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October 19, 2003


Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Regarding Severian, of course then there's critic John Clute's famous thesis that the Book of the New Sun is Severian's political apologia for having seized the Autarchy, thus accounting for several glaring inconsistencies in his narrative and the lack of motivation that you note.

Of course, the further you go into the universe of the New Sun, the weirder it all gets--time loops a-go-go, among other things. Clute has also remarked that Wolfe's books are machines for generating a "frenzy of interpretation."

Chun the Unavoidable

I'd like to post more about this, but I'll say now that I cannot decide if The Urth of the New Sun corroborates Clute's idea, which I'm mostly find persuasive.


Greetings, Patrick and Chun. No, I didn't know Clute had advanced that thesis. Well, it's bold enough. I'll have to think about it.

By the by, Belle and I came up with rather a bold hypothesis about "Peace" - but maybe the rest of the world already figured it out for themselves: we are actually reading about our dead protagonist in the Book of Gold. That is, a book written by the forger, Gold.


I should add, giving credit where due: I proposed this reading to Henry Farrell, billing it as 'we are reading Gold's book', and he made the obvious connection with The Book of Gold in the New Sun books.

Timothy Burke

Nice thoughts and observations. Besides Clute's theory, I've also had the thought that the strangely distanced feel of Severian in The Book of the New Sun was an important part of one of the key aesthetic achievements of the series, which is to successfully represent an alien-ated social world and consciousness, e.g., one which is alien to the human subjectivities we know. That Wolfe does this with "human beings" is all the more impressive to me--I've long thought of The Book of the New Sun as a good guide to how one might go about trying to actually substantively represent the content of some past mode of consciousness or mentalite while also seeing it as impenetrably alien or inaccessible. It's not surprising to me at all for that reason that Wolfe has been drawn to the classical Greeks, who often pose precisely this problem for me.

But I think you clarify the extent to which these effects are not a specific representational objective for Wolfe in The Book of the New Sun but instead a consistent aesthetic that he maintains in all of his work. It's still interesting then but it starts to become more a general schtick and less a specific technique for achieving a specific artistic aim.


John, I think you're onto something. There's an interesting contrast to be drawn between Wolfe and Crowley - esp. clear in "The Haunted Boarding House" in _Strange Travelers_ which is, I think, a sort of indirect riff on _Little, Big_, but transforms the very real warmth of that book into something chill, formal and austere. Wolfe can occasionally be warm and funny - _Free Live Free_ is charming. However, it's the exception.

My very strong impression is that when Wolfe doesn't write in the first person impersonal, his work is greatly inferior. I'm not a great fan of his "Book of the Long Sun" series, and I think that these books don't work as well because of the absence of a detached narrator. But I think that Timothy is right; the narrator in Wolfe doesn't so much make sense of things, as he gives you the impression that things make sense in some alien and inaccessible context. He doesn't act as an interpreter as such; rather he gives you the feeling that there is an order to events, even if that order isn't discernible to the reader. And it's interesting how consistently Wolfe's narrators are _fractured_ in some sense or another (composite personalities, traces of memory, brain damaged, artificial identities) - they are not only inaccessible to the reader, but they're partly inaccessible to themselves.

Timothy - I like the idea of Wolfe as a historien des mentalites. One of the grumpier, more conservative ones - Philippe Aries perhaps, who, after Vatican II, used to listen to music on headphones when attending Mass, so that he could avoid hearing the liturgy in the abominable vernacular.


It strikes me that for Wolfe, theology is a passion.

I want to expand that comment in several directions -- Chesterton, Byzantium as a model for Urth, Flannery O'Connor -- but I am still wrung out from the Packer game.


Hello - I'm new here (thanks to Patrick's Electrolite for the pointer.) A couple of thoughts sparked by the discussion so far, especially Henry's comments. The Clute material which Patrick refers to is in his book Strokes (1988), which had a print on demand reprint recently. I believe, however, that Clute has since recanted the more speculative bit of his theorising, about Severian's mother.

I strongly agree with Henry about the number of Wolfe narrators who are damaged/fractured, though he does sometimes produce exceptional stories about them written in the third person (eg a lot of the stuff in The Island of Dr Death and Other Stories and Other Stories). I too find the tone of The Book of the Long Sun (and Short Sun) less compelling, but I think this is a conscious choice on Wolfe's part. I think he wants to use those books to describe what an ordinary life is like (Horn getting married, having kids), especially when it comes into someone extraordinary, Silk. But there is a sense in which this undermines the strangeness which readers of the New Sun books know.

And Wolfe as the anti-Crowley...yes, very possibly. If you look at the depiction of religion and its effects in (eg) Daemonomania, you might get a further sense of the difference.

Doug Muir

Agreed, that _The Book of the New Sun_ is a tremendous achievement. But I got turned off Wolfe by the creepy streak of misogyny that pops up in, well, a little too much of his stuff.

It's been more noticeable in his more recent work -- say, since the start of the _Long Sun_ tetralogy -- but if you start looking for it, you can find it in some of his stuff as far back as the 1970s. (I can give examples, if anyone's interested.)

If memory serves, it was largely absent in the _New Sun_ books; the female characters there are about as (un)sympathetic as the males. Which is good.

Doug M.


Just thought I'd mention the Urth mailing list - archived at http://www.urth.net/urth/

This is what I think you'd call a "frenzy of interpretation" in progress.

chris hall

there's a nice "journal for the study of Gene Wolfe" at

and a wolfe-related blog at


This thread is wandering ... I want to post about the initial question, which asks why Severian doesn't seem to care that he doesn't know why he is doing what he is doing ... and why it doesn't bother the audience any.

My personal answer is that Severian is a classical hero, in the style of Hector or Aeneas: his principal motivation is the ancient concept of "pietas", and his destiny is set by the gods and the fates, the way destiny is set in the ancient works. It works partly because Wolfe is copying from the best, of course -- you cannot do better than Vergil or Homer. But it also works on its own, and we respect Severian for it, because we recognize a man who always does the right thing. He's "chilly" the way Aeneas is chilly -- and in fact I think the whole Thecla/Severian is very Aeneas/Dido in its dynamics -- but we recognize there is a human heart within: it's simply that it can't be the only thing, or perhaps even the main thing guiding him. And all the divine and semi-divine creatures around him recognize it too; it's in accordance with the rules of their world, that is all.


First, let me thank Chris and Matt for providing those links. I appreciate it.

Now, Diana: I am initially quite won over by your suggestion. Wolfe isn't like Homer, but - yes, you are right - he may be very like Virgil. Severian/Thecla is very Aeneas/Dido. Or, rather Thecla/Agia are the two halves of the Dido love/hate dichotomy. (Is it the peculiar fate of the Aeneas-type to be very emotionally withholding - to select a humorously modern term for this temperament - and terribly buffeted by the passions of females?)

The comparison isn't perfect, of course (why would it be? no need for that.) And I will really have to think about this one. But the stately, rather mournful chill of Wolfe could be said to be very Virgilian. Interesting. One of the things that provoked me to write my post was vexation with the lousy blurbs on my copy of New Sun, trumpeting it as Wagnerian and various other things it obviously isn't. I toyed with 'Nabokovian', but that is not so much wrong as intolerably incomplete and misleading. 'Virgilian-Nabokovian', then. That's what Wolfe is (maybe). Must tell Belle to think about this one, since she's the Virgil scholar in the house. (And a big Nabokov fan.)

Thanks, Diana


Picked up one of the Long Sun books after reading this thread, and it's quite good if you like that civilizations-aboard-spaceships subgenre, which I do.
No one here will be shocked to learn where Wolfe's stuff comes from. It's a pretty hair-raising place; see http://mysite.verizon.net/~vze2tmhh/wolfejbj.html and, if you still have the stomach, http://home.clara.net/andywrobertson/wolfemountains.html.

chris hall

Wolfe's new adventure has begun: The Knight. I'm about 10 chapters (short chapters) into it and thoroughly enjoying it thus far. The protagonist has some features of Patera Silk (a title, for one: he's Sir Able), and some features of Severian (well, he's looking for a swort, though it's not Terminus Est).

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