their larger goals, imbued with meaning that is reflected in the characters and the story line. Some (very few, in my experience) writers do all this and invite/require the reader to play a significant role in creating the meaning of the world/characters/story. IMHO this is what Wolfe has done here.

I sympathize with your distaste for Severian's
"career," and I don't particularly like the few instances in which he describes his work at it. Have you given any thought to why Wolfe chose it? I have my own thoughts on that subject, which hinge on the guild's secret that Severian mentions while recounting his elevation to journeyman status, but which he has not yet revealed to us. I believe the role that Severian will be called to play requires someone who has been, but no longer is, a torturer. By the end of Shadow, which is four or five days after he has left the guild, eighteen-year-old (or thereabouts) Severian has not yet begun to question his upbringing and profession. That will of course change; otherwise there wouldn't be much of a book.

ag. 30, 2008, 3:18 pm

#57Have you given any thought to why Wolfe chose it?

Yes and no. Without reading the entire book, I can't really base my thoughts on much. I imagine there is a substantial reason. It's not like a main character who just happens to be a shop assistant. It's an unusual, and apparently alienating, profession. Perhaps Wolfe even has a critical plot point hinging on the profession that could have been satisfied by no other line of work. I'd have to read the book to reach a more informed guess.

As for puzzles and literature, here's the bit I read differently than you intended.
I, for one, enjoy solving literary puzzles and think TBotNS is the finest piece of literature to emerge from the genre. Not everybody enjoys reading in the attentive, inquisitive way that is necessary to really appreciate Wolfe.

That, plus some discussion earlier on similar points, led me to a faulty conclusion from your statement. Sorry.

ag. 31, 2008, 2:59 am

I think that Book of the New Sun is getting the short end of the stick here. I have read through it twice, and remember being extremely impressed by the intricate and archaic words that Wolfe employed to describe the situation.

Another thing that I enjoyed was deciphering what was being written by the narrator to actually figure out the situation occuring or what was being described - Severian might be spending several paragraphs to describe a alien, for example, but you only figure it out by analysing what is being written. And linking together several different parts of the quadrilogy together to figure out what actually occured is a great eureka moment, because Wolfe put it in there for the reader to figure out without having an explanation later to ruin the mental connection.

That said, I must admit that some parts of the book leave me cold - long, torturous descriptions of nothing important at all that feels like book padding, obvious references to things outside of the world that I do not understand, and no doubt lessen my comprehension of the book, and a few other niggles that do ruin the book somewhat for me.

set. 2, 2008, 12:39 pm

It's an interesting question whether a work reflecting judgements we now find abhorrent (e.g. sexism or racism) can still be "good literature" (Celine the philofascist antisemite is usually invoked as an example of a superb writer and prime asshole; there's others), and as Andy says, lots--heck, most--of mainstream literature of not too long ago teems with prejudices of any kind.

Personally, I'm old and cynical enough to expect certain attitudes from certain writers, and it doesn't happen too often (actually, can't remember an instance) that I'll abandon a book because it's misogynist. But then, I regard reading as a kind of information-collecting, in addition to being something pleasing (if it is so), so that even a book which repels me by the opinions espoused or reflected contributes to my better understanding of the world (if not in the way the writer consciously engineered). Of course, I'm also interested (amateurishly) in cultural expressions of misogyny, so it's almost "field work" for me, but there's no earthly reason why people in general should subject themselves to art, books etc. that demean them.

I think that we of a certain age are still so used (men and women) to tacitly accept identification with the typically male hero of books and movies, that it takes a lot of effort to question the meaning and provenance of such dominance. (Not to understand it! But to notice it even!)

But, going back to Wolfe's book, I think it's an average piece of literature quite apart from any moral judgements. If book #4, which I just started, improves my opinion of his skill, it won't help much, because such unevenness of quality is in itself a flaw. I should say I rate it higher as an adventure yarn than as "literature", if that'll help me with his fans. In the latter regard, what dissatisfies me is the lack of characterisation, which is even worse than saying that it sucks, the lumpiness of the plot, the rampant mystification (although this attracts some, I know), the tiresomeness of the first-person POV of a dullard like Severian (if anyone can identify a single interesting thought he has, please do), the apparent casual disregard for structure (for instance, what happened between #1 and #2? We left off with one set of characters, then encountered another, and never received any connecting explanation), and the too-many cliches. In fact, I'd say that Wolfe really doesn't understand language. That's a huge flaw considering he chose it as one of his stylistic devices.

Ian mentioned above the example of "caique"--I actually find that one neat, because "caique" is not just "a boat", it's a specific sort of vessel, and such precision does enrich the scene (whether the writer was aware of the nuances or not). But Wolfe isn't so usefully precise half the times he strews obscure or foreign terms. Sometimes the associations are most unfortunate (although clearly they'll depend on the reader), for instance, I was mildly irritated throughout the episode in book #3 with the lake people, whose village head was called a "hetman"--this word to me bears strong connotations of Cossacks, the Russo-Polish border, the cavalry, and above all denotes someone whom Severian could hardly have treated like he did.

Remember, since Wolfe is "translating" his book, the choice of the terms is his, they do not mean what they mean to us (nor to Urthians), they are, as he says, approximate. I think Wolfe actually made a big mistake not to have chosen to call this melange THE language of Urth--then we could imagine, with some effort, that these terms evolved new meanings and spread and mixed like people etc.

set. 2, 2008, 3:07 pm

One of the words used in this book to describe an upper class of people was "optimate." I was not familiar with that word, but just came across it again in London: the Biography. It was used in 12th century documents to describe the aristocratic class of London.

set. 2, 2008, 3:16 pm

Optimates goes back a bit further than that. Wikipedia actually has a decent enough summary about them.

Editat: set. 3, 2008, 2:30 am

Lola, I think you're being unduly harsh. This is not a book from the 1930s or 1940s, where you'd expect to find casual racism and sexism. The character of Severian is, I think, a deliberate choice. Having said that, I can't stand Wolfe's fiction because he often uses a 1950s folksy tone that irritates the hell out of me - how 'Memorare' got on the Hugo ballot is beyond me. But. I think the misogynism in the Book of the New Sun is a deliberate choice by Wolfe, and I suspect it's tied up with the Severian as New Sun as Christ motif.

Also, it's hard to complain about the break between books 1 and 2, since all four books were actually intended to be a single volume. The publisher broke them up. And such leaps in internal chronology are not unusual in many works of fiction - single or multi-volume. One that immediately springs to mind (multi-volume) is Lawrence Durrells' Alexandria Quartet.

I've never seen anyone accuse Wolfe of not understanding language before. Given the care with which he chooses his vocabulary, it seems an odd accusation to make. Lexicon Urthus doesn't help with "hetman", but given the deliberate word-choices elsewhere in the book, I suspect Wolfe knew exactly what "hetman" means.

And you say the above after complimenting Wolfe on his precision. Yes, "caique" is more precise than "boat". So is "dhow". But in that particular instance - and while I know what both terms mean - they didn't strike me as precise so much as obscurantist (if there is such a word). And while I recognise that the use of obscure terms for everyday objects is a stylistic choice by Wolfe, which both serves to enrichen the world-building and to obscure those unfamiliar terms which are clues to the books' meaning, they still occasionally strike me as intrusive.

Oh,and this is exactly the sort of argument, er, I mean discussion, I was hoping we'd have reading these books :-)

set. 3, 2008, 3:52 am

This is not a book from the 1930s or 1940s, where you'd expect to find casual racism and sexism.

It isn't even Gor.

Onto the vocabulary. Strangely this read through I found the vocabulary less intrusive then when I first (and last) read Wolfe about 20 years ago.

set. 3, 2008, 4:29 am

I too first (and last) read the Book of the New Sun some 20 years ago, and this time I don't find the words intrusive so much as I find the word choices intrusive... In other words, I understand more of the obscure words this time - or am better at getting their meaning from context - but I find myself questioning Wolfe's need to use those words more than I did last time.

set. 3, 2008, 1:06 pm

It seems to me that the vocabulary is, among other things, an attempt to keep a focus on the strangeness of the world. One of the things that Wolfe does very well, IMO, is that Severian takes for granted the things that a person of his time would take for granted, rather than those that a person of our time would. Since Sev isn't calling our attention to the wierdness of things, the vocabulary serves to remind us that his world, no matter how normal it seems to him, is definitely not our world.

For example, where in the series did you realize that the sky is dark enough that the stars are visible during the day? That's the way it's always been in Severian's lifetime, so he doesn't comment upon it as a difference from our expectations.

set. 5, 2008, 12:54 pm

I've finished The Shadow of the Torturer as of last night and thank goodness I had Suite Francaise to lighten my mood.

A book by a woman who died in the Holocaust that's about the accommodations reached by the French villagers to the occupying Germans was a lightener.

I agree with Lola and Gwen that the misogyny in this book is off-putting. The title lets one know that the story will include some unpleasant stuff, but must all of it be directed against women? Yech.

I found the archaisms not to be obscurantist (yes, it's a word, Ian) but usefully precise more often than not and pleasantly ornamental when not used for precision. "Caique" for example gave me a very precise picture and increased my personal pleasure in the world depicted.

The most cogent critique of this book is, and I quote from Lola's post 63 above, ...what dissatisfies me is the lack of characterisation, ...the lumpiness of the plot, the rampant mystification..., the tiresomeness of the first-person POV of a dullard like Severian (if anyone can identify a single interesting thought he has, please do), the apparent casual disregard for structure (for instance, what happened between #1 and #2? We left off with one set of characters, then encountered another, and never received any connecting explanation), and the too-many cliches. This is a fair assessment of the qualities that are not up to a high literary standard in the book. I agree, and still I found a lot to like in the reading. Severian MUST become more interesting as he gets older, it's inevitable. Isn't it? Someone tell me it is, please.

I am pleased to have read the book, and I am interested to read book two, but I doubt very seriously that I will recommend the books to others or retain them in my library.

set. 5, 2008, 1:15 pm

a dullard like Severian

As a couple of people have mentioned this. Many people think that this is completely intentional. Severian has eidetic memory and Wolfe has associated that with having a passive-receptive attitude, with being a dreamer, and with being unable to join up the dots between events. This isn't a wholly unsupported association; Peter Wright points to Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonist as a possible analogue in real world psychology.

set. 5, 2008, 1:30 pm

andyl, I would go beyond that and say that Severian, as a passive-receptive guy who sometimes can't seem to see beyond his nose, is Wolfe's model of the typical reader, who sees TBotNS as nothing but a long fantasy novel. In my mind, the whole point of TBotNS is that things are not really as they appear to the casual observer, that we have to work hard to perceive what's really happening in the real world, just as we have to work hard to comprehend Wolfe's text.

Likewise, Severian has to learn to work hard to have any understanding at all of his world and what drives the events he remembers so clearly. He improves, but it's a long time before he gets it. Wolfe refuses to coddle us; he gives us clues that the events Severian relates are not the real story, but he leaves it largely to us to decide how hard we want to work to decipher what he's really up to. I guess I should continue this in the "done with the book" thread so as not to spoil anything, but I want to encourage serious readers who think they see a garden-variety fantasy to keep going.

Editat: set. 6, 2008, 12:23 pm

Ian, by structure I clearly meant the narrative structure, not the physical books--which I read in the 2-in-1 ORB omnibuses anyway. But, I notice this is the thread for #1, and I don't wish to spoil inadvertently stuff for other readers--I'll keep my comments in the "Final thoughts" thread.

Andy, we as readers judge Severian's mind by what we're offered, and in fact we're best served when he sticks to reporting action. I'd like to see some examples of thought that make him, for instance, an interesting or intelligent character. I'm not saying he's a fool, necessarily. Only a boring "thinker".

A book by a woman who died in the Holocaust that's about the accommodations reached by the French villagers to the occupying Germans was a lightener.

Richard, you made me laugh. Authentic experience and real skill have a marvellously invigorating quality no matter what the subject may be.

Jim, you raise extremely interesting questions, and I agree we should move over to the other thread. I do want to hear "what is really going on", but I have to admit I do not have any desire to "work hard" on Wolfe, the text seems to me unworthy of such effort (which is not to say that the exercise cannot be interesting!)

set. 10, 2008, 2:02 am

Well, I have just now finished Book 1. I don't have any deep thoughts, but I guess I'll put in my two cents worth. I don't read a lot of science fiction or fantasy or speculative fiction, so I definitely wanted to join this group. I, too, found the beginning with its attitudes towards women difficult to take; however, and I have not read any further, I was hoping that this was going to contrast with new attitudes later in the book. Also, I found the part about the poor dog left for dead difficult. As the story went on -- especially away from the torture stuff -- I found that I was more and more interested in what was going to happen. I liked the use of the words (and I liked the term sabretache); I think they are interesting and make the world more real to me. I am curious about the event when Severian almost drowned and what he saw underwater and also how he met Dorcas when he was again underwater. Finally, Severian reminds me somewhat of Neo from the matrix movies. Anyway, I plan to continue reading the books.

set. 14, 2008, 4:29 am

Finished "Shadow of the Torturer", and have some thoughts on the book.

I like how Wolfe does not vocally link the separate parts of the book, and makes you figure what exactly is happening for yourself. Although I am not the best reader at doing this, I like spotting small parts that go together that are not immediately relevant to the plot. For example, figuring out that Jolenta was the waitress that served Baldanders, Talos, and Severian gave me a little intellectual thrill. There are other, more obvious connections in there that are not explained - for example, it is the Claw that saves Severian from dying in the duel.

As for the language that Wolfe employs, I like the concept, but unfortunately, I did not have a good dictionary at hand to go and find these obscure words to get a better picture of what exactly is happening.

Probably my favourite thing about the book is how it is a science fiction book, and does not employ the words and phrases that we would normally expect in SF.

My complaint with this book, though, is would Severian really be as undescriptive in some regards if he were really writing a story which he expected other people to read? If we go with the conceit that Severian is writing for a future audience, we would expect that the reader would potentially be of a different city or country, and knowing this, wouldn't Severian try to reduce his descriptions to something that this reader would understand?

As a side question, for those that read this book with a companion book, did this help you understand what was happening?

Onto Book 2.

set. 14, 2008, 6:27 pm

In answer to your side question, rojse, I had read the Book twice before I heard of Lexicon Urthus, and had made assumptions about some words and looked up a few others. It had not occurred to me to look up the possible referents of the names of characters and places, so LU was quite enlightening in that respect.

Very glad to hear you enjoyed piecing some things together. That's one of the things I really like about Wolfe: he invites/forces the reader to participate in constructing (and eventually, in this case, deconstructing) the story. He doesn't believe in giving a clue twice.

Your question about Severian's expectations of his audience is interesting. He says in one place that he doubts anyone will ever read it, but I don't think we're meant to take that seriously. He does seem to assume that the reader will recognize the things he talks about, or perhaps he never really considers who will read the book and what their lives will have been like.

set. 15, 2008, 2:48 am

I think that we can assume from the text that the only people that will visit the Manachin Tower, for example, would be torturers or those whom are about to face justice. So Severian's lack of explanation about the tower seems to be inconsistent with his writing the book for some intended audience.

The reason I am going on about the tower is because someone proclaimed it was a spaceship on the "Final Thoughts" thread. From the first book, the tower has large guns at the top, which is smaller than the levels below, and the lower parts had metal halls, but that's not yet a spacecraft to me. Are there more clues in the other books, or have I missed a few things?

set. 15, 2008, 4:07 am


No it is all in the early part of the book. See Ian's message #34 above.

Throughout words don't always mean what we think they mean. We are told of guards wielding pikes. Later it turns out the pikes aren't quite what we would immediately assume based on the word and feel of the world. The symbology of a pike is the same but the reality of the object is different.

set. 15, 2008, 4:44 am

The afterword to book four explains in part the huge variety of weapons - Wolfe says Severian has given a new name to every weapon, no matter how similar to other weapons they might be. Where we might say "rifle", he calls one rifle a "jezail" and another a "fusil", for example.

set. 15, 2008, 11:58 pm

I can't believe I missed such an obvious clue. I can be quite inattentive at times.

set. 16, 2008, 6:19 pm

i just felt that Wolfe was showing off in a rather unpleasant and, to me, unappealing and boring fashion, as opposed to engaging me. Obviously he succeeds with many careful readers which justifies, in my mind, having TSotT as a selection! Agia (sic) was the only character i found at all intriguing. I realize that Severian is something of a idiot-savant, but he IS observant and what he observes and what we should infer, for me required too much effort w/ relatively little reward.

But then i happen to like China Mieville a good deal and the same could easily be said about him! In fact has been, by every friend to whom i've loaned his books so far......

set. 16, 2008, 6:19 pm

Aquest missatge ha estat suprimit pel seu autor.