Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

June 5, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Gene Wolfe is the best science fiction writer I’ve ever read. That is my unshakable conviction after reading Urth of the New Sun, the last of the New Sun books. That doesn’t mean he’s my favorite, because inevitably favorite comes down to a reader-author intersection of characters, style, setting, and theme, but it does mean he writes some absolutely excellent books. And they aren’t far off being my favorite. When I first found out Wolfe was an engineer, I was stunned because of the highly literary tone he adopts in the New Sun books. The more I thought about it, however, the more it made sense, because Wolfe, more than anyone else I’ve ever read, writes a postmodernish, hazy, subjective, almost dreamlike story that somehow convinces you that while the first person narrator may not be even close to understanding them, the world around him is operating according to concrete laws. So it is not really postmodern at all, just real, in the same way we don’t always understand what happens to us, although of course the main character has quite a bit more happen to him in a day than most people do in a lifetime. The giveaway, I’ve decided, is the way Severian has a perfect memory. Most authors would give a trait like that to a main character as an interesting distinguishing feature and would make it influence him or her somehow. The better authors would take such an unusual trait and show its ramifications, its positives and negatives. But Wolfe isn’t really doing any of that. Severian from time to time complains his memory is a curse, but Wolfe trusts his reader to accept this assertian without having his main character drag the reader through ponderous soul-racking sorrow or guilt to prove it. And the memory does help Severian from time to time. But the real reason, I think, for the perfect memory is to establish Severian as a reliable narrator. It’s not like a Woodward-style political book where scenes are recounted with direct quotes even though what the characters are reported as saying is being filtered through the memory, time and bias of whoever he interviewed. Severian remembers exactly what was said and exactly what happened to him, and thus we accept what he says as truth, even though it often makes little sense when we first read it. Or rather, we accept his perceptions as truth, and then are left to work out what the objective reality was behind those perceptions. And it is there, almost from the beginning Wolfe manages to convey that.

To be complete it must be said Urth of the New Sun is not quite as strong a work as the Book of the New Sun (I would consider the four books a single story). There are a few too many references to what happened before (almost everything Severian sees reminds him of something from his travels in BoNS–perhaps this is a realistic effect of perfect memory but it still comes off as tiresome eventually). Also, it is a complicated story involving time travel which always comes off as a little sketchy (his engineer’s training does not stop him from tossing causality out the window). Still it is head and shoulders above almost everything else in science fiction.

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