Gene Wolfe, The Book of
the New Sun (1980-83)
Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which is made up of four works — The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983) 1 — has been hailed by numbers of science fiction writers and critics as being the event of the 1980s for the genre. Certainly it is a highly-wrought, intelligent, perceptive work, full of amazing bursts of imaginative creation. It is reminiscent of Peake and Borges in its richness of creation, its inwardness, and its questioning of reality. Its hero Severian the torturer, with his coolness of intellect, recalls Peake's much more evil Steerpike, or Borges's narrators with their methodical rationality. Whether the tetralogy is strictly science fiction or fantasy is long in doubt, 2 apart from the fact that it deals with our Earth a long way into the future when, as in Aldiss's Hothouse, the sun is dying, though here by its growing colder and feebler; the society described is largely of an antique or medieval character, with rituals, guilds, myths and religions, and few machines. Reference is made occasionally to a previous, aeons-past technological age of interplanetary travel, but that is all. The work is most evidently science fiction in its preoccupation with the workings of mind and its sense of the plasticity of identity.
Wolfe's work recalls Attanasio's in its description of a ruined Earth of the far future, peopled by mutated humans and star-dwellers; and also in its metaphysical sophistication. Both works in particular are close in their sense of the fluidities of identity, the way one being can slide into another. But Attanasio still conveys the sense that there is a true self to be found through development: Wolfe suggests rather that the self has no final boundaries, and that development is not in court. If this might seem like a portrayal by Wolfe of entropy of being in the senility of Urth, it is typical of the inclusiveness of this writer that it is also