The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s award-winning quartet, The Book of the New Sun. Before you dismiss it as mere genre fiction, expand your mind with this excerpt from an article on Wolfe in The New Yorker, “Sci-Fi’s Difficult Genius” (April 24, 2015).
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.
All right, I’m not a fan of Joyce, but Wolfe’s prose is hypnotic, lyrical, and yet restrained enough not to be distracting. The Book of the New Sun is (or was when I read it in the 1980s) one of my favorite tetralogies, which included Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet. Like Durrell, Wolfe is a polymath, with a huge vocabulary: the conceit of the book is, as we learn in the Appendix, that he has translated a book “originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence.”
The covers were too ghastly to attract me in the ’80s, but Wolfe is one of the few SF writers whose work was regularly reviewed. I am in the process of rereading them.
I just reread The Shadow of the Torturer, and it is almost a classic. The whole of the tetralogy is better than the parts, as I recall. It is set in a “post-historic” quasi-medieval world, Urth, where the sun is burning out. There are guilds of librarians, gardeners, and torturers; swords, pikes, and other medieval weapons; travel by winged leathery creatures (called destriers); a mud-covered amnesiac woman who emerges from a river of the dead; and a quack doctor’s traveling theater group which performs, if not quite morality plays, something close to them, starring Death, Innocence, Beauty, and a Giant. (Actually, the theater group is Dickensian: I was reminded of The Old Curiosity Shop.)
The narrator Severian, whom we meet as a boy, is an apprentice torturer. The guild of the Torturers takes in only children, who do not know their descent and thus accept their trade. The torturers are dreaded and hated, trained to torture those sent to the citadel (sometimes for almost nothing, except that they have annoyed someone). But these apprentices know no other life, they do little but run errands when they are children, and are not promoted to practitioners and journeyman until they are in their teens. Their apprenticeship is longer than that of the other guilds.
At the beginning of this strange bildungsroman, Severian tells us about his remarkable memory.
It is my nature, my joy and my curse, to forget nothing. Every rattling chain and whistling wind, every sight, smell, and taste, remains changeless in my mind, and though I know it is not so with everyone, I cannot imagine what it means to be otherwise, as if one had slept when in fact an experience is merely remote.
The novel starts on the day he is nearly drowned as a boy. Back to the citadel late, he is taking a short cut through a cemetery when he comes upon a small group, an exultant (or aristocrat), a beautiful woman with a heart-shaped face, and a servant, in the process of robbing a grave. When the exultant must fight to save the woman’s life, while she and the servant retreat with the corpse, Severian saves him. And that is the revolutionary act that leads to his questioning the order of things.
It is the friendship with an exultant woman prisoner that causes his expulsion from the guild. She reads books and daydreams and is allowed to chat with him every day, confident that she will not be tortured; most prisoners have this delusion, we learn. She is finally tortured by a machine so horrific I will not describe it. She understands that her death will be long and painful, and asks Severian for mercy. He gives her a knife. This breaks all the rules. He is lucky to be exiled instead of killed.
Sent out into the world to b a carnifex, he has adventures on the way to the northern city where he is assigned to work. A few psychedelic chapters are reminiscent of early Michael Moorcock, and, in my view, could have been omitted. But it also remind me of Jane Gaskell’s feminist Atlan series, in which princess brought up to believe that all men are extinct has an adjustment when she is sent into the world as a hostage in a war.
I love the unhurried, luxuriant, gradually revelatory narrative. A very good read. and I’m looking forward to the next book.