What do we commoners look for in our fantastic literature? Severian, (the reminiscing protagonist of Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun”) suggests that we expect the same things from books that we expect from a well-conducted public execution:
“No long delays; personages who are permitted to speak only briefly yet do it well; certain dramatic pauses which shall signal to you that something of import is about to occur; excitement; and a sating quantity of blood.”
Severian would know: he’s both the consummate storyteller of his own life, (of which “The Shadow of the Torturer” is the first part) – AND an apprentice Seeker of Truth and Penitence (a.k.a. torturer/executioner). In the decaying Land of Urth, the Inquisition is alive and well, but when Severian transgresses and allows his infatuation with a prisoner to cloud his sense of duty, he is expelled from the torturer’s guild. Armed with a sword known as Terminus Est, Severian sets out on a quest that’s half “Pilgrim’s Progress,” half “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and that ends abruptly as our hero and his motley crew of acquired friends (theatrical mountebank Dr Talos, sexy Jolenta, titanic Baldanders, and ingénue Dorcas) prepare to exit the gates of the City of Nessus.
And that may all sound like standard fantasy: as promised, “Shadow of the Torturer” has the dramatic pauses, the characters who utter memorable and wise things, action, and the sating blood that comes with its “torturing” motif – but it also offers a lot more to its readers, since it functions equally as a densely philosophical bildungsroman (sort of like “Of Human Bondage,” except with actual scenes of people in bondage.) It’s that wealth of philosophical allusiveness which helped the novel win a World Fantasy Award in 1980.
Aaaaaaaaaand the Nebula Award for best novel of 1982 goes to… “The Claw of the Conciliator,” which continues Severian’s journey past the gates of Nessus toward the city of Thrax, where he’s expected to perform as a carnifex.
Along the way there are imprisonments and escapes, reversals and revelations, man-apes and gigantic river goddesses, and even a Tinman. The multitude of developments that Wolfe squeezes into a relatively brief novel is staggering: today’s epically padded, brawny behemoths (cough cough) could learn from Wolfe’s combination of verbal economy and intellectual generosity, (some would say profligacy).
In turn, Wolfe could use tips on slowing down: he thinks nothing of rushing past fantastic, beast-laden landscapes that merit a slower prowl. (A little condescending to the audience members that can’t quite keep up with the sights would actually be welcome.) And sometimes he meanders from theme to theme. He’s an impatient writer, even stylistically. In “The Claw of the Conciliator,” he abandons his main travel narrative to include two shining, inventive interludes: a short Hellenic tale that plays around with the Aegeus/Theseus myth, and an honest-to-God “Auto Sacramental” that would have made Pedro Calderon de la Barca proud. Although they are oddly encrusted in the narrative, these gems shed some light on the true nature of Urth, even as Severian and friends wander in confused obscurity.
Wolfe is also always on the hop from genre to genre.
One of the most effective moments in “Claw of the Conciliator” hints at the fusion between fantasy, sci-fi, and straight-up religious allegory that marks the series. One of Severian’s traveling companions, Jonas, who at first appears to be a man who sports a mechanical hand as a result of an accident, is revealed to be more like a mechanical hand who sports a MAN as a result of an accident. (Honestly, this “Terminator” reversal is so well done I feel some shame in outing the android.)
Jonas is connected, with almost maddeningly subtlety, to the Theseus story. This, not so much because of Theseus’ heroic adventures, but because of the philosophical question of Theseus’ ship, as recorded by Plutarch.
The philosophy student gets beaten over the head with the planks of Theseus’ ship early on. (I know, there are few things with a higher potential for annoyingness than a philosophy student who’s had a blow to the head too many and begins to take these things too seriously.) The paradox of Theseus’ ship ponders whether a vessel is still itself after it has had all its aging planks replaced by newer ones, (as Theseus’s ship allegedly was, through the efforts of conscious restoration.) By extension, is a person who has had a leg replaced by a prosthetic limb the same person? What happens as the number of artificial parts accumulate? A little more futuristically: is a machine like Jonas, who has had organic material replace its original artificiality, STILL a machine, or has it become a person after all? Do Tinmen Love with Atomic Hearts? And is Earth (I mean, Urth) still Urth if it’s constantly undergoing the replacement of its parts? Is matter eternally matter, or has it stopped being matter as it morphed into something else? If divinity morphs into humanity, is it still divinity, or can it retain its unity?
Annoying questions perhaps, but also fun to play with. And Wolfe is a much more playful writer than he gets credit for.