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The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) – The Eye of Art Turned Inwards

March 19, 2010

In his work Genre Analysis : English in Academic and Research Settings (1990), the applied linguist John Swales articulates a theory of genre grounded in the concept of the discourse community.  A discourse community is characterised by a set of shared goals and the patterns of intercommunication that maintain those expectations whilst also policing membership of the group.  These expectations provide the rationale for the genre and, in turn, shape the nature of the discourse by constraining the types of content and style that are considered a part of the genre.  In simpler terms, a genre (whether it be literary or otherwise) is primarily a social club.  In order to be a member of the club you have to sign up to its rules and while you can hope that the rules of the genre will change over time, the likelihood is that if you keep producing stuff that is beyond the pale, people will stop considering you a part of the club.  Swales’ characterisation is particularly interesting if one considers not the broad sweeping evolution of different genres, but rather the smaller and more localised instances of tit-for-tat mutual inspiration.  Intellectual events such as the New Weird or the 1970s boom in Slasher films are good examples of this kind of phenomenon.  A phenomenon referred to by Steve Neale in his Genre and Hollywood (2000) as a Cycle.

One of the ways in which Swales’ quasi-sociological model of genre rings true is the way in which cycles can appear to be deeply strange things after they have run their course.  For example, there is something faintly twee about the explosion in post-apocalyptic films that followed the success of George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) or the boom in post-modern Horror that followed Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).  It is difficult not to look back on such moments of intense creative cross-pollination and wonder what all the fuss was about.  Science Fiction is filled with such moments.  Its history is littered with the names of authors that are uttered only in hushed tones.  Names spoken with intense respect.  Names of unassailable artistic pedigree and countenance.  Names of authors whose work can sometimes seem weirdly incongruous with the work of the authors that came after them.  Names like Asimov, Heinlein, van Vogt and… for me at least… Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe is best known for his The Book of the New Sun series of which The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume.  He is an author who is thought of as one of the greats though you would be hard pressed to find his influence in the works of recent Hugo or Arthur C. Clarke award-winners.  When I decided to give Wolfe’s writing a second chance, I fully expected to encounter something on the level of Asimov’s horrific robot pathos or Heinlein’s bizarre lurching between Fascism and Libertarianism.  What I found instead was an author with complete mastery of his craft.  A level of technical skill second to none. A dazzling creative nous turned not to the real world but in on itself.  The Shadow of the Torturer is a book with nothing to say about the World but a lot to say about the process of reading and writing books.  It is almost perfectly solipsistic.  Solipsistic to the point of outright narcissism.

Cover of a recent collection of the first half of the Book of the New Sun series

The Shadow of the Torturer begins gently by introducing us to the character of Severian, an apprentice torturer living in a decaying and ancient city on a decaying and ancient planet circling a decaying and ancient sun.  The similarities with Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books are obvious in the strangely archaic and ornamented speech-patterns of Severian’s first person narration as well as the strange blend of Fantasy and Science Fiction that characterises the setting.

“The Increate maintains all things in order surely; and the theologians say light is his shadow.  Must it not be then that in darkness order grows ever less, flowers leaping from nothingness into a girl’s fingers just as by light in spring they leap from mere filthiness into the air?” [Pages 210-211]

“Cugel hastily consulted the workbook and saw that in error he had transposed a pair of pervulsions, thereby reversing the quality of the spell.  Indeed, even as he understood the mistake, to all sides there were small sounds, and previous victims across the eons were now erupted from a depth of forty-five miles, and discharged upon the surface.” [Vance’s Eyes of the Otherworld Page 287]

There is a gaudiness about such writing.  The choice of words and syntax are strange.  Sentences snake around their premises as though seeking out a blind spot at which to strike.  Words summoned from ancient tomes sit cheek-by-jowl with modern ideas and expressions.  This is the prose of an old place.  A place that was once the future but which has now looped back in on itself to resemble the past.  Books in the dying earth sub-genre are usually set in universes so far in our future that they draw more heavily from the trappings of Fantasy than they do Science Fiction.  Severian’s world is no exception to this rule but the sound of the penny dropping is almost imperceptible.  Severian mentions a past in which his people voyaged between the stars.  A librarian refers to a crystal containing more books than the entire library.  The trappings of traditional SF are here, but they are buried under the detritus of centuries.

Japanese artwork for the first part of the Book of the New Sun

Right from the start of the book, Severian’s world is wedged open by a chance encounter with an outlaw named Vodalus.  It is not made completely clear why Vodalus is an outlaw but this romantic status seems to combine nicely with the claustrophobia and regimentation of the torturer’s guild and before long Severian is obsessed.  He is so obsessed that he falls in love with one of his ‘clients’ and winds up getting himself exiled to some distant city for the terrible crime of allowing a torturee to kill herself.  Severian’s exile brings with it a jarring change of writing style.  Indeed, while the opening chapters of The Shadow of the Torturer are characterised by a slow trickle of information about the world and characters wrapped around a simplistic narrative, Severian’s voyage from the guild is a disorienting blur of people, names, places and sensations littered with strange repetitions, encounters and synergies that lend the book an almost mystical quality.

The book’s second half is bookended by two encounters with a Dr. Talos and his strongman friend/patient Baldanders.  Within minutes of meeting him, Talus expertly interrogates Severian.  Learning everything about the torturer in record time and without threats or intimidation.  The ease with which Talus extracts the information is almost an affront to Severian’s nature as a torturer : Here is someone who has not been trained to extract information and yet he is more skilled at it than Severian will ever be as his exile has seen him demoted from potential master torturer to a mere executioner.  Talos takes Severian to breakfast and introduces the group as actors.  The idea that the desperately earnest Severian might be an actor going through the motions is an apparently absurd one but it is one that keeps returning throughout the second half of the book.  Indeed, at the end of The Shadow of the Torturer Talos and Baldanders return and convince Severian to take part in a play :

“‘Tableau’ he called.  ‘Tableau, everyone.’  I froze in position, having learned that was what was meant.  ‘Gracious people, you have watched our little show with admirable attention.  Now we ask a bit of your purse as well as your time.  At the conclusion of the play you will see what occurs now that the monster has freed himself at last.’” [Page 275]

Which audience is Talos speaking to?  The audience of the play or the audience reading the book?  The middle section of The Shadow of the Torturer is filled with so many strange repetitions and weird coups-de-theatre that it feels very much like a play that is being performed for our benefit.  The gentle realism and verisimilitude of the chapters set in the Torturer’s guild.

After encountering Talos and Baldanders, Severian finds his way into a clothing shop where he is challenged to a duel by an armoured man.  The owners of the shop – a pair of twins – insist upon taking Severian under their wings and Severian and the female twin head off to the nearest botanical gardens in order to cut a poisonous plant that Severian must use to fight his duel.  As the pair wander through the dream-like surrounds of the botanical gardens, Severian shares a story about the technology that allowed his people to travel amongst the stars.  It is a peculiarly occult technology based around refracting mirrors that summon fish-like creatures into existence.

“Eventually it will be a real being, if we do not darken the lamp or shift the mirrors.  For a reflected image to exist without an object to originate it violates the laws of our universe, and therefore an object will be brought into existence.” [Page 186]

However, as Severian and his guide move through the gardens, they stumble across some odd people living in a hut telling tales about a fishing trip.

“He swam near the surface, and then when my nephew was about to drive home the three-toothed spear, there was no longer a fish to be seen, but a lovely woman.” [Page 189]

From there, the couple move to yet another garden where Severian falls into the water.  As he flails around, his hand meets the hand of another person.  A lovely woman.  A lovely woman who has seemingly appeared out of thin air.  Is this magic?  Is it foreshadowing?  Wolfe ties this strange appearance back into the physics of the world :

“Is it possible the flower came into being only because Dorcas reached for it?” [Page 210]

He further muddies the waters by suggesting that the lovely woman (or possible Severian) may be some visitor from the future :

“The woman with you has been here before.
Do not trust her.  Trudo says the man is
a torturer.  You are my mother come again.” [Page 226]

The Shadow of the Torturer is a book you are clearly supposed to bang your head against.  Its middle section is filled with so many weird images and ideas and repetitions that you expect it to all be in service of some deeper metaphorical significance.  Yet try as you might, none appears.  If Wolfe is speaking in metaphors then he is doing so in a language that is not accessible to us as readers.  Its symbols are alien to us.  Its letters unrecognisable.  Indeed, as Wolfe himself puts it in the appendix, the book was :

“Originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence” [Page 302]

Wolfe’s control over tone and atmosphere are complete, his prose style is baroque and yet strangely accessible, his characterisation is clear and deep, his overlapping and self-referential structure is an architectural marvel and yet The Shadow of the Torturer seems to be presenting no argument to us.  It is making no commentary either upon the world or upon the human condition.  It is a clever book and yet its cleverness serves no wider purpose and no obvious intellectual agenda.  Of course, The Book of the New Sun is not a recent publication.  Critical texts devoted to Wolfe’s work such as Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus : A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle (1994) will reveal plenty of theories and hypotheses about the series as a whole but, when read in isolation it is impossible to present a coherent explanation or interpretation of the events in The Shadow of the Torturer.  For all its metaphorical posturing, this is a book that is strangely free from meaning.  It is a series of puzzles with no solutions.

And therein lies the point.

As the novel draws to an end, Wolfe begins making a series of pronouncements on the nature of art and the universe.  Ostensibly barely connected to the stream of narrative events, these comments come to resemble sign posts instructing the reader on the appropriate stance to take to the book :

“Dr. Talos demanded much from the imagination of his audience; but he assisted that imagination with narration, simple yet clever machinery, shadows cast upon screens, holographic projectors, recorded noises, reflecting backdrops, and every conceivable sleight, and on the whole he succeeded admirably, as evidenced by the sobs, shouts, and sighs that floated toward us from time to time out of the dark.” [Page 274]

This type of literary game is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “All the World is a Stage” speech from As You Like It or the comparison drawn between the magician and the playwright in The Tempest but its sheer hubris puts Shakespeare’s meta-textuality firmly in the shade.  Indeed, not content with boasting of his technical prowess, Wolfe also feels it necessary to school the reader on what it means to interpret a text.

“Are you familiar with the idea that the universe has a secret key?  A sentence, or phrase, some even say a single word, that can be wrung from the lips of a certain statue, or read in the firmament, or that an anchorite on a world across the seas teaches his disciples?” [Page 271]

“Everything, whatever happens, has three meanings.  The first is the practical meaning, what the book calls ‘the thing the plowman sees.’  The cow has taken a mouthful of grass, and it is real grass, and a real cow – that meaning is as important and as true as either of the others.  The second is the reflection of the world about it,  Every object is in contact with all the others, and thus the wise can learn of the others by observing the first.  That might be called the soothsayers’ meaning, because it is the one such people use when they prophesy a fortunate meeting from the tracks of serpents or confirm the outcome of a love affair by putting the elector of one suit atop the patroness of another […] The third meaning is the transsubstantial meaning.  Since all objects have their ultimate origin in the Pancreator, and all were set in motion by him, so all must express his will – which is the higher reality.” [Page 272]

With the first passage, Wolfe is suggesting that The Shadow of the Torturer is an enigma that can be solved.  That there is a fundamental truth underlying the novel that might allow us to unlock Wolfe’s universe.  To make sense of the signs and portents.  To speak his as-yet inexistent language.  The second passage then sets out a hierarchy of interpretations.  There is the literal one that takes the novel to be the simple story of an apprentice torturer on a journey through an SFnal landscape.  Then there is the metaphorical one.  Wolfe’s use of language here is genuinely astonishing as he effectively compares the critic teasing meanings out of his text to a soothsayer pretending to read augurs in random similarities and coincidences.  The text of the third interpretation is even more of a challenge to would-be critics.

By suggesting that all events in the universe are the product of a creative divine being, Wolfe is picking a fight with the old critical maxim that the author is dead.  This, Wolfe seems to be suggesting, is a novel that has a true meaning and that meaning is the one that he has in mind as author of the book.  In order to make sense of the book we must therefore approach the author with due deference.  We must yield to his authority.  We must play the game of hermeneutics on his terms.  The Shadow of the Torturer is a book that explicitly rejects the death of the author.  Instead, The Shadow of the Torturer casts the author as some kind of classical deity sitting atop a mountain and laughing scornfully at those mere mortals who would dare pierce his mysteries.

But of course, there is no mystery to solve.

The great mystery behind The Shadow of the Torturer is that there is no mystery.  It is an entirely solipsistic piece of writing that does not seek to comment upon the real world or the human condition.  It has no deep spiritual meaning or political significance.  Instead it is a monument to the author’s skill at controlling the perceptions of his readers.  His use of pseudo-mystical imagery seeks us scurrying here looking for hidden meanings, his repetitions of certain phrases and images make us consider them to be somehow significant.  We read and re-read his words trying to make sense of them and when nothing concrete can be coaxed from the text Wolfe benignly pats us on the shoulder and says that it is not easy trying to work out what someone as clever as him is trying to say.  It is not fair to say that The Shadow of the Torturer is an example of the Emperor’s new clothes, particularly as it is by no means clear that the Emperor-Artist needs to wear clothes in the first place.  A better analogy might be to suggest that the Emperor lives in a glass palace : one can see all the way through it, realise that it is empty but still marvel at how well it is fitted together and how beautifully its crystalline spires glisten in the sun.

  1. March 19, 2010 1:45 pm

    Thanks for this. I’ve tried several times to read The Book of the New Sun. I make it through Torturer, but get stuck and eventually bounce off The Claw of the Conciliator. Are you going to keep reading the whole series?

    Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth books came first, didn’t they? Mentally I always kind of pair the two– a moment in the late 1970s early 1980s where dark “adult” fantasy became okay. I’d be kind of curious how the trend in fantasy tracked against the rise of supermarket horror and that sadistic soft-porn thriller stuff that was so popular in the late 1970s.


  2. March 19, 2010 2:02 pm

    Yes, I am planning on reading the rest of the series, and writing about it. I’ve not written very much about books on this blog but it has been my plan for a while to blog series and the smugness of Wolfe’s tone at the end of The Shadow of the Torturer means that I now want to write about the books purely out of spite :-)

    You may be right about Flat Earth coming first. My knowledge of that period of genre is extremely sketchy but I am familiar with Dying Earth and was struck by some of the similarities.


  3. Patrick H permalink
    March 19, 2010 4:45 pm

    This is one where you have to read them all to get it. I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say at the end of the Citadel of the Autarch.

    I’ve read them three times over the last quarter of a century. I first read them in my teens (as they came out, no less) and found them confusing, confounding and yet beautiful and compelling. They reached somewhere beyond my understanding. When I read them the second time, it all fell into place, like a Rubik’s cube suddenly resolving itself (this was the 80s, after all). Third time was just the year before last and I was better prepared and able to spend more time considering the individual elements.

    I am hopeful, Jonathan, that your natural instinct for giant killing will be won over by this one. This giant cannot be killed.


  4. March 19, 2010 4:48 pm

    Well… maybe not but I think he’s probably due a killing :-)


  5. March 19, 2010 4:50 pm

    Mind you, it is interesting that you say I have an instinct for giant killing Patrick. I do enjoy taking the path less travelled when it comes to interpretation.


  6. March 19, 2010 5:18 pm

    As it happens, I’m in the middle of reading this same book myself-and also considering it in light of Wolfe’s reputation (which brought me to the book in the first place, since I haven’t read much Wolfe to date).

    As you (and others) have noted here, I’ve recognized Wolfe’s craft, and his penchant for literary games. I do, however, find myself wondering if “a book you are clearly supposed to bang your head against” (with its puzzles without solutions that I’m not sure can really be called puzzles at all)-a book as solipsistic and narcissistic as this one clearly is-is worth bothering with, let alone deserving of the exalted status these books enjoy.

    I find the critical examination of the book here, in contrast with the frustrating combination of adulation and vagueness I’ve found in a good many other assessments, very welcome indeed, and look forward to your next pieces on the series.


  7. March 19, 2010 6:07 pm

    Hi Nader :-)

    It’s interesting that we’ve both come to the book with a similar vision of it and both had a similar reaction to his game-playing.

    Having now had a look at some of the online pieces about the book, I share your frustration at their lack of critical bite. I think the problem is partly down to the fact that Wolfe’s true value lies in his writing –

    There’s nothing special about his characters, his narrative is simple and evidently his overarching theme is a Campbellian Christ-story.

    Conversely, if you look at his prose you find a paradoxical combination of weird syntax and odd word choices combined with perfect fluidity and accessibility. I read half the book in one sitting despite feeling quite ambivalent about it. Also a lot of the tricks are structural and about repetition and symmetry.

    In other words, Wolfe’s strengths are those that most genre critics tend to struggle to write about. Anyone can write about story and ideas but most of us struggle to really analyse prose and structure. I’ve tried to do so a bit here and it required going through sections of the book with a fine-tooth comb. Few critics have the stomach for that kind of close textual analysis.

    They’re presented with a book they know to be a classic but when they try to write about the stuff they normally write about the book sounds a bit shit. As a result they fall back on adulation and evasive cliche. “It’s beautifully written” they might say or “it’s densely symbolic” or maybe “it’s a challenging read” but they don’t really write about what makes it an interesting book.

    I came away from The Shadow of the Torturer thinking a) that Gene Wolfe is a complete twat and a narcissist and b) that it was a grown-up book that demanded a grown-up response. That line about critics being soothsayers felt like a glove-slap to the face :-)

    In a way, I think I may have fallen for the book’s trick. I have engaged with the book on exactly the terms that Wolfe has dictated : I have considered his intentions as central to the book’s meaning and I have focused on the book’s technical aspects rather than simply reading stuff into the book that is not necessarily there.

    So having read the book and kind of enjoyed it, I feel quite weird about the effect it has had on me. Did I write this piece purely because Gene Wolfe questioned my critical virility? I don’t know, but the fact that I am asking these kinds of questions mean that the book must be doing something right.


  8. Mark Pontin permalink
    March 19, 2010 7:33 pm

    You wrote that this novel is ‘filled with so many weird images and ideas and repetitions that you expect it to all be in service of some deeper metaphorical significance. Yet try as you might, none appears. If Wolfe is speaking in metaphors then he is doing so in a language that is not accessible to us as readers. Its symbols are alien to us. Its letters unrecognisable.’

    Which is nicely phrased. But, as Patrick said, you have to read all four books to find that it’s Wolfe’s achievement by the fourth book’s end to have supplied us with that remote language, those alien symbols (though they’re not that alien; I recognize some modified rewrites of authors like Augustus and the Stoics) and to have made them broadly recognizable .

    There’s a steady escalation of what you’ll learn as you read. By the third book’s finish, you’ll find Wolfe does have a sincere argument about the human condition, even when it comes to post-Singularity humans (by that book Severian will have begun encountering beings, human-descended, who clearly fit that description, and even more monstrous examples occur in the fourth book). You may heartily disapprove of Wolfe’s argument since it’s broadly similar to that of, say, someone like C.S. Lewis in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. But he’s sincere.

    By the fourth book’s end, you’ll find that not only is the notion that (as you wrote above) ‘the desperately earnest Severian … an actor going through the motions’ in a simple Campbellian quest-structure correct, but also that the play Severian is cast in has had many drafts. As for the author(s) of those drafts — other than Wolfe himself — there’ll be layers of possible interpretation. As there will be for all the answers you will have by then to all the puzzles littered through the four books.

    Gene Wolfe is a very strange man. He’s written some other strange books that are, arguably, just plain bad (but I find myself wondering about them, so in that sense he must be doing something right even there). Here, though, while you may disapprove of what he’s done at the end of these four books about Severian, he pretty clearly was in the prime of his powers and everything came together for him.

    Strange stuff.


  9. March 19, 2010 7:58 pm

    Ian Sales put a similar point to me on twitter and I am happy to concede it with the caveats that A) the book was published independently of its sequels and so I think it is reasonable to treat it as at least partly independent of the others and B) assuming that the riddles are resolved in later books, it still makes Wolfe’s decision to hector his readers a weird one.

    Your point about language is well made. Most of the words seem to be either throwbacks to historical periods (aren’t optimates Roman politicians?) or are derived from near-archaic roots. This is a neat way of accentuating not only the Otherness of the setting, but also its incredible sense of age.

    I’m not sure that the apparent emptiness of Shadow is really a problem for me. Wolfe clearly was in full possession of his faculties and his talent is awesome. I am just thrown by his methodology for deploying that talent.


  10. Mark Pontin permalink
    March 20, 2010 1:49 am

    Jonathan wrote: ‘the book was published independently of its sequels and so I think it is reasonable to treat it as at least partly independent of the others.’

    Authors aren’t publishers. Wolfe originally intended NEW SUN as one big novel — indeed, originally it was going to be a novella called “The Feast of Saint Catherine” for something like Damon Knight’s old ORBIT anthologies. Then Wolfe realized what he had and went to David Hartwell at Simon & Schuster, whose edict was that the partly written 1st draft be broken up into two or three volumes — I can’t recall the exact mechanics and can’t be arsed to source them now. In each redrafting, at any rate, the thing kept growing; I think the fourth volume, THE CITADEL OF THE AUTARCH, is almost half again as long as any of its predecessors.

    And one might begrudge Wolfe his indiscipline, except it isn’t that. He delivers. You’ve called to my attention, for instance, something I hadn’t noticed before with that quote from page 271 of TORTURER that begins, “Are you familiar with the idea that the universe has a secret key? ” In AUTARCH, the last volume, there will be a small chapter called “The Key to the Universe,” which is nothing but an anchorite explaining in some detail to Severian the cosmology of the universe and the role of all life — including Severian’s — within it.

    “…it makes Wolfe’s decision to hector his readers a weird one… I am… thrown by his methodology for deploying that talent.”

    Firstly, it arguably isn’t Wolfe hectoring his readers, but Severian the former torturer who by the end of the story (the perspective he’s recounting it from) is a very different creature, and who is simultaneously aware, also, that he’s about to become even more different.

    Secondly, you and everyone else are ‘thrown by Wolfe’s methodology for deploying his talent.’ Certain artists of genius exist who cannot do things that are normally artistic requisites and who consequently develop totally unlikely — freakish, even — skills, specialties and approaches to compensate for or hide what they can’t do. It may be that Wolfe is one of those artists. For instance, he does contemporary dialogue and characterization — of females, especially — quite badly, in general. I’m sometimes not sure he can even plot in any normal sense, either, or is interested in it, which amounts to the same thing.

    It doesn’t matter. Plenty of normal writers can do those things. Nobody else can do what Wolfe has done on several occasions. But I don’t want to oversell you on these books, which is what one is always in danger of doing when one goes on. You need to feel free to like or dislike them. So I’ll shut up now.


  11. March 20, 2010 7:44 am

    An argument pops up here which intrigues me: The problem that books which are long do not fit easily into the templates of industrial-scale publishing.

    Critics cannot blame authors for writing novels which publishers then chop into parts… but…

    …genre fiction, especially SF/F, is also *deliberately made* as interminable book serials, often with no artistic justification for going on and on…

    … so when should the reader — or critic — be right to say “I have given this series as much of my time as I need to understand it”?

    The question applies both to quality works like Wolfe’s, and generic hackwork; bear in mind that both kinds of work is published by the same system! (THE LORD OF THE RINGS was chopped into parts during its initial U.S. release.)


  12. March 20, 2010 8:14 am

    I am not convinced that Wolfe’s intention to write one big long novel completely shelters him from any reproach regarding the deployment of information and the hectoring tone he adopts.

    I read a book and judged it as a book. It may well not be Wolfe’s fault that the book provides nothing remotely approaching an answer but that is still a valid response to the book I read.

    I don’t think that authors get to set the terms of engagement with their work and, as AR correctly points out, if we were talking about A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time or any other fantasy series, that argument would get no houseroom at all.

    An author of Wolfe’s skill, particularly at structure, could easily have tailored his book to suit the format it was published in. In fact, he clearly DID as at the end of Shadow he goes ‘ah I must stop my story now’.

    So “It’s not his fault” does not render my reactions to the novel inert. It may well be that my reactions to this first novel change over time and as I read the later sections but in the mean time, I think my response was an entirely legitimate one.


  13. March 20, 2010 9:32 am

    Jonathan is right. If the author has the chutzpah to end with a blunt “ah I must stop my story now”, then he could have done so at a much earlier point…

    …and I wish other fiction writers would, too!


  14. March 20, 2010 12:46 pm

    Stross (who is nowhere near the technical writer Wolfe is) recently put up a blog post about the mechanics of writing series of novels :

    Obviously, you can’t be blamed if the work is published in a form you really did not expect (which is what evidently happened with Stross’ initial Merchant Princes novels) but clearly Wolfe did know that his work was going to be broken up and he draws attention to that fact in the text.

    I think in light of this, he has to assume the responsibility for producing a novel that gives you a load of unsolvable riddles and then hectoring you for not being able to fathom the mind of god.

    I’m sure a lot of these things do come to make sense once more information is given but the fact remains that The Shadow of the Torturer is about the author being a tease.


  15. March 20, 2010 1:55 pm

    Speaking of critical bite re: Wolfe, I was rather heartened by Paul Witcover’s review of his latest, The Sorcerer’s House, in Locus:

    Gene Wolfe’s novels have grown ever more hermetic, becoming like exquisite but finicky puzzle boxes that deny entrance and pleasure to all but a few aficianados who are adept in the strategies necessary to solve them. Even for those aficionados, however, his latest novel, The Sorcerer’s House, is apt to disappoint. Here all of Wolfe’s tics are on full display: his casual condescension towards women, which can cross over into outright misogyny; his inability to believably create contemporary characters and convey them credibly through dialogue, thought, and action; his almost sadistic delight in witholding or hiding information essential to readers; his obsession with doubling and doppelgangers, which here approaches absurdly solipsistic dimensions; his annoying affectation of rendering the dialogue of subsidiary characters, often animals, in phonetically based spellings meant to convey accents or speech impediments; his prefernce for main characters, usually males, whose intellectual arrogance, moral and emotional failings, and conspicuous lack of self-awareness somehow set them above their fellow mortals. […] Once upon a time, back in the days of Peace and Cerberus and Severian, these tics and gimmicks were more in the way of bugs in Wolfe’s fiction; now they are features of it.

    It’s not that I’m pleased to see Wolfe given a kicking per se; actually, as much as anything it’s a nice change of pace from the rest of Locus’ reviews. I haven’t read Book of the New Sun, but your experience certainly chimes with the Wolfe I have read, and with what Witcover concludes about the new one:

    The plot of the novel is far more tangled and compmlicated than I can do justice to here. Devoted fans of Wolfe will find many echoes of themes and characters from works like An Evil Guest and The Wizard Knight, among others. But for all its cunning complexity and intricately woven web of circumstance and identity, The Sorcerer’s House is essentially sterile — as are the characters that inhabit it. Why? Because it never opens outward, spilling generously into the life of the reader, or invites the reader in; instead, more than any other novel by Wolfe that I can think of, it recedes from readers and their concerns, insular, incestuous, finally sealing itself off in a kind of chilly completion that compels a certain admiration but leaves the heart untouched.

    I believe Witcover’s correct when he says these tics have become more like features over the course of Wolfe’s career; but I also wonder to what extent Wolfe has stayed the same, and has expectations and tolerances of critics/readers change around him.


  16. March 20, 2010 4:03 pm

    Oh wow.

    Thanks for that Niall. It’s rather encouraging to discover that apparently I have reached a conclusion that is shared by others. As much as I enjoy being a contrarian, it is nice to know that others have picked up on similar tics in Wolfe’s work.

    It’s also funny to think of Wolfe as having ‘aficionados’ I’m guessing those are the high-brow equivalents of fanboys :-)


  17. Mark Pontin permalink
    March 20, 2010 7:54 pm

    Wolfe is problematic.

    I’d agree that he’s been getting a free pass from critics and readers as regards his recent output — recent being the last two to three decades. Personally, I haven’t wanted — or even been able — to read quite a few of his novels since shortly after he finished the BOOK OF THE NEW SUN myself.

    I did read — and somewhat liked — the last one, AN EVIL GUEST, but mostly because I enjoyed the particularly bizarre mash-ups of 1930s-40s pulp conventions that Wolfe played with there and how he completely disregarded the ways SF/F novels are normally supposed to make sense or be one thing or another. Expecting a ‘hermetic’ Wolfe construction, in short, this particular one happened to tickle my tastebuds.

    Overall — as Niall pointed out, I think, in a review at the time — EVIL GUEST was with a fairly high degree of likelihood a ‘bad book’ by normal standards, but was no normal ‘bad book’ as it proceeded by dream-logic the reader couldn’t predict. Then, even if it was bad, parts of it worked strongly in one’s imagination and memory afterwards. So was it a ‘bad book’ really?

    Indeed, plenty of readers do seem to sincerely enjoy — unlike myself — recent Wolfe product like PIRATE FREEDOM and THE WIZARD KNIGHT.

    So all the above is, I think, one part of the critical problem with Wolfe nowadays. Even his worst work can’t really be dismissed as being bad in a normal way.

    The other part of the problem with Wolfe, though, is something that nobody ever says. Though, yes, the Witcover review is actually kind of welcome.

    I’m old enough to have read Wolfe’s early work as it came out and to recall the general effect of finding this writer who wrote science-fiction — and Wolfe was much more an SF writer doing SFnal ideation then, rather than the fantasy writer he’s become — with all the development and richness of the best literary fiction. I’d say, yes, that work is really as good as we thought then; I’ve gone back to reread it, in light of what Wolfe has done later.

    During the time that stuff was written, though, the man was the editor of PLANT ENGINEERING, a small trade magazine published in Chicago, and he apparently rose at 4 or 5 in the morning, wrote about 1000-1200 words of first draft, went to work and then came home in the evening and rewrote. All the first two decades of Wolfe’s work, produced before he went professional, went through a great many drafts and bears signs of being seriously rethought by the author line by line and scene by scene.

    It’s great work, by and large. Still, if you look closely at it, there are few signs that Wolfe necessarily ever internalized any of the normal operating procedures — normal contemporary characterization would be one example — and tricks of the trade that ‘normal’ writers learn. Arguably, everything Wolfe did then he did by hard work — hard use of his imagination and great care with words (remember, too, that he was editor of PLANT ENGINEERING during the day). Which is all good and is how great literature is usually written.

    Still, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN enabled Wolfe to quit his day job and go professional. His books now had to come out regularly every year and they needed to be successful in the market. I think also Wolfe experienced some disappointment with the next multi-volume project he wanted to do, which was set in his version of classical antiquity and featured the ultimate unreliable narrator — a protagonist whose memory fails at the end of every day and who thus has to read his account (often truncated) of the previous day on a scroll to find out where he is and what he’s doing there. This project’s first volume died a death commercially.

    Shortly thereafter, Wolfe announced that writing wasn’t about finesse with words on the page, but about how any given scene captures and lives in a reader’s mind. To say that writing is foremost about the writer’s imaginative vision seems fair enough, but Wolfe’s practical subtext here seems to have been that he generally no longer put his writing through more than three or four drafts, and gave free rein to his imaginative idiosyncracies — his tics — and didn’t bother much with ordinary standards of logic. The burgeoning of the fantasy market commercially countenanced this and Wolfe moved in that direction. (Though not without first trying a contemporary detective novel, which is fascinatingly awkward and probably died commercially.)

    All of the above reservations about current Wolfe stated, I still glance at anything he writes to see if I want to read it because, yes, it is the same strange writer and he can still occasionally surprise me by writing something great.


  18. March 20, 2010 11:36 pm

    That’s a fascinating historical overview Mark, thanks.

    Speaking as someone who is comparatively young and who has only really followed SF seriously since the early 00s, my impression of Wolfe is of an author who is hugely respected but without actually producing any books that are worth reading. He’s never touted for awards, he never gets much discussion, when he is mentioned it is in connection with this series of novels and a few others.


  19. March 22, 2010 10:52 am

    as Niall pointed out, I think, in a review at the time

    Not me, guv; I think you’re thinking of Adam Roberts’ review.

    Jonathan: never touted for awards? He won one World Fantasy Award and was shortlisted for another, really quite recently. And he had a novella on the Hugo ballot in 2007.


  20. March 22, 2010 12:18 pm

    I stand corrected then :-) My fantasy-blindness strikes again.


  21. March 22, 2010 1:52 pm

    Thanks for this! For me, what makes this series unique is that Wolfe cuts his readers absolutely no slack when it comes to immersing them in his world. He rarely describes or explains the cultural and historical references he makes, even obliquely through dialogue, memory, or some other narrative trick. I was aware of this aspect of the books, even when I thought there were things that *I* didn’t understand that others probably did (although having read your piece, I’m guessing these are fewer than I reckoned on.) Although I can’t say I love the storyline or characters, I do love these books purely because they’re written as if Gene Wolfe is actually from that point in time. I really can’t think of another genre author who is capable of doing this so completely.

    Having said that, I’m not sure this level of immersion is entirely a good thing: I found the series a little frustrating, as though I was only glimpsing part of things I wanted to understand better. It makes a nice change from the wholesale “info dumping” that pervades so much of genre fiction, but I do like a little bit of explanation now and again.

    Are you intending to read The Urth of the New Sun? It rounds off the series, I think it’s a little less opaque, and it’s a definite change of pace stylistically.


  22. Paul Kincaid permalink
    March 22, 2010 2:25 pm

    Going along with much of what Mark has written, there are a couple of things to bear in mind with Wolfe.

    1: His very best work was probably in the first 10-15 years of his career, culminating with The Book of the New Sun but including “The Island of Dr Death” and its variants, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, “Seven American Nights”, “The Hero as Werwolf”, Peace and a host of other stuff. Most of that is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested sf of the last 30-40 years, and (contrary to what you said at the beginning of your piece) much of it has had a profound effect on many of the sf writers who came later.

    After The Book of the New Sun more attention, critically and (I think) by the author has been paid to his novels. But these have tended to be a dying fall. The Sorcerer’s House is better than An Evil Guest, for instance, but that is at least in part because An Evil Guest was so bad.

    Paul Witcover is right about the tricks and tropes in his writing, but they have been there from the very start of his career (just go back to Operation Ares, which has now been rescued from the status of being his very worst novel, and you will see everthing Witcover mentioned). But for a long time (roughly from 1970 to the mid-90s) these tics actually worked well in the type of story he was constructing. It is as the quality of what went round the tics has fallen away that they have become so apparent.

    2: The thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that Wolfe is a Catholic of a very conservative stripe (and judging from his interviews, seems to have been becoming increasingly conservative over the last 10-15 years). This plays a major part in his writing, and must be taken into account if you want to fully appreciate (and in many cases fully criticise) what he is doing.

    Every novel, right back to Operation Ares, features one central character who becomes significant (usually, in some way, a saviour) through no intention or particular ability of his own (it’s always ‘his’). Rather, circumstances and the will of those around him is what conspire to thrust the hero forward. The novels are always about how the character responds to the pressure of those around him that makes him, against his will, become a hero. It is there in The Sorcerer’s House as much as it was in Operation Ares, and in between it’s true of Severian and Latro and Captain Chris and all the others. His characters don’t become great men, they become holy men, in an oddly material conception of holiness.


  23. March 22, 2010 2:41 pm

    Helen — Glad you liked the piece. I must admit that Wolfe’s attitude towards his readers and his attempt to set the terms of engagement from within the novel is part of what makes me want to read on. Two thirds of the way through, it was just an evasive puzzle novel but the final act really elevates it to something unique.

    As for further books, I’m definitely planning on reading and writing about Claw but beyond that we shall have to see. I’m taking it one book at a time.


  24. March 22, 2010 2:53 pm

    Paul — Interesting stuff, thanks.

    Reading the novel, I very much got the impression that this was a work inspired by Catholic sacred history. Revelations in particular with its weird signs and portents. I didn’t want to mention it in the review as I felt that that might be an example of my letting what I know *of* the series influence what I learned actually reading it.

    I think that invoking Christian symbolism – much like the ideas of Freud and Marx – can distort the critical fabric of a piece. These are such huge icons that are so familiar to us that it is easy to tick the “Jesus” or “Psychoanalysis” boxes and simply allow those iconographies to dictate your reaction to the work. I wanted to come to the novel as fresh as possible and so I am resisting the allure of these types of critical templates.

    I also think that Wolfe’s life and personality can have a similar effect.

    Indeed, if I had written this kind of piece about an Iain M. Banks novel then I doubt that people would have come out of the woodwork in order to fill me in on the details of Banks’ life and career – The fact that you and Mark have felt it necessary to discuss Wolfe himself in the context of my review says something about a) how successful Wolfe has been at inserting himself into his novel and b) quite how widespread that approach to the novel has become.

    So while I appreciate the history lesson and am interested in it, I think that there is also something to be said for looking at the novel from a position of ignorance… and that’s pretty much where I am now :-)


  25. Patrick H permalink
    March 22, 2010 3:06 pm

    Religious analogies become rather more explicit in the next one.


  26. Paul Kincaid permalink
    March 22, 2010 3:34 pm

    Jonathan, you wouldn’t have been making similar comments about an Iain Banks novel, because Banks doesn’t write himself into the mystery of his novels the way Wolfe does. (“The Fifth Head of Cerberus”, for instance, is absolutely full of references to the name Wolfe.)

    It’s not so much that you need to know the circumstances of his life when you read Wolfe, as that the symbolism that becomes increasingly overt in his fiction points back unequivocally to his own beliefs.

    I would also not suggest that the Catholic symbolism is present in any simple or superficial way in the New Sun books. It is pervasive, but it is far from simple. Severian is not a Christ figure, but he is a saviour (there’s a difference), and I think the novels are not so much about being a saviour as about how we construct our saviours.

    But along with that there is a serious examination of the old, old idea of the author playing god. For someone as devout as Wolfe he seems to set himself in contention with god a lot in his fiction. And that, I think, is part of the game of surrounding the action with angels and the like: they reference Wolfe more than they reference Severian. He has, as I said, become more conservative since writing the New Sun, and I think that shows in the way the fiction takes itself more seriously.


  27. March 22, 2010 10:33 pm

    Thanks Paul.

    Are there any other authors who place themselves so centrally in the frame? I know that there’s that recent Australian Horror collection that is based around a fictionalised version of the writer’s life but otherwise it’s quite an odd gambit.

    It’s as though he’s setting out to pick a fight with the concept of the death of the author.


  28. Paul Kincaid permalink
    March 23, 2010 10:14 am

    Some of the postmodernists do. Steve Erickson has killed himself in a couple of his novels so far as I recall. But though I consider Wolfe an experimental writer, the last thing you could call him is a postmodernist.

    In Wolfe’s case, it’s like he genuinely believes that the author is god, and is working out the consequences of that. And I can’t think of any other author who does anything remotely similar.


  29. March 23, 2010 10:16 am

    The fact that he does it and the way in which he does it are certainly unique.


  30. March 23, 2010 10:21 am

    …Stephen King places himself in the latter books of his Dark Tower series, and even helps the characters at one point. As I understand it, he’s saying something about how the act of creating a book is also the act of creating a universe, and that these alternate universes actually exist once they have been envisioned by an author… or something.


  31. April 27, 2010 12:42 pm

    Great read, thank you.

    I find Mark Pontin’s appreciation the closest to my own interpretation of this magnificent work:

    “By the fourth book’s end, you’ll find that not only is the notion that (as you wrote above) ‘the desperately earnest Severian … an actor going through the motions’ in a simple Campbellian quest-structure correct, but also that the play Severian is cast in has had many drafts. As for the author(s) of those drafts — other than Wolfe himself — there’ll be layers of possible interpretation. As there will be for all the answers you will have by then to all the puzzles littered through the four books.”

    I am curious if you will re-read the books after getting to the end once. When I did it, I discovered that what I thought to be mastery of the writing craft at first read was merely a shadow of the actual mastery Gene Wolfe shows in this novel (or series of novels, heh).


  32. April 27, 2010 2:47 pm

    Hi there :-) Glad you enjoyed the piece.

    No… I’m not going to re-read it. I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of books that I have re-read and while I am enjoying this series of books, I am finding the experience overly cerebral… like solving a crossword puzzle and having worked my way through it once I am unlikely to want to do so again.

    It would be unheard of.

    I’ll also point out that any book that can only be appreciated once you have read and re-read the entire series of books associated with it is not a good book as by that point you’re no longer talking about craft and skill, you’re talking about entering into a bad marriage.



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