The Book of the New Sun: The greatest science fiction novel I have ever read. Very likely the greatest science fiction novel of the 20th century.
Lots of critics praise Infinite Jest for the depth of its characters, the details of its uncertain future, the use of archaic language and the unique voice of its unreliable narrator. But Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, a tetralogy meant to be read as a single novel, is better at all of these things and an easier read besides. In fact, I’d say Wolfe’s accomplishment was greater. Writing about a precocious tennis prodigy when you’re a precocious tennis prodigy yourself isn’t cheating per se, but it’s like the illusionist explaining his trick. The mystery is gone; the craft is obvious. But Wolfe has invented a world out of nothing, given it tens of thousands of years of detailed history, and invited us to poke into every corner. The illusion stands up to scrutiny on all levels.
And of course it’s an entertaining yarn. On one level, The Book of the New Sun is your typical fantasy picaresque. A young man (Severian), for whom a great destiny is promised, sets out from the guild that raised him on a series of adventures. He encounters comical and treacherous companions along the way, discovers a potent artifact, falls in love, suffers and triumphs. Yes, yes, of course. A few complications: Severian is an apprentice torturer, learning the arts of excruciation. He lives in a city so vast that you can spend days traveling to exit it, and in a society so complex that many people don’t believe his guild exists. His story is told with language so archaic that it makes a world full of humans look alien (exiled by a master carnifex, he dons a fuligin cloak and joins the optimates wandering the city, storing relics in the sabretache at his belt). To top it all off, Severian’s the most unreliable narrator in the history of the genre.
A few words on reliability: Severian claims, about once per chapter, to have eidetic recall. And yet he elides over key details (e.g., the exact nature of his relationship with the Chatelaine Thecla) until long after their moments have passed. Scenes of tremendous import pass him by (e.g., the feast at the camp of the Vodalarii in Book Two); he is oblivious to their meaning or blithely accepts whatever he’s told. He describes how passionately he loves every woman he sleeps with, as if he were a Don Juan and not a teenager recently freed from guild servitude. Severian’s memoir introduces improbable events with off-hand remarks, glosses over substantial stretches of time with little warning and is non-linear. It’s not for the weak.
James Joyce apocryphally said of Finnegan’s Wake that “it took me a lifetime to write it; it ought to take you a lifetime to read it.” The Book of the New Sun won, or was nominated for, every major award the science fiction community can offer: the World Fantasy Award, the British Science Fiction Award, the Nebula, the Locus, the Hugo and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. It is as far ahead of the ray-guns-and-rocket-ships engineering pr0n that passes for science fiction as the space shuttle is ahead of the trireme. It is literature, and it is more literary than what many consider literature. I definitely have to re-read it at least once more and could see myself reading it again every year. But it’s not for everyone. It is (as Severian warns us at the end of each section) no easy journey.