Well my annually ordered Stack of books is pretty much out of order. Who knows what I’ll be reading next now. But what am I reading right now? Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. A series of four books collected in two volumes plus a sequel, which I’ll call the third half, The Urth of the New Sun. I’ve talked about it’s reputation before, likening it to the Revolver of the fantasy realm and calling Lord of the Rings, Sgt. Pepper’s. I still think it’s a fair analogy now that I’ve actually started reading the thing.
Here’s what sci-fi-fantasy review site, Inchoatus, has to say about The Book of the New Sun:
There are occasions, however, when the reviewer knows that the author has been privy to something profound, but is unable to comprehend it all. Such was the first reading of The Lord of the Rings: how could one adequately express why that book was genius? Or, perhaps more appropriately for Gene Wolfe, the first reviewer who read James Joyce’s Ulysses or saw Hamlet. How could one expect an intelligent review out of them after a single experience?
New Sun is a challenging work of genius and fully understanding that genius will be the effort of a lifetime. It is enough in a review to say only that it is genius and, like such books, a challenge at first precisely due to its own uniqueness.
What did I think of it? Well, I loved the first chapters of the first book. Loved them. I loved the rest of the book too, but only with questions and reservations. I’ll wait to give myself up to it (like the reviewer above) after I’ve read the whole thing. I suspect whatever problems I have will be resolved by then.
But the first few chapters! I felt like I was reading a coming of age memoir by Franz Kafka set in a science-fiction movie disguised as fantasy stage-play. Sound impossible? Sound interesting? Yes and yes.
Here’s the setting: tens of thousands, maybe thousands of thousands of years into the future of the planet earth, the world is so burdened with history there are forgotten legends of men who told of a legend that the legends of the past could have pointed to a knowable truth. In other words, the historians of the far future don’t believe in history there’s too much of it. Worse, yet the sun is dying. The characters talk of it as cancered, having a worm at it’s heart. Smaller than it once was, it casts a feeble red light during the wintry day and, and casts a weird green reflection of the moon’s forest at night. Yes, the moon has forests. And no one can remember when it didn’t.
I think it’s fruitful comparing Wolfe to Kafka. The action and revolutions of plot carry more hints of farce than the sci-fi fantasy I’m used to. And the setting implies dark suggestions for our own existence – although, Wolfe is far more hopeful (so far) than Kafka – I don’t think the hero, Severian, will be shot dead like a dog in the night in the end.
I’ve heard that Kafka couldn’t keep a straight face when he read his work out loud and couldn’t finish for laughing. I can hear that laughter sometimes when I read him and I suspect I know who he’s laughing at. Wolfe? I don’t hear any laughter. But sometimes I think I see a smirk.