The Book of the New Sun


Hwaet..... time to start off the slow read discussion. Is everyone good to go soon-ish?

Some general comments on how this will go:

  • I'll post a new discussion thread each Wednesday, starting on the 20th March (most likely evening, UK time).
  • The idea of the slow read is to give us time to discuss each few chapters, which will be around 40 pages each week.
  • If you're rereading the book, try to treat it on its own terms, and read as if you're reading for the first time. Please don't rush ahead with the reading if you can avoid it, but equally, please try not to look ahead. Read it as if it's the first time through, and try not to say things in the discussion referring to later chapters. If you have a thought, note it, and come back when the later chapter comes around. Some of us will be more familiar with the book than others. Some of us will be reading for the first time.
  • Also, if you can avoid it, please try to avoid falling behind.

Now, some Book of the New Sun specific thoughts: I don't think it's a "difficult" book, but there are some ways it's strange.

  • It's a first person narration, and the narrator isn't always reliable. He doesn't lie, but sometimes evades issues, shows bias, and leaves gaps.
  • There are plenty of mysteries when reading. We won't get to the bottom of them all. And the clues to some of these are where there are gaps. I think one can have a good time reading it without trying to puzzle everything out, but not everything is easily or clearly explained.
  • Read without a dictionary to hand. This is unusual advice, but the author makes deliberate use of archaic words to invoke an exotic effect, and they're deliberately obscure ones. He does this rather than inventing words for strange and alien concepts, and for me it adds to the atmosphere. I'm not saying don't look things up- I'm suggesting don't stop reading a chapter to look things up.
  • Have fun. Don't get hung up on what people say about there being challenges in working everything out, or the narrative not being completely traditional. It's not hard to read. It's interesting, and gripping. It's not pretentious. And it's an enjoyable read.

There's more on these points here, if you want to get yourself juiced up for reading.


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    edited March 2019

    And the schedule: I'll edit to add in the rest of the precise dates. I've put breaks between volumes 1 and 2, and 2 and 3; there are breaks in the book's narrative between those and I wanted to mirror that as well as give us a rest.

    The Shadow of the Torturer
    Week 1 (20th March discussion)
    Chapter 1: Resurrection and Death
    Chapter 2: Severian
    Chapter 3: The Autarch's Face
    Chapter 4: Triskele

    Week 2 (27th March discussion)
    Chapter 5: The Picture Cleaner and Others
    Chapter 6: The Master of the Curators
    Chapter 7: The Traitress
    Chapter 8: The Conversationalist

    Week 3 (3rd April discussion)
    Chapter 9: The House Azure
    Chater 10: The Last Year
    Chapter 11: The Feast
    Chapter 12: The Traitor

    Week 4 (10th April discussion)
    Chapter 13: The Lictor of Thrax
    Chapter 14: Terminus Est
    Chapter 15: Baldanders
    Chapter 16: The Rag Shop

    Week 5 (17th April discussion)
    Chapter 17: The Challenge
    Chapter 18: The Destruction of the Altar
    Chapter 19: The Botanic Gardens
    Chapter 20: Father Inire's Mirros

    Week 6 (24th April discussion)
    Chapter 21: The Hut in the Jungle
    Chapter 22: Dorcas
    Chapter 23: Hildegrin
    Chapter 24: The Flower of Dissolution

    Week 7 (1st May discussion)
    Chapter 25: The Inn of Lost Loves
    Chapter 26: Sennet
    Chapter 27: Is He Dead?

    Week 8 (8th May discussion)
    Chapter 28: Carnifex
    Chapter 29: Agilus
    Chapter 30: Night
    Chapter 31: The Shadow of the Torturer

    Week 9 (15th May discussion)
    Chapter 32: The Play
    Chapter 33: Five Legs
    Chapter 34: Morning
    Chapter 35: Hethor

    Week 10

    The Claw of the Conciliator
    Week 11 (29th May discussion)
    Chapter 1: The Village of Saltus
    Chapter 2: The Man in the Dark
    Chapter 3: The Showman's Tent

    Week 12 (5th June)
    Chapter 4: The Bouquet
    Chapter 5: The Bourne
    Chapter 6: Blue Light

    Week 13 (12th June)
    Chapter 7: The Assassins
    Chapter 8: The Cultellarii
    Chapter 9: The Liege of Leaves

    Week 14 (19th June)
    Chapter 10: Thea
    Chapter 11: Thecla
    Chapter 12: The Notules

    Week 15 (26th June)
    Chapter 13: The Claw of the Conciliator
    Chapter 14: The Antechamber
    Chapter 15: Fool's Fire

    Week 16 (3rd July)
    Chapter 16: Jonas
    Chapter 17: The Tale of the Student and His Son
    Chapter 18: Mirrors
    Chapter 19: Closets

    Week 17 (10th July)
    Chapter 20: Pictures
    Chapter 21: Hydromancy
    Chapter 22: Personifications

    Week 18 (17th July)
    Chapter 23: Jolenta
    Chapter 24: Dr. Talos' Play
    Chapter 25: The Attack on the Heirodules

    Week 19 (24th July)
    Chapter 26: Parting
    Chapter 27: Towards Thrax
    Chapter 28: The Odalisque of Abaia

    Week 20 (31st July)
    Chapter 29: The Herdsmen
    Chapter 30: The Badger Again
    Chapter 31: The Cleansing

    Week 21: Break

    The Sword of the Lictor
    Week 22 (14th August)
    Chapter 1: Master of the House of Chains
    Chapter 2: Upon the Cataract
    Chapter 3: Outside the Jacal
    Chapter 4: In the Bartizan of the Vincula

    Week 23 (21st August)
    Chapter 5: Cyriaca
    Chapter 6: The Library of the Citadel
    Chapter 7: Attractions
    Chapter 8: Upon the Cliff

    Week 24 (28th August)
    Chapter 9: The Salamander
    Chapter 10: Lead
    Chapter 11: The Hand of the Past
    Chapter 12: Following the Flood

    Week 25 (4th September)
    Chapter 13: Into the Mountains
    Chapter 14: The Widow's House
    Chapter 15: He Is Ahead of You!
    Chapter 16: The Alzabo

    Week 26 (11th September)
    Chapter 17: The Sword of the Lictor
    Chapter 18: Severian and Severian
    Chapter 19: The Tale of the Boy Called Frog

    Week 27 (18th September)
    Chapter 20: The Circle of the Sorcerers
    Chapter 21: The Duel of Magic
    Chapter 22: The Skirts of the Mountain
    Chapter 23: The Cursed Town

    Week 28 (25th September)
    Chapter 24: The Corpse
    Chapter 25: Typhon and Piaton
    Chapter 26: The Eyes of the World
    Chapter 27: On High Paths

    Week 29 (2nd October)
    Chapter 28: The Hetman's Dinner
    Chapter 29: The Hetman's Boat
    Chapter 30: Natrium
    Chapter 31: The People of the Lake

    Week 30 (9th October)
    Chapter 32: To the Castle
    Chapter 33: Ossipago, Barbatus, and Famulimus
    Chapter 34: Masks
    Chapter 35: The Signal

    Week 31 (16th October)
    Chapter 36: The Fight in the Bailey
    Chapter 37: Terminus Est
    Chapter 38: The Claw

    The Citadel of the Autarch
    Week 32 (23rd October)
    Chapter 1: The Dead Soldier
    Chapter 2: The Living Soldier
    Chapter 3: Through Dust
    Chapter 4: Fever

    Week 33 (30th October)
    Chapter 5: The Lazaret
    Chapter 6: Miles, Foila, Melito, and Hallvard
    Chapter 7: Hallvard's Story—The Two Sealers

    Week 34 (6th November)
    Chapter 8: The Pelerine
    Chapter 9: Melito's Story—The Cock, the Angel, and the Eagle
    Chapter 10: Ava
    Chapter 11: Loyal to the Group of Seventeen's Story—The Just Man

    Week 35 (13th November)
    Chapter 12: Winnoc
    Chapter 13: Foila's Story—The Armiger's Daughter
    Chapter 14: Mannea
    Chapter 15: The Last House

    Week 36 (20th November)
    Chapter 16: The Anchorite
    Chapter 17: Ragnarok—The Final Winter
    Chapter 18: Folia's Request
    Chapter 19: Guasacht

    Week 37 (27th November)
    Chapter 20: Patrol
    Chapter 21: Deployment
    Chapter 22: Battle

    Week 38 (4th December)
    Chapter 23: The Pelagic Argosy Sights Land
    Chapter 24: The Flier
    Chapter 25: The Mercy of Agia
    Chapter 26: Above the Jungle

    Week 39 (11th December)
    Chapter 27: Before Vodalus
    Chapter 28: On the March
    Chapter 29: Autarch of the Commonwealth
    Chapter 30: The Corridors of Time

    Week 40 (18th December)
    Chapter 31: The Sand Garden
    Chapter 32: The Samru
    Chapter 33: The Citadel of the Autarch
    Chapter 34: The Key to the Universe

    Week 41 (28th December; slightly later because I doubt we want to discuss on Christmas Day)
    Chapter 35: Father Inire's Letter
    Chapter 36: Of Bad Gold and Burning
    Chapter 37: Across the River Again
    Chapter 38: Resurrection

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    Cool. I'll put together a Google calendar some time this week.
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    I'll probably be late joining this one (breaking rule 4 already!) but will catch up. 41 weeks - this will bring us to Christmas, I think. This looks daunting when presented this way, but the chapters are quite short, and the entire work amounts to a little over 800 pages, which is 300 less than The Lord of the Rings.

    Please keep in mind we also have monthly books to discuss - hopefully everyone won't abandon those for the long read.

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    Thanks...I won't say no to the offer of help there!

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    Thank-you! And Chris, you were right about the finish at Christmas. I agree with not letting it interfere with the monthly book club discussions.

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    @dr_mitch said:
    Thank-you! And Chris, you were right about the finish at Christmas.

    Best head-math I've done in years.

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    My head-canon shoots your head-canon!

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    I'm back and I'm in! Catching up on the reading and will be ready to go this week! This looks wonderful and thank you all for the coordination and calendar efforts!

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    Oho- it will be great to have you on board!

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    It seems Gene Wolfe has died. Tor has an obituary:

    The science fiction and fantasy community has lost a beloved icon. We are extremely sad to report that author and SFWA Grand Master Gene Wolfe passed away on Sunday, April 14, 2019 after his long battle with heart disease. He was 87.

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    @NeilNjae Thanks for bringing this to our attention - another great passes. I myself don't know Wolfe's work well enough, but my re-reading of The Shadow of the Torture has given me a new appreciation for his writing. I actually have quite a few of his books, and fully intend on reading all of them one day - The Fifth Head of Cerberus, the Latro series, and the Epiphany of the Long Sun.

    For some reason I thought he was involved in the Timuras series (loosely based on Omar Khayyam), but that was actually by Allan Cole, who coincidentally just died 2 weeks ago.

    The obit links to a New Yorker article which is quite interesting. Quite a few paragraphs discuss the Book of the New Sun and might make interesting discussion fodder. Also note that LeGuin referred to Wolfe as 'Our Melville' - a connection we already noted.

    For science-fiction readers, “The Book of the New Sun” is roughly what “Ulysses” is to fans of the modern novel: far more people own a copy than have read it all the way through. A surreal bildungsroman, the book centers on a character named Severian. Trained as a torturer on the planet Urth, where torturers are a feared and powerful guild, Severian betrays his order by showing mercy, allowing a prisoner to kill herself rather than be subjected to his terrible ministrations. He then wanders the land encountering giants, anarchists, and members of religious cults. He eventually meets and supplants the ruler of Urth, the Autarch.

    The four books that make up the series are sometimes vexing. A wise reader will keep a dictionary nearby, but it won’t always prove useful. Though Wolfe relies merely on the strangeness of English—rather than creating a new language, like Elven or Klingon—he nonetheless dredges up some truly obscure words: cataphract, fuligin, metamynodon, cacogens. The setting appears medieval, but slowly we tease out that what is ancient to these characters was once our own possible future. A desert’s sands are the glass of a great city, and the creaking steel walls that make up Severian’s cell in the guild dormitory is likely an ancient spaceship. Reading “The Book of the New Sun” is dizzying; at times, you become convinced that you have cracked a riddle, and yet the answer fails to illuminate the rest of the story. Wolfe doesn’t reveal the truth behind any of the central mysteries explicitly, but lets them carry the narrative along. At first, one hopes that they will eventually be resolved. Ultimately, they become less important than Severian’s quest for his own truth.

    Unlike Latro, Severian remembers everything. But this does not make him a more reliable narrator. “The fact that he remembers everything doesn’t mean he won’t color the events through his own preconceptions and preferences,” Wolfe told me. Severian is free to pick and choose what he wants the reader to know—there are times when he loses trust in his own judgment, and at one point he even admits that he might be insane. In the early part of the first novel, “The Shadow of the Torturer,” Severian is given more responsibility in the guild and finds himself in chambers he was once denied access to. In one, he sees a dusty and faded picture he describes as “an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner.” Careful readers will realize this as a photograph of the first moon landing, but to Severian it merely evokes a deep nostalgia, as well as a desire to steal the picture and bring it outside, away from the stifling interior of the guild’s Citadel.

    Moments like this have turned many of Wolfe’s fans into something like Biblical exegetes, who dig deep into his texts in the hope of finding clues not only to the plots and the characters but to Wolfe’s larger intentions. Partly what readers are excavating is Wolfe’s Catholicism, which he is quick to say figures into his writing. “What is impossible is to keep it out,” he told me. “The author cannot prevent the work being his or hers.” Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Novelist and Believer,” cautions novelists to use religious concerns in ways that do not alienate the reader, to render encounters with the ineffable so that even those who might not understand or care for a particular metaphor—Aslan the Lion as Christ, for example—can still be moved by it. Many critics have speculated that Severian is a Christ figure: he brings the New Sun and puts an end to the cruelty of torture. But Wolfe wraps his Catholicism in strange language and cryptic images. Truth of any kind, no matter how closely you read, is hard to come by in Wolfe’s books. And yet, over time, it does seem to emerge.

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