I have a confession.
I am forty-two years old. I have been reading science fiction and fantasy for at least thirty. In all that time, I’ve read many of the classics, I’ve loyally followed several authors, and I’ve read much stuff of questionable merit. In all that time, however, I have never read anything by Gene Wolfe.
Oh, I knew about him and read much about him and his work. Now that I think about it, that may have been the problem. I’d always heard how his works were “literary” and defied the genre in which they were published. There’s also lots of discussions concerning allegory and religious symbolism, particularly within the volumes comprising The Book of the New Sun. None of this scared me. I’ve read Moby Dick, for crying out loud. And then there’s the use of archaic and exotic words, again mostly within The Book of the New Sun. That didn’t frighten me, either. I’ve read Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicle of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever – twice. (Yes, I had to keep a college-level dictionary in hand both times.)
I still don’t know what kept me away, unless maybe, it was the “mythic” reputation that surrounded Wolfe’s works. When I’d mention reading any of his stuff to anyone, I would either get a firm “I love it!” or a sudden, almost overwhelmed wash across the poor soul’s face and a half-whispered “couldn’t do it.” It’s not dissimilar to talking about tomes like Moby Dick or The Fountainhead. At one point, about 10 years ago, I bought a used copy of The Shadow of the Torturer. As a fan of SF & F literature, I felt an obligation to try to make it through the book. I had done the same thing with Moby Dick in college. As a Lit. major, I felt I had to read it. After three attempts in about twice that many years, I finally did it and loved it. I felt the same about The Fountainhead. I finally broke down and read it. I quite enjoyed it as well. I don’t know what became of the Wolfe book. I lost track of it on my shelf, and it ultimately vanished entirely from my collection.
I never read it.
Life went on.
Every year, I try to attend two or three SF & F conventions, and one of my favorites is DragonCon. I get giddy with anticipation as the days draw near when they begin releasing their guest list. This year . . . Well, you don’t even have to guess whose name I saw first on the initial list. Let’s just say that when I saw it, I felt something that could only be compared to shame. Then I asked myself how I could call myself a true fan having never read works that have won the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula, the Locus Award.
So I began.
I ordered a second-hand copy of Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of The Book of the New Sun. I’m now over halfway through it, and I love it. I more than love it. It’s one of those books that I look forward to picking up again. I become so absorbed in the tale of Severian, the torturer, I forget that I’m actually reading. Before I had finished the third chapter, I was at my computer ordering the rest of the books.
The language in the book is fluid – like prose poetry at times. And the archaisms do not interfere with the work at all. (Okay, maybe in the first chapter when you’re not used to them.) While reading Donaldson, the words interrupted the flow of reading at times; they seemed more like added speed bumps than part of the road. Not so with Wolfe. If anything, the words add to the atmosphere of the piece. It’s almost as if you can feel the inexorable doom of the world while the red sun hovers in the sky.
Severian’s world is in our far future, yet you can’t help but feel you’re reading a medieval romance. There’re guilds and halberd-carrying guards and walled cities. Occasionally, however, some sort of ship will fly over. There’s talk of traveling among the stars, but that was long, long ago. The distinction between technology and magic no longer exist.
But what’s most remarkable to me is the narrator/protagonist, Severian. He’s a dishonored torturer, who is forced into exile beyond the only world he’s ever known. He is definitely not a typical hero (or anti-hero as today’s trends seem to favor). Besides being a torturer, he’s down-right unreliable. At the beginning of the book, he tells us that he has a perfect memory. Shortly thereafter, however, he states that he is insane. And then he seems to forget when he has told certain information. In one discussion, he even contemplates the fact that lies become truth over time.
So what’s the truth in this story? I don’t know, yet. I may never know, but that’s okay because that’s a powerful message in itself. The tale itself is beautiful and beautifully told. Sometimes that’s enough.
Anyway, I can confidently say that I will finish Wolfe’s wonder-filled The Book of the New Sun, and I’ve a feeling I’ll be reading more, too, like the Books of the Long and Short Sun, the Soldier series, and the Wizard Knight duology. I’m just sorry I waited so long to begin. Gene Wolfe is deserving of every bit of his praise and then some. So, take my advice: there’s nothing to be afraid of.