The OF Blog: Gene Wolfe, The Urth of the New Sun

Friday, December 07, 2007

Gene Wolfe, The Urth of the New Sun

Having cast one manuscript into the seas of time, I now begin again. Surely it is absurd; but I am not - I will not be - so absurd myself as to suppose that this will ever find a reader, even in me. Let me describe then, to no one and nothing, just who I am and what it is that I have done to Urth (p. 1)
These words which open Gene Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun, serve to describe the difficulty many readers have had in placing this book in context with the four-volume The Book of the New Sun. It has been referred to by Wolfe and others as a "coda" of sorts, a little piece separate in mood and tone from the preceding volumes that is nonetheless attached as an addendum that refers back to the prior work as a basis for its own story. Published in 1987 due to a request from Wolfe's editor, David Hartwell, that there be at least something that explained what happened to Severian and the mysterious "New Sun," The Urth of the New Sun has confounded and frustrated numerous readers over the past twenty years. As I have done with the previous volumes, I plan on discussing a few thematic elements in the book (while admitting that there certainly shall be fascinating elements that I will not touch upon, similar to how I left certain areas blank in the other New Sun books so readers could discover/discuss that themselves), so for those who fear "spoilers" like elementary kids fear cooties, this post might not be for you.

The story opens ten years after Severian has returned as Autarch to Nessus. Now known as Severian the Lame due to the injury he received in The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian is finally ready to assume the task hinted at in Father Inire's letter (a letter which bears careful reading for its shifts in style); he is going to seek to bring the New Sun to Urth, so that the old, red sun might be rejuvenated and that life on Urth might be renewed. Severian has boarded a seven-sided, multi-masted "ship" that sails "between the suns" and dips and darts in time. This ship is set to leave Severian's universe for the "higher" one of Yesod, seeking that a "white fountain," which is a mass of energy/matter spilling from that universe into the next-lower (or Severian's) one, could be used to replace the matter lost by Severian's sun (which apparently has had a small black hole enter it, draining it of matter). It is this quest and its immediate aftermath that has frustrated and appealed to so many of Wolfe's readers.

Like the ship mentioned above, the narrative seems to dip and dart back and forth like a darning needle through time. Severian encounters all sorts of people on this ship, some of whom have been sent by Abaia to thrawt Severian's quest. Of those who wish Severian to fail, one fears the changes that are predicted to occur. Severian himself reflects back to when he was part of Dr. Talo's play (found near the end of The Claw of the Conciliator), in which his "character" speaks these lines:

In future times, so it has long been said, the death of the old sun will destroy Urth. But from its grave will rise monsters, a new people, and the New Sun. Old Urth will flower as a butterfly from its dry husk, and the New Urth shall be called Ushas. (p. 65)
This prophecy, which extends from the time of the Conciliator, contains an interesting word: Ushas. This name, derived from the Hindu goddess of the dawn, symbolizes a dawning of a new age, one which becomes even more apparent as Severian finally comes into full contact with the Hierogrammate Tzadkiel, who is named after the Angel of the Mercy of the Lord according to Cabbalistic tradition.

Severian has known the entire time that his journey shall end in a trial, a trial in which if he fails, he will be emasculated, transformed into an androgyne, and Urth shall be fated to die a cold, wintry death as seen in the vision of Master Ash's house back in The Citadel of the Autarch. But as he goes, he comes to discover there are more levels to this journey and trial than meeting up with the most holy of slaves. The scene below is from the ship's arrival at Yesod (which is apparently the name given to the planet as well as to the universe). Pay close attention to the wording:

One of the cloaked women mounted a seat and clapped her hands for quiet. Because the sailors' high spirits had not been fueled with wine, she was soon obeyed, and my riddle answered: through the thin walls I could hear, however faintly, the rush of the icy air of Yesod. No doubt I had heard it before without being conscious of it.

"Dear friends," the woman began. "We thank you for your welcome and your help, and for all the many kindnesses all of you have shown us on board your vessel."

Various sailors spoke or shouted replies, some merely good-natured, others glowing with that rustic politeness which makes the manners of courtiers seem so cheap.

"Many of you are yourselves from Urth, I know. Perhaps it would be well to determine how many. May I see a show of hands? Raise one hand, please, if you were born upon the world called Urth."

Nearly everyone present raised his hand.

"You know that we have condemned the peoples of Urth, and why. They now feel they have earned our forgiveness, and the chance to resume the places they held of old -"

Most of the sailors booed and jeered, including Purn, but not (as I noted) Gunnie.

"And they have dispatched their Epitome to claim it for them. That he lost heart and concealed himself from us should not be counted against him or them. Rather we consider that the sense of his world's guilt so manifested should be reckoned in their favor. As you see, we are about to take him to Yesod for his assize. Even as he will represent Urth in the dock, so must others represent it on the gradins. None of you need come, but we have your captain's permission to take from among you those who wish to come. They will be returned to this ship before it sailds again. Those who do not should leave us now." (p. 112-113)
Although it had only been alluded to until then, Urth had been "tried" and found guilty by the Hierogrammates, with the black hole afflicting the sun being their punishment. Although no specific reason is given to this point, one may presume it might be related to issues of rapaciousness and cruelty towards fellow humans and other beings. Severian, in both a symbolic and very real sense, is standing trial as the "epitome" of humankind. It is his character and his flaws that shall be put on trial by Tzadkiel, to see if Urth is worthy of mercy. In some senses, this scene of a single man (for in the end, nervous as he was and despite his desire to flee, Severian did present himself for judgment) standing in place of all of humanity parallels that of Christ on his cross, bearing the weight of Original Sin in traditional Catholic/Orthodox Christian teachings. As this trial progresses (I am being vaguely purposely, in case some might not have heeded my warning and are reading this before reading the book), Severian sees his life and the characters within it flash before him. It is the testimony of his enemies that speaks most clearly of the person that Severian was on Urth. It is based on this testimony that Tzadkiel grants him the white fountain, or "New Sun" to bring back to Urth.

However, this scene, climatic as it might seem, occurs roughly halfway into the novel. Severian has to travel back in time/place, using powers granted to him by Tzadkiel (some of which pre-manifested themselves to an extent, as we saw in certain scenes in the original four volumes). It turns out that Severian was not just the Conciliator, but also Apu-Punchau, who was seen briefly in the last part of The Claw of the Conciliator.

But this plot summary only scratches the surface. While some people struggled mightily with the hither-thither time-traveling aspects of the story, I think those were done to highlight how the character of Severian had grown and developed. Also, these scenes help to make clear something that until now I had only hinted at in the previous reviews.

Artifice and manipulation run rampant behind the scenes in the New Sun universe. Not only has Severian purposely neglected to share important occurrences in the story, but also there are strong hints that these Hierogrammates are stand-ins or analogues for angels. While my interpretation might not be the best in some regards (doubtless, others can jump in and share theirs in the comments section), I would argue that Wolfe purposely used the Kabbalah as a starting point for showed a theosophy that while on the surface might seem to be a just and merciful one, ended up being just one more layer of manipulation. The Hierogrammates, godlike as they might appear, are little more than creations of human-like beings from another universe who sought to replicate their image in another universe. Tzadkiel reveals this in conversation with Severian during the trial phase and it becomes quite apparent that the Hierogrammates themselves are acting upon little more than pre-programmed messages from those mysterious beings that are never seen in the Solar Cycle novels. God is off-screen, "outside" the action taking place. In fact, some like Peter Wright (see his book Attending Daedalus for his take on the Solar Cycle books) have argued that what we see in Severian's trial is but the beginning of the manipulation and not its culmination.

Why does Urth need a "Conciliator?" Why does it have to worry about scourges such as Vodalus and Agia? What were they "rebelling" against in the first place? Severian does note in passing in The Citadel of the Autarch their rebellion against "humanity," but this never really is covered openly - unless one decides, as Wright did in his book, that Severian, like the Autarchs before him, has been co-opted by the Hierogrammates to act as their "agent" on Urth. Urth has not been cooperative with the Hierogrammates' desired goals, which apparently are to take these human analogues to their old masters and to build them up to becoming them in all but the most exact of measures.

While there is much to this, I am uncertain if Wright's view is the most apt here. While he does point out the "wolfish" symbols about them (the wolf almost always appearing in some guise in Wolfe's novels), I suspect that a more traditional religious reading of Severian's trial might be as key to understanding the story as Wright's arguments for Wolfe making a case for the insidiousness of manipulation and artifice (symbols standing in place of Truth being the main one). But then again, perhaps there are more keys to be found in the other books of the Solar Cycle, which I shall review over the next week or so, albeit not necessarily in the format that I've done the New Sun books.


Martin LaBar said...

Another good job. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I would like to note that Peter Wright is a socialist and atheist. Thus I think he rather wrongly projects his own philosophical leanings onto the work of Gene Wolfe who is religious and more conservative, politically (in fact the Ascians and other parts of this series can be seen as an indictment of socialism).

A true believer has faith that all the acts of God, no matter how awful they seem on the surface, work to further His greater purpose which we must willingly submit. The atheist sees the contradiction of evil as evidence of the absence of God and the basic manipulative nature of the Church.

Thus I think Wolfe sees the manipulations of the Hierogrammates as necessary to shape the human race into what it should be. The idea: "we must be put through hell before we can get to heaven."

Wright prefers to see the Hierogrammates as the sort of evil intelligence which uses religion here on earth to manipulate the minds and futures of billions to further their own selfish goals.

mordicai said...

I just blogged about this a big, having just read "Attending Daedalus."

I think the trick is: Wright misses the transubstantial meaning. Sure, the hierodules are alien-robot-posthuman-whatevers. & they need a human race to invent them. That doesn't mean they aren't the same thing as angels.

dad dog said...

Thank you, Larry.

I've read BoTNS twice, but Urth only once.

The only thing I'm struggling with: the tomb in the necropolis, with Severian's likeness. Is there no explanation . . . or just one that I missed?

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