All Tomorrows: The Book of the New Sun

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.
-From The Shadow of the Torturer

Severian is a hero, cast with objects of great power (including a badass sword, natch) upon a path that will take him to great heights and strange places. He may even save his world. Cue swelling music.

But wait; Severian is a torturer. His world is Urth to its inhabitants. The moon is green, the sun old and dying. There are rumors that the great citadels of his ancient city once moved between the stars. What, then, are the angels and holy relics that fill the land?

Such is the setup of Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece The Book of the New Sun, a genre-bending four book epic equal parts philosophical treatise, rich allegory and Romantic odyssey.

Wolfe was one of the leading lights of sci-fi’s Deviant Age; that blazing era from 1965 to 1985 when no concept seemed out of bounds. As with Tanith Lee, he did so much brilliant work throughout that time (and after) that any number would be excellent topics for their own column.

The Book of the New Sun comes at the end of that period, and in it Wolfe melds the shocking innovation of his earlier career with a deep undrerstanding the power of old tales well-told.

With multi-volume works, I usually prefer to pick out the strongest entry. Here, I’ll make an exception. The entirety of Wolfe’s opus is so damn good that I found myself unable to choose a single part. It is, like the best epics, one tale. More on the Gothic adventure to end all Gothic adventures, below.

One, larger or at least bolder than the rest, advanced on me. He carried a short-hafted mace whose shaft had once been a thigh bone. Just out of sword-reach he threatened me with it, roaring and slapping the metal head of his weapon in a long hand.

Something disturbed the water behind me, and I turned in time to see one of the glowing man-apes fording the stream. He leaped backwards as I slashed at him, but the square blade-tip caught him below the armpit. So fine was that blade, so magnificently tempered and perfectly edged, that it cut its way out through the breastbone.

He fell and the water carried his corpse away, but before the stroke went home I had seen that he waded into the stream with distaste, and that it had slowed his movements at least as much as it had slowed mine. Turning to keep all my attackers in view, I backed into it and began slowly to move toward the point where it ran to the outside world. I felt that if I could once reach the constricted tunnel I would be safe; but I knew too that they would never permit me to do so.

They gathered more thickly around me until there must have been several hundred. The light they gave was so great that I could see that the squared masses I had glimpsed earlier were indeed buildings, apparently the most ancient construction, built of seamless gray stone and soiled everywhere by the dung of bats.

Epics are funny things. Go to your average bookstore, wind your way to the sci-fi/fantasy section and you will find the shelves heavy with their weight. Most of them are faded shadows — copies of copies of copies — of The Lord of the Rings, such a classic since that its tentacles still hold much of the fantasy world tight in elder thrall.

But there are exceptions, strange jewels hanging around here or there. A good epic — and this is among the best — will not let you go. You will fall in love with the characters and descend into their world. The most rational of people will stay up long, unhealthy hours, ravenous for the next part of the plot.

If the concision of well-crafted short story best preserves its power, the sheer doorstop length of an epic can also serve a purpose, and immersion in its Leviathan depths has a strength all its own.

But said epic must be good and sadly, few of them are. Wolfe could have simply inverted many of the usual tropes and, in his practiced hands, still produced an engaging story. Likewise he could have just told a basic quest tale with better writing and more realistic characters; it would probably have worked.

Instead he blew the whole damn thing open, pulling off both magic tricks at once, plus a few more just for good measure. The amazing thing, upon reading it multiple times, is that it works. Not just a little bit, not just in some passages, but through all of it.

Wolfe chose, in a rare move for any epic, to ditch multiple points of view and plot threads. The entire tale is told through Severian’s eyes as he makes his way (in cloak blacker than the blackest black, literally) through the wreckage of old eras and the stirrings of new. Save for names, there are no invented words in the entire story. The references to onagers, uhlans and barbicans — among a slew of other archaic terms — are the mark of a medieval mind trying to comprehend a far vaster world:

No intellect is needed to see those figures who wait beyond the void of death–every child is aware of them, blazing, with glories dark or bright, wrapped in authority older than the universe. They are the stuff of our earliest dreams, as of our dying visions. Rightly we feel our lives guided by them, and rightly too we feel how little we matter to them, the builders of the unimaginable, the fighters of wars beyond the totality of existence.

The difficulty lies in learning that we ourselves encompass forces equally as great. We say, “I will,” and “I will not,” and imagine ourselves (though we obey the orders of some prosaic person every day) our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves.

The sword Severian carries on his quest is dubbed Terminus Est, “the line that divides.” But throughout Wolfe constantly blurs lines and roles. Severian claims his memory is perfect, for example, but repeatedly forgets or overlooks important details.

Epics, even nuanced ones, normally rely heavily on such divisions, on the stark difference between Savior and Dark Lord. Instead characters shift rapidly, in Severian’s view, from hero to victim to villain. Yet Wolfe still writes battles, intrigues and midnight graveyard duels with the adrenaline-fueled immediacy they deserve.

As it is told from Severian’s vantage point, the alien landscape all around him is slowly unveiled. I remember the jolt that ran up my spine the first time I realized that all the mountains — every one — in this decaying future have been carved into busts of ancient monarchs.

I will not give away too much more, because the unfolding multitude of surprises in these books are one of their prime pleasures. Suffice to say that Wolfe ended up crafting some of the most rewarding literature to come out of sci-fi or fantasy and a tale worth reading long past sane hours.

Question: I’ve gushed about my favorite epic. What’s yours? What series captured you in its (possibly unsavory) clutches? Why does it hold a special place in your heart?

19 Responses to “All Tomorrows: The Book of the New Sun”

  1. R. Says:

    You know, I don’t really have a favorite epic. Unless you can count the Sandman graphic novels as an epic. Just told in comic book format.

    Now I’m going to have to check this series out. I need to make a list of books to buy. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. My poor bookcase won’t be thanking me though.

  2. Whirr Says:

    Man, after Neil Gaiman raved and raved about it I had to read “Shadow and Claw” for myself–I’m not sure what I missed, but it did not work. What’s worse, I found the misogyny to be so overwhelming that a year later that’s all I can remember. Presumably I just got off on the wrong foot, though, because I like Gaiman’s writing a lot, and he was no less enthusiastic than you are.

    For my epic (and unsavory) contribution, I’ll throw out the Illuminatus Trillogy, although I’m sure everyone here has read it. Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. When I was a freshman in high school that conspiracy plot was almost as mind-blowing as the pornography, and it was also my first introduction to Eris (speaking of mind-blowing).

  3. Sterlingspider Says:

    Please please please don’t forget the fifth book; Urth of the New Sun! I’m actually in the middle of rereading this series for the.. um… well I’ve lost count of how many times its been really, but I simply couldn’t imagine reading the series without its proper coda.

    Book of the New Sun is in fact my favorite epic as well, but close second is The Hyperion Tetralogy by Dan Simmons. This is likewise a story of impossible advancement, impossible decay, pilgrims, self discovery, and even too the subsuming of the self.

    Oddly enough though I could reread these stories over and over I just can’t get into anything else by either Simmons or Wolfe. Even the related Long Sun series just didn’t have any hold on me.

  4. kc Says:

    I really liked this series – it was….different. Horror and beauty in equal measures. Leaps of plot that took serious thought to piece together. Mysteries that went unanswered, to nag at you even years later.

  5. alumiere Says:

    i really liked the book of the new sun on the second reading, but the first left me a bit cold (re-read after neil’s recommendation)

    it’s impossible to name just one or a few favorite “epics” so i’ll stick to the one i think makes an interesting contrast

    storm constantine’s wraeththu books – set on earth or a nearly identical world once humanity has managed to destroy the “modern” world by what seems to be genetically engineering a race that does them in – anyway, this has lots of points of view (and if you add in the histories and other material it becomes even more complex)

  6. Fausty Says:

    @Whirr: you can’t read one chunk of the “Book of the New Sun” and get a good idea of what the whole thing is about – it’s not really four separate books, it actually is one longer work (many authors claim this, but in this case it’s utterly true). The way the story unfolds later utterly transforms how the earlier parts of it sit in your mind – a whole series of those “ooooh, NOW I get it” experiences as you read further along. This is typical of Wolfe’s work and I don’t see it as some kind of rhetorical trick – it’s just how he writes. He seems to have these stories present themselves in full form in his head and then he writes them out – there’s no way someone could start writing them and then, down the road, “figure out” how to bring them to a close.

    I recommend this “series” all the time, and every time I really emphasize to folks that reading the first 1 or 2 volumes won’t get a portion of the overall experience, at all. You either dive in and trust everyone who says “it’s worth it, don’t give up” – or don’t bother reading them. The friend of mine who recommended them to me years ago said the same thing, I was skeptical. Read the first volume, wasn’t too impressed. Read the second, beh. Then, whoosh – Wolfe starts really showing what’s going on with the deeper structure of the story and I’m suddenly paging back to the earlier volumes, re-reading. . . did he REALLY just say that and not contradict the earlier works? Yep, how did I miss all that when I read the first 500 pages? It’s an utterly rewarding experience, and left me feeling that Wolfe is playing at a different level of narrative art.

    I’ve read a big chunk of Wolfe’s other stuff, which varies from impressive to so orthogonal it’s hard to really say it’s fun to read – even if it’s interesting as a writer myself, to see how he works. However, the exception to that rule is his latest, 2-part work “The Wizard Knight.” OUTSTANDING! Highly recommended. Again, starts in the first volume thinking “ok this is fine, not great but not too bad – worth reading I guess.” Then things start to show themselves as a bit more involuted. Ok, wait, now things get a bit more subtle – gotta go back and re-read some passages from earlier. Then, wham.

    A more substantive review I’ve posted of The Wizard Knight is available here:

    Fausty |

  7. Red Scharlach Says:

    The Aeneid.

  8. lonelocust Says:

    Book of the New Sun (+Urth of the New Sun) is also my favorite epic.

    Fausty mostly covered the points of being left cold, but needing to press on. Books 1-4 are, really, one long book. However, unlike many books that are difficult to warm up to but end up gripping you, the reason this is so in Book of the New Sun is distinctly expressible without ruining the plot.

    The story is told as if to someone who lives in the speculative world in which it is set. It is not told to someone who, in fact, lives in our world. Nothing is explained, because it is written as if the reader knows what the narrator (Severian) is talking about. Visual descriptions are given in much the way that we would give visual descriptions of something that happened to us to a friend – we might describe exactly what made someone’s outfit stunning and noticeable, but we don’t explain to them what pants are like. However, as we don’t live in that world, and don’t know what Severian is speaking of, it’s extremely confusing and at first seems purposefully obfuscated in order to seem mysterious (something which I for one despise in fiction, or information in general), yet after we have enough information to understand what is occurring, it is clear that the narration is completely straightforward, from Severian’s point of view.

    Now the things which make the eventually-understood-to-the-reader world make perfect sense and realize exactly how brilliant this work is will, in fact, cause spoilers to the books, so I’m not going to expound on them (much as I would like to). I will say that Wolfe uses devices – several devices – which are often trope in speculative fiction, but without ever treading close to the… tropiness of trope.

    And, if any have read Book of the New Sun but not Urth of the New Sun (somehow I missed its existence for many years), do pick it up, and be ready for Wolfe to shatter trope into originality again. The metaphysical premise of the epic is shattered, and then reconstructed in such a way that explains both the shattering and the original construction perfectly. (Imagine, if you will, if the end of the Matrix trilogy had left you saying OH MY GOD NOW I TOTALLY GET IT! instead of OMGWTFLOLBBQ!)

    But one warning – these books might be half of the reason that I ended up in perhaps the worst relationship of my life. True story! Beware!

  9. kris_ether Says:

    I read this series about 3 years ago, guided by the fact that Exalted (a White Wolf rpg) has reference to it as a source of inspiration. It did not disappoint. I cannot express how much I loved reading the entire series (something friends have also done after I got them to read it aswell) while Lord of the Rings I find a terrible bore. Wolfe paints such a grand picture while still keeping the pace of the story.

    Some of my favourite bits are when Severian is telling a tale from his book. These are often classic greek myths retold in a different way.

    Of course you have to read Urth of the New Sun to appreciate it all. My supervisor has borrowed it from me. He forgot that he read it about 15 or so years back. He found the moment he read it again all the characters flooded back (both from that book and the previous four).

    If I am going to suggest an epic, a monumental epic, try ‘Chung Kuo’ by David Wingrove. Think Blade Runner meets Crouching Tiger/Shogun. It’s a nine book monster and I am at the half way point.

  10. Bertrand Says:

    Zelazny – the cycle of Amber. Does that count as an epic ?

  11. Kitty Napalm Says:

    I began to read Book of the New Sun at the recommendation of my then-boyfriend [hi Kris] a couple years back… I never finished it, I’m not sure why. This wasn’t a random rec for me – I am a sci-fi and fantasy fan, and I do appreciate stories that are different and unique. But for some reason I found this off-putting, particularly the character of Severian, who I find to be misogynistic at best. I suppose that is simply his nature, however it influences much of the book and that’s not to my taste.

    The way Wolfe writes is original, but I think you really have to be into the story to get a grasp on his use of language, I found that it gave me a bit of a headache. Perhaps I need to re-condition my reading muscles.

    xx, Kitty

  12. John Klima Says:

    I loved The Book of the New Sun that I started a book club about them! We’re actually reading all 12 books of the Solar Cycle this year, one a month!

    I don’t know if it’s an epic, but I’ve also always loved Roger Zelazny’s Amber books.

  13. lonelocust Says:

    One other thing – “Terminus Est” means “It is the end.” “The line that divides” is a creative interpretation.

  14. Camilla Says:

    Steven King’s Dark Tower series. Epic epicness with a western slant.

  15. wOlFe_LuVr_4EvEr Says:

    How surprised was I to see my all-time favorite epic/series/piece of fiction of all-time featured on Coilhouse…? Well actually it kind of makes sense!

    Commentators here may write that they gave Wolfe a try because of Gaiman’s praise, but the majority of Wolfe’s work is easily a tier above. The Book of the New Sun includes layers upon layers of intrigue that can only be discovered through thorough scrutinizing as well as actually thinking about what, exactly, is really going on under the surface of Severian’s many (mis)adventures. Most authors don’t make you work so hard to grasp their writing’s meanings, but in this case the effort is certainly worth the realizations you’ll come to!

    I’ve recommended the New Sun to a number of people, but sadly have yet to find another girl that has actually enjoyed it (most can’t seem to stand the narration in that regard)…I guess I’m alone in that aspect of my love for these books :(

  16. Mary Says:

    Robin Hobb’s Assassins/Liveships/Tawny Man trilogies are my current favourites.

    I also love Raymond E. Feist’s Magician books, particularly the Empire ones he wrote with Janni Wurts

  17. Adam Rice Says:

    Book of the New Sun occupies a special shelf on my mental bookcase. I’ve read the whole thing twice through, slowly. I’ve read other books about it. And I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface.

    Fans of New Sun should also check out Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, which are faintly connected (through the character of Typhon).

  18. Jb Says:

    There is more in the book of the Long sun and the Short sun that connect it to the New sun. A Duke that originates from Nessus and that gets an unfortunate glimpse of it once more thanks to Horn/Silk.

  19. Adriano1977 Says:

    “I’ve gushed about my favorite epic. What’s yours?”
    @David Forbes: I am not a big fun of fantasy series, but the two I have a genuine love for are: Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.
    Back when I first read Donaldson’s book, it was the only fantasy book I’d read that wasn’t a rewrite of Lord Of The Rings, of the Dragonlance series (or of any rpg game, you pick one…), or of middle ages lore.
    Donaldson’s covenant, a disgraced best seller author, a leper, whose wife left him taking their son away with her, is transoprted to a fantasy world that only he can save, yet one that only he cannot accept. I’m probably too ignorant to recognize Donaldson’s sources, but it still strikes me as a wonderful book, full of great inventions and characters. You’ll hate and pity the main character, and you’ll bow in desperation to the main villain, indeed!
    Hopefully, the current final tetralogy, written decades after the second saga, won’t spoil it all a-la-Matrix..
    As for Gormnghast, I am hooked for life even though I am still reading the first part… In a way, it looks like a different version of those end of this dystopian, end of the world sagas the Book Of The New Sun embodies, though.
    Hope the long post (my first on Coilhouse) won’t annoy too much/too many, off I go!