December 3, 2009 by Reader's Connection
The winter solstice–December 21st, the shortest day of the year–is approaching, and many users (of the sun, I mean) have difficulties with this season. That the days begin to grow longer and the nights shorter on December 22nd should serve as a consolation, but many of us use traditional methods to keep our spirits up through our cold Hoosier watch.
I’m listening to seasonal music at my desk as I type this, and our family will decorate the house . . . when we get around to it. In addition, though, I’m dealing with the solstice by rereading Gene Wolfe’s science-fantasy epic The Book of the New Sun, in which, if the title hasn’t tipped you off, our sun is burning out altogether. I’m dealing with the problem by plunging right into it, if you know what I mean.
|Death of the Sun?|
Our astronomy professor once told the class that the sun wouldn’t really die out. It would blow up one day, destroying everything in the solar system. His lectures were on video, so students felt free to giggle at the offhandedness with which he imparted this information. I don’t remember his timeline, but when I scan books and websites on the subject, I see that the sun is expected to last another four billion years. The length of this interval reduces my panic factor–our mortgage will surely be paid by then–but it creates problems for a writer who chooses to capture the period in fiction.
In rendering this book–originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence–into English–I might easily have saved myself a great deal of labor by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so. Thus in many cases I have been forced to replace yet undiscovered concepts by their closest twentieth-century equivalents. Such words as peltast, androgyn, and exultant are substitutions of this kind, and are intended to be suggestive rather than definitive . . . To those who have preceded me in the study of the posthistoric world . . . most especially to those who have allowed me to visit and photograph the era’s few extant buildings, I am truly grateful. — from one of Wolfe’s informative and entertaining appendices
This work was originally released in a sequence of four novels, copywrited between 1980 and 1982: The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch. The library’s copies of the first three novels have all decomposed or been abducted in the billions of years since, and only The Citadel remains. In 1994, a publisher collapsed the whole sequence into two paperbacks which the library owns, Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel. I moaned when I first opened them, because the size of the print is suitable for reading only by certain cacogens–that’s aliens to you. But in the course of reading the books, I’ve adapted.
The epic’s storyteller is Severian, an orphan who–I can’t put off telling you any longer–is raised as a member of the torturer’s guild–The Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence. Many 21st century readers will feel that his soul is in the midst of its own winter solstice, that he will have to do some turning to become fully human. Whatever you think of him, he’s an astonishing narrator, and his tale is not for the weak of heart.
I don’t know if Wolfe ever tells us exactly how much time has passed since 1980, but after reading for a while we begin to feel the millenia that have sped behind us. When I had first come to realize, as a boy, that the green circle of the moon was in fact a sort of island hung in the sky, whose color derived from forests, now immemorially old, planted in the earliest days of the race of Man, I had formed an intention of going there . . . Or here: I have heard those who dig for their livelihood say there is no land anywhere in which they can trench without turning up shards of the past. No matter where the spade turns the soil, it uncovers broken pavements and corroding metal; and scholars write that the kind of sand that artists call polychrome (because flecks of every color are mixed with its whiteness) is actually not sand at all, but the glass of the past, now pounded to powder by aeons of tumbling in the clamourous sea.
What sort of civilization exists, after all these years? Don’t get your hopes up. It is strangely medieval, with a golden age in the distant past when heroic figures sailed the universe in starships. War is a constant.
Global warming may or may not have happened–it wasn’t in the headlines much when Wolfe wrote the books–but now that the sun is dying, the ice of the poles is expanding. I heard last week on the radio that polar bears are likely to become extinct, and they may well have done so by Severian’s time; but all sorts of other species have been brought to Urth on spaceships. (You were better off with the polar bears.)
No one owns a computer, if you were wondering. Or at least no one that Severian knows. Computers as we think of them are so four billion years ago.
Religion hasn’t gone away. If you can keep up with the talk of the Increate and the Conciliator and the Pancreator, you might get a sense of how the religions of our time have evolved–but as Wolfe says in another appendix, the characters in the novel’s religious orders serve a god that appears fundamentally solar. Christianity may be in there, somewhere (Wolfe is a Roman Catholic, or was when he wrote this thing) but prayers for a new sun–spelled s-u-n–are predominant.
Readers looking for threads that have made it through from our time will not be wholly unsuccessful. There’s an odd version of a Rudyard Kipling story, for example, and Severian tells us how a photograph of an astronaut on the moon (before the trees were planted there) is being treated as a relic. I think it’s Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin in the picture, but of course those names would mean nothing to Severian.
I referred to this epic as a work of “science fantasy.” This sets it over against “hard science fiction,” whose authors try to confine themselves to projections of present-day science and technology. In The Book of the New Sun, though, the line between science and wizardry is blurred. At one point a character named Merryn says There is no magic. There is only knowledge, more or less hidden. Then her mentor, a cacogen, while preparing to so some time-shifting, says to Severian: Words are symbols. Merryn chooses to delimit magic as that which does not exist . . . and so it does not exist. If you choose to call what we are about to do here magic, then magic lives while we do it.
You got that? Are you ready to have every imaginable carpet pulled out from under you, to have your notions of time and space and human identity all turned around? I once wrote a “Reading Beyond the Bestseller List” column in which I confessed that I had never finished this book because at some point it always started to scare me. I feel that I’m going to make it, this time, and in any case there’s a 95% chance that you’re braver than I am.
Not only will I finish the four-novel sequence, but I’m going to read The Urth of the New Sun, a sequel that appeared in 1987. The library’s copies had been engulfed by a pulp super-nova, but one of my valiant colleagues in Selection has ordered new paperbacks, and I’m making a request.
While lacking any time-travelling skills, I have been empowered by the reading of this book to assure you that the coming solstice, due in less than three weeks, will be no more than a wink. You yourselves, my brothers and sisters, are empowered to gaze through the coming winter and see the crocuses blooming.
We need to have some last words from Severian. When he writes these words, he has been listening to stories told by other characters, of which there are many woven into his tale.
I have no way of knowing whether you, who will eventually read this record, like stories or not. If you do not, no doubt you have turned these pages without attention. I confess that I love them. Indeed, it often seems to me that of all the good things in the world, the only ones that humanity can claim for itself are stories and music; the rest, mercy, beauty, sleep, clean water and hot food . . . are all the work of the Increate. Thus, stories are small things indeed in the scheme of the universe, but it is hard not to love best what is our own–hard for me, at least.
I wish all of you the best for this coming season.