Before the Labyrinthine Lore of 'Dark Souls,' There Was Gene Wolfe
The author of 'The Book of the New Sun' was a master of creating playful and ambiguous lore.
Header illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham.
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Gene Wolfe died last Sunday at the age of 87. He was a titan of science fiction and fantasy, and it’s hard to find an obituary written since then that hasn’t extolled his virtues as a writer by passing through the praise of other people. Ursula Le Guin apparently called him “our Melville,” and there’s no shortage of other storied authors who have heaped praise upon him over the past 40 years. But that’s disappointing in a way, because Wolfe’s writing wasn’t clean and clear and recommendable. When someone recommends his The Book of the New Sun or The Fifth Head of Cerberus to you, they’re imparting a curse. They’re presenting you with a problem. They’re giving you a puzzle that can’t quite be solved.
I’ve been playing the Gene Wolfe game for ten years. I can close my eyes and tell you exactly where I was when I started reading The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book of four that make up The Book of the New Sun. I was sitting in my bed in my first apartment off-campus during college. It was hot but not uncomfortable. The quality of the light from the lamp was not great, but the golden tone was evocative of the journey I was about to embark on.
The sketch of The Book of the New Sun is pretty simple. We follow Severian from his childhood through to his adulthood. He grows up as an apprentice of the Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, or the Torturer’s Guild, and is forced to leave that position and make his fortune in the world. Like a 19th century novel, BOTNS is more a series of scenes than it is a linear plot, and we follow Severian through his life as he goes through significant changes and perilous moments. At the same time, the novel is written in the past tense, and we come to find out that our narrator is Severian himself later in life. He has been appointed Autarch of his civilization, a kind of supreme leader, and the novel that we are reading is for posterity. This narrative device is tactically used to make use uncertain as readers: Is the book a piece of political maneuvering for a new ruler? Is it a serious autobiography? Is it some self-mythologizing? Is there any way to externally verify anything that Severian tells us?
This ambiguity also exists at the level of language. Severian encounters hipparchs, various forms of alzabo, and attends to the House Absolute. The book is a document of Severian’s life in a science fictional world, and he passes through wonders and strange situations on every page. But these fantastical things, like a botanical garden that transports its viewers through time and space, are always obscured by how the author chooses to describe them to us. Wolfe uses a huge lexicon of historical words, as well as cobbled-together Latin and Greek, to create a context for Severian that is both thrilling and new as well as ancient and resonant. If the past is a foreign country, then Wolfe uses our own actual dead languages to alienate his readers from what’s right in front of them.
There are a lot of things that get in the way of a person reading The Book of the New Sun, and this is something that extends through most of Wolfe’s work. You have to overcome purposeful (and playful) complexity to decode what’s happening from moment to moment. But unlike something like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which is trying to fit the horror of the 20th into language and having a tough time of it, Wolfe is trying to give you another universe through these obscure tactics. And once you start to get a grasp on it, what unlocks is a tale of a tricky character making his way through a history piled up with lightspeed technology and laser weapons alongside stone castles and carriage races. When Wolfe weaves these seemingly incompatible things together, what you come away with is a portrait of a dying planet in which people are still fundamentally recognizable to us as simply trying to exist and live in their context. It’s fantastical, and it’s hard to grasp, but the final product is truly, without exaggeration, wondrous.
And like many people, when I was done with The Book of the New Sun, I understood the journey I had gone on, but I didn’t have all the details, the political aspirations, and the complex allegories decoded. So I had to start again.
He created books that you could play with...
The fundamental power of Gene Wolfe as a writer, when he was firing on all cylinders, was that he could provide you with something that looked complete but fundamentally was not. You felt like you had to chase it. I’m still chasing it. The Book of the New Sun asks the reader to do a lot of work to get to a place where they can be satisfied with what they’ve read. I’ve been reading forums and discussions about this book for a decade, and these discussions have been going on for nearly forty years, and there are still discussions in BOTNS that have not been settled to any significant degree. Do all the analysis you want, read as closely as you can, and maybe you can answer some of these questions for yourself. The next person down the line can probably find the sentence in the thousands of pages that undoes the basic claim that you want to make.
Some people find this ambiguity and complexity so frustrating that they don’t find it worth piecing out. Some people find a lifework here, something really worth digging into. That latter group resembles the fans of Dark Souls or The Elder Scrolls more than they do the fandoms of other science fiction or fantasy authors, and that resemblance has to do with how much they put into the series themselves.
A little story to illustrate what I mean: In the months after Bloodborne released, there was a general race to a consensus interpretation of the plot. It’s a confusing game where the plot is deliberately communicated in a fractured way, and so the fans cobbled together their interpretations from the fragments that the game provided. Two interpretations loomed, and continue to loom large in that discussion. The Paleblood Hunt, a formal document of explanation and exploration of the game, is one of those. VaatiVidya’s video that explains the game’s story is the other. I was late to the party on Bloodborne, and by the time I got to the game the fan community had mostly congealed around some version of these explanations being the “true” interpretation of the game.
And when I played it, I realized that they were wrong. The pieces of text that I encountered, the stories that I heard from NPCs, and the item descriptions that I saw in the order that I saw them gave me a completely different perspective on the story from the one that these prominent interpreters had come to. This was the same reaction I had when I read about The Book of the New Sun’s Severian and his encounter with a false leader in a painting that transformed into a room. The agreed-upon story wasn’t the story that I experienced. In both cases, I simply had to have more, and I returned to both of these texts over and over to get more out of it.
To be clear, Bloodborne was good before. The fact that a huge amount of interaction with the game hinged on arguing about interpretation made it great. The idea that you could dig down into a text and really elbow around in its information to come to an understanding not just of what happened but what it meant put it in a higher pantheon of games for me. The game wasn’t just about light attacks and heavy attacks. The game was in the way we talked about it.
Intention matters here, too. I didn’t enjoy the Grimoire-and-mystery of the original Destiny because I thought they were shunting the labor of thinking about their game off into the player community. I have a similar quibble with Overwatch. But there seems to be something qualitatively different to me about Overwatch’s “if you want some narrative, you figure it out” model and the creation of narratives that are openly playful about how we interact with them as players and fans. To put it another way: I love the game of interpretation, but I hate it when it’s poorly designed.
It goes deep, and not just in the sense that it’s philosophical.
It’s hard to think of a better designer of that kind of experience than Gene Wolfe. The Book of the New Sun doesn’t answer very many questions about Severian’s adventures. For some people, it is merely an adventure tale where a boy meets robots and giants and monsters beneath the earth. He becomes a man, then a ruler, then the redeemer of mankind. For other people, it is a deeply layered text about science and fate where each are bound up in the other so tightly that they cannot be pulled apart. And there’s a faction who sees it as a fairly thin Catholic allegory. I’ve seen interpretive readings that read the book as a series of references to other works above all else.
It goes deep, and not just in the sense that it’s philosophical. It is deep because you can approach it from a dozen angles and only get a partial picture. The Book of the New Sun is a playful text, and it spins like a ball. You can bounce it off whatever theory you want, and it will remain resilient and ready to go.
This was Gene Wolfe’s work. He created books that you could play with, that you could sink time into, and come away feeling rewarded and like you had accomplished something. Video games have been chasing this kind of engagement with their players for years, and Wolfe made it seem effortless, creating riddles and puzzles and problems that just kept spinning on into the future. People are still chasing the “right” answers, and I imagine that he wanted us to be doing that forward into eternity. Maybe I’ll give Book another run to see if anything new shakes loose this time.