Monday, May 30, 2011

SF Masterworks #28: Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human

What am I doing?  What am I doing?  he thought wildly.  Trying and trying like this to find out what I am and what I belong to...Is this another aspect of being outcast, monstrous, different?

"Ask Baby what kind of people are all the time trying to find out what they are and what they belong to."

"He says, every kind."

"What kind," Lone whispered, "am I, then?"

A full minute later he yelled, "What kind?"

"Shut up a while.  He doesn't have a way to say it...uh...Here.  He says he is a figure-outer brain and I am a body and the twins are arms and legs and you are the head.  He says the 'I' is all of us."

"I belong.  I belong.  Part of you, part of you and you too."

"The head, silly."

Lone thought his heart was going to burst.  He looked at them all, every one:  arms to flex and reach, a body to care and repair, a brainless but faultless computer and - the head to direct it.

"And we'll grow, Baby.  We just got born!"

"He says not on your life.  He says not with a head like that.  We can do practically anything but we most likely won't.  He says we're a thing, all right, but the thing is an idiot." (pp. 75-76)

Today, American writer Theodore Sturgeon is known more for his aphoristic "Sturgeon's Law" (90% of everything written is crud, reiterated in various fashions) than he is for his own fiction, but his 1953 fix-up novel, More Than Human was an influential short novel from the Golden Age of SF that incorporated then-en vogue psychiatric elements with a look at a possible world where a diverse group of socially outcast humans with telepathic/telekinetic abilities might find themselves as being part of a greater group-whole, or gestalt.  It is a story that intrigues and yet feels incomplete as well.

The origins of this story lie in the novella "Baby is Three" that appeared in Galaxy magazine.  Here comprising the middle third of the expanded story, it is the core of the story of a band of misfits who don't fit in with normal human society because their own abilities, when taken separately, leave them disconnected from others, often to the point of being viewed as dull or mentally retarded.  The first part introduces four of the six core characters that appear here:  Lone, or the Idiot, a telepath; Janie, an eight year-old with the power of telekinesis; the nearly-mute twins Bonnie and Beanie, who possess the power of teleportation, and the "Mongoloid" Baby, with computer-like processing power.  Separate, each of these four are nigh useless, but as the first part, "The Fabulous Idiot," progresses, the four come to know each other and to realize that each is both complementary and supplementary to the others, creating a new self-consciousness that is greater than the sum of the four.

"Baby is Three" explores the human gestalt's expanding awareness, even as it introduces a new character, Gerry, who possesses his own telepathic powers as well as a sense of ruthlessness that was not previously present.  This section is devoted heavily to psychological themes, such as belonging and the division of the conscious and subconscious.  However, there is some plot and a little character development in this middle section.

The final third, "Morality," is concerned with the gestalt's development of a conscience.  This is seen through the integration of the sixth member, Hip, into the group after initial conflict with Gerry.  This section typifies many of the strengths as well as weaknesses of Sturgeon's work.  The idea of a group consciousness developing a conscience intrigues, but ultimately, the failing of the three sections in regards to developing complex characterizations (or perhaps super-characterization in the case of the gestalt?) dampens the potential power of this story.  The characters rarely are more than sketchy ciphers who serve to fulfill the plot necessities; they do not feel "human," much less "more than human" due to this neglect to develop compelling personalities who are more than just plot vehicles.

In addition, while Sturgeon's prose is never obtuse or opaque, its limpidity is more that of a broad-stroked painting than a carefully crafted work.  The conflicts contained within the three sections rarely excite the desired interest because everything is explicated or brushed over in such a fashion as to leave little room for contemplation of the subtleties of the work.  There are some nuances to the story, but Sturgeon largely fails to develop them adequately, instead leaving a work that promises much that is eventually left unfulfilled. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

SF Masterworks #25: Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

progris riport 1 martch 3

Dr Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.  I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.  I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says mabye they can make me smart.  I want to be smart.  My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want.  I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday.  I tolld dr Strauss and perfesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite just like I talk and like I rite compushishens in Miss Kinnians class at the beekmin collidge center for retarted adults where I go to lern 3 times a week on my time off.  Dr. Strauss says to rite a lot evrything I think and evrything that happins to me but I cant think anymor because I have nothing to rite so I will close for today...yrs truly Charlie Gordon. (p. 1)

Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon may be the most widely-read Hugo/Nebula-winning story that its readers never stopped to think of as science fiction.  Ever since its release in novel form in 1966 (it previously appeared in a novella incarnation in 1960), it has been a staple of required English reading lists.  When I first read it at the beginning of my Honors English III class in the fall of 1990, there was nothing said about this being a SF story, yet over twenty years later, it is perhaps one of my all-time SF favorites, despite not thinking of it in those terms until a few years ago.

Centered around the progress report/diaries that the mildly retarded (IQ 68) Charlie Gordon writes over a memorable eight month period, Flowers for Algernon immediately captures the reader's attention through the direct way in which Charlie speaks to the reader.  Learning immediately that he is an eager-to-please adult, we take pity on Charlie, as he struggles with the immediate aftermath of a radical new surgery designed to boost his intelligence to over twice that of "normal" adults.  We see the many cruel jokes played on him by his co-workers at Mr. Donner's bakery and the realization Charlie has to what "pulling a Charlie Gordon" means to those who measure their own self-worth against that of a mentally unabled adult.  However, Keyes' story is much more complex than just detailing the differentness with which we treat those among us who are mentally lower-functioning.

When I chose to revisit Flowers for Algernon for the first time in over a decade, I had in memory Charlie's radical transformation from a child-like, trusting simple soul to a cynical, arrogant, somewhat aloof genius who still lived in fear of the inner Charlie within.  While this impression is of course a true one, it is also very incomplete.  What Keyes explores here through Charlie is how we relate to others unlike ourselves.  Written before the special education reforms of the 1970s, when the functionally delayed children and adults were locked away into institutions rather than being integrated wholesale into society, Flowers for Algernon gives a scathing rebuke of the callous treatment which "normal" society gave to the so-called retarded.  These critiques usually do not appear directly in didactic expounding, but rather in the little comments in Charlie's journals as he notes his changing opinion of the people around him.

Parallel to Charlie is the lab mouse Algernon, who received the same intelligence-boosting neuro-surgical procedure some time prior to Charlie's own operation.  At key points in the novel, Charlie's development is recast in terms of Algernon's own changes from an ordinary lab rat who runs the courses for rewards before it begins to show signs of rejecting its masters' wishes.  This parallelism also serves as a foreshadowing for the latter events of the novel, as Charlie comes to realize the course of the experiment and its fatal flaw.

There is also a romantic angle to Flowers for Algernon, one that underscores the difference between Charlie's cognitive and emotional development.  It was these scenes that makes the final scenes so tragic, as Charlie struggles to integrate his new-found intelligence with his burgeoning attraction to his former teacher.  Keyes' choice of describing this conflict in terms of a near-disassociative state allows the reader a closer look into the fragile state of Charlie's personality during this time of rapid change.  Because we see so much of Charlie, scenes such as this serve as a chilling reminder of what is in store for him after he discovers what the ultimate consequence of the experiment will be for him.

Flowers for Algernon is one of those rare novels that reveal much more to a reader on a repeat read, especially if a period of years elapse.  It works as a diary of a conflicted character, a social commentary on the treatment of the mentally disabled, and as a tragic romance.  Charlie's character is engaging due to his vivid descriptions of life and himself.  Keyes' ability to show Charlie's changes through how he writes his journals makes this novel a captivating experience when it so easily could have been trite or overblown if Charlie's personality was not so visible in those journals.  Flowers for Algernon is a true mid-20th century American classic and it will continue to resonate with those who wonder about those near tabulae rasae who we pass every day in the streets or at school and rarely stop to think about who they are in our rush to dismiss what they are.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

SF Masterworks #89: Dan Simmons, Hyperion

When pressed to give a basic description of Hyperion, most readers likely would say that in structure it approximates that of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  There is something to that, although perhaps a more apt comparison might be to Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, with its sense of lurking doom looming over the storytellers.  What is certain, however, is that each of the pilgrims to the Time Tombs and to the Shrike have different motives and each of their stories is told in distinct fashions that engage the reader almost immediately.

The first story told by the pilgrims is that of a Roman Catholic priest.  His story involves his predecessor's journey deep within Hyperion's tesla tree field to a stunted, retarded people called the Bukura.  The priest intertwines his own experiences years later with the field journals found on the person of the first priest.  This epistolary approach allows for a necessary distance to be created between the storyteller and the horrific tale he tells of his predecessor's suffering and inability to die completely.  The story of the parasitic cruciform at first seems out of place with the other pilgrims' tales, but it does play a vital role in future volumes, if I recall.

The soldier Kassad's tale of his life as a Palestinian refugee on Mars, his joining the Hegemony's military force, and his mysterious meetings with a woman named Moneda (money? coin?) and the fleeting appearance of the Shrike provides the love interest story of this novel.  Although it is unclear so far as to what Kassad's true aspirations are, elements introduced in this tale influence the later narrative in the series.

The poet Martin Silenus's story is in turns poetic and bawdy, and is always full of literary allusions, some of which are to living writers, such as the horror writer Steve (Rasnic) Tem, which delighted me when I re-read this portion of the novel.  If the first two stories provide the horror and the love elements, the poet's tale supplies the love of literature and of tragedy that runs its threads through the remaining narratives.

The fourth story, that of the scholar Sol Weintraub, is the most heart-wrenching of the six.  It is not as much a story about himself, but about his daughter Rachel's accident at the Time Tombs nearly 30 years before and her reverse aging, day by day, back to being an infant only weeks away from her birth/death.  Although this too contains elements of a horror tale, it also is a story of two devout parents and the traumas they have suffered (and which ultimately led to the suicide of the mother Sarai).  Out of all the tales this is the one that connects deepest and which seems to make this ultimate pilgrimage to the Time Tombs and to the Shrike to be worth all of the travails that await the pilgrims.

The fifth tale, told by the private eye Brawne Lamia, echoes the Soldier's and Poet's tales, as she explores a mystery into the heart of the TechnoCore and discovers that the AIs there have split into three factions, some of which are not friendly to human interests.  In addition, her encounter with the reconstructed Romantic poet William Keats (who, after all, wrote "Hyperion," after which the planet is named) sets the stage for future events in the series.

The final tale, that of the Consul, is in parts a retelling of a love story and of a revenge tale cloaked with layers of subterfuge.  It is not as immediately gripping as most of the other tales, but it serves to reinforce reader suspicions about elements introduced in the other tales.  It is a suitable concluding tale and with its ending, the pilgrims are at the final approach to the Time Tombs and whatever destiny may await them there.  Simmons has at this point created six intriguing characters and six compelling tales, each that differ in tone and feel from the others.  There are hints of deeper themes embedded in these tales, creating an enchanting narrative that leaves the reader eager to read the second volume, The Fall of Hyperion.

SF Masterworks #82: Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers

I warn you that what you're starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions.  It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained.  Not by me it won't, anyway.  Because I can't say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I've been right in the thick of it.  Now if you don't like that kind of story, I'm sorry, and you'd better not read it.  All I can do is tell what I know. (p. 1)

Jack Finney's 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, is one of those rare stories that are better known in their cinematic version.  The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released a year later, often is cited as an exemplar of 1950s cinema and its focus on paranoiac horror of the sudden invasion or inversion of American cultural values.  Not being an avid film watcher, perhaps it is just as well that I have not seen either the original film or its remake, so I did not have those apparently iconic images of the aliens in mind when I read the 1955 version of Finney's story (he revised it in the 1970s, but for this edition, Gollancz elected to go with the first edition).

The story begins in a small town in northern California, Santa Mira, in 1953 (coincidental with the first hydrogen bomb tests).  Dr. Miles Bennell receives a frantic visit from Becky Driscoll, who informs him that her cousin Wilma is convinced that her Uncle Ira isn't who he claims to be.  From here, a chain of events rapidly unfolds in which Miles and Becky uncover similar stories of displaced personalities, leading ultimately to the realization that townspeople have been replaced by aliens who have claimed the bodies and minds of their friends and neighbors.  It is a story that can be either suspenseful or hokey, depending upon the narrative execution and for the most part, Finney manages to maintain a high level of intrigue for the duration of this short novel.

One key to the story is the juxtaposition of the normal with the non-normal.  Neighbors, friends, family - each familiar in their looks, their choice of words, and most of their mannerisms - have something peculiar about them, some sort of "offness" that puzzles before it frightens the inquisitive.  Throughout The Body Snatchers, Miles and Becky experience this, including an episode in the town library when leafing through the newspaper archives for information on mysterious pods rumored to have appeared outside town:

We turned to the May 7 issue and began with page one.  There was nothing in the paper about Budlong or the pods.  On the bottom half of the May 6 Tribune's first page was a hole seven or eight inches long and three columns wide.  On the bottom half of the May 5 issue was another hole, just about as long, but only two columns wide.

It wasn't a guess, but a sudden stab of direct, intuitive knowledge - I knew, that's all - and I swung in my chair to stare across the room at Miss Wyandotte.  She stood motionless behind the big desk, her eyes fastened on us, and in the instant I swung to look at her, her face was wooden, devoid of any expression, and the eyes were bright, achingly intent, and as inhumanly cold as the eyes of a shark.  The moment was less than a moment - the flick of an eyelash - because instantly she smiled, pleasantly, inquiringly, her brows lifting in polite question.  'Anything I can do?' she said with the calm, interest eagerness typical of her in all the years I had known her. (p. 132)

Scenes like this, replete in the novel, provide it with a faint psychological horror.  Who is "real" and who have been taken over?  What is happening here?  Who's next?  These questions, asked and acted out for roughly 100 pages out of this 226 page novel, ratchet up the tension until Miles and Becky finally manage to make their way to the alien pods.  It is at this point that the narrative tension collapses and things rush to a sudden and odd conclusion.

Despite enjoying The Body Snatchers on the whole (and now being curious to see the cinematic versions at some point, despite my aversion to most cinema), the concluding chapters left much to be desired.  There is not a suitable payoff for the psychological drama that had just unfolded with terrifying revelation after terrifying revelation.  A simple, desperate action serves to end the story, leaving the reader wondering about the importance of the events before.  This does not ruin the story as much as it deadens its effect, with such a simple, direct remedy for the terrifying takeovers.  Finney's ending just feels out of sorts with the main body of the novel, as if at the end some other author had taken over his story and wrote something that felt incongruent with the rest of the novel.

Some readers might be tempted to read The Body Snatchers as a commentary on the Red Scare of the mid-1950s and certainly there are elements within the story that would support this.  However, the psychological aspect to the story removes it from the realm of direct political allegory and places it in a more nebulous conflict, one where the reader can imagine herself surrounded by familiar, menacing enemies.  This aspect of The Body Snatchers makes it an enduring classic that has a relevance beyond its original 1950s milieu with much to offer to readers of the early 21st century.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #12: Gene Wolfe, Sword and Citadel

The Sword of the Lictor

The Sword of the Lictor, the third volume in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series, contains some of the most revealing and troublesome passages in the entire series. In this volume, readers begin to see somewhat clearly for the first time just how deeply layered Severian's adventures are and perhaps the astute reader can begin to sense the strings of narrative manipulation that are occurring both within and outside the written narrative. Since I shall be exploring a few passages and discussing certain events in great detail, it is highly suggested that those who have not yet read this volume refrain from reading it if they value plot details over thematic explorations.

The storyline is again resumed after yet another break in the action. We learn that not only did Severian reach Thrax and assume the office of lictor (the office itself being fraught with religious and civic meanings dating back to the Roman Republic), but that Severian once again abandoned his post and was exiled on account of showing mercy to a female prisoner. As he and Dorcas (for a time, only) flee the city, they have a fierce discussion that ultimately leads to Dorcas's departure. Traveling alone, Severian has many encounters, from the fierce alzabo, from a gland in whose head the magical elixir used in the "diabolic eucharist" of The Claw of the Conciliator is drawn, to the ultimate one with the giant Baldanders that concludes the volume.

While these adventures may provide scenes of amazement and speculation for those reading it for the first time, I want to concentrate on a few lengthy passages from this volume that I believe holds much of importance for interpreting the off-stage events of this series. The first is from the second chapter, as Severian is reflecting upon the innate savagery of humans:

One of the keepers of the Bear Tower once told me that there is no animal so dangerous or so savage and unmanageable as the hybrid resulting when a fighting dog mounts a she-wolf. We are accustomed to think of the beasts of the forest and mountain as wild, and to think of the men who spring up, as it seems, from their soil as savage. But the truth is that there is a wildness more vicious (as we would know better if we were not so habituated to it) in certain domestic animals, despite their understanding so much human speech and sometimes even speaking a few words; and there is a more profound savagery in men and women whose ancestors have lived in cities and towns since the dawn of humanity. Vodalus, in whose veins flowed the undefiled blood of a thousand exultants - exarchs, ethnarchs, and starosts - was capable of violence unimaginable to the autochthons that stalked the streets of Thrax, naked beneath their huanaco cloaks.

Like the dog-wolves (which I never saw, because they were too vicious to be useful), these eclectics took all that was most cruel and ungovernable from their mixed parentage; as friends or followers they were sullen, disloyal, and contentious; as enemies, fierce, deceitful, and vindictive. So at least I had heard from my subordinates at the Vincula, for eclectics made up more than half the prisoners there. 

Man's inhumanity to man. This is one of the oldest forms of conflict, as presented in innumerable literature classrooms across the globe over countless centuries. Homo homini lupus, which Wolfe might have been hinting at in a double entendre form with his talk of the savage dog-wolves. This comment, when viewed in light of Agia's greed and implacable hatred of Severian in the first two volumes as well as the scene of Morwenna's public humiliation and execution in Saltus that opens The Claw of the Conciliator, reinforces the notion that the ancient and exhausted world of Urth is just as full of hatred and pettiness as our own. The fact that it is an executioner making these observations only serves to underscore the irony behind the perhaps-misplaced faith that many have in the upward progression of humans via their own efforts.

Severian's encounter with the two-head Typhon about two-thirds of the way into the novel serves to illustrate a related concept: that of the loss of freedom and the chimera of dominion. Typhon, former ruler of Urth and apparently other world chiliads (or thousands) of years before Severian's time, has been revived somehow by the power of the Claw (Typhon shall also be discussed later outside the New Sun series). He exists as he does due to his appropriation of the slave Piaton's body. This is but the first of many signs in the two short chapters that Typhon appears of the insidiousness of power and its corrupting influence on those who desire to wield it. Typhon, playing the role of the New Testament Satan, tempts Severian with the offer of control of Nessus in exchange for swearing allegiance to him. Severian, although sorely tempted, resists and literally casts out Typhon from the mountain top where the two had their confrontation. Although the religious parallels are obvious and do serve to reinforce many of the religious symbols presented in the earlier book, it is the notion of freedom as opposed to dominion that is central to this scene, as we shall soon see when Severian encounters two other people in his travels after this volume.

Backtracking a bit to the discussion that Severian had with his little namesake (speculation abounds as to if this might be a parallel Severian from another time or even his own son, but I shall not weigh in on this, at least not for now), there is one other scene, rather lengthy, that I want to quote, as it underscores Wolfe's views on freedom and responsibility:

"Severian, who were those men?"

I knew whom he meant. "They were not men, although they were once men and still resemble men. They were zooanthrops, a word that indicates those beasts that are of human shape. Do you understand what I am saying?"

The little boy nodded solemnly, then asked, "Why don't they wear clothes?"

"Because they are no longer human beings, as I told you. A dog is born a dog and a bird is born a bird, but to become a human being is an achievement - you have to think about it. You have been thinking about it for the past three or four years at least, even though you may never have thought about the thinking."

"A dog just looks for things to eat," the boy said.

"Exactly. But that raises the question of whether a person should be forced to do such thinking, and some people decided a long time ago that he should not. We may force a dog, sometimes, to act like a man - to walk on his hind legs and wear a collar and so forth. But we shouldn't and couldn't force a man to act like a man. Did you ever want to fall asleep? When you weren't sleepy or even tired?"

He nodded.

"That was because you wanted to put down the burden of being a boy, at least for a time. Sometimes I drink too much wine, and that is because for a while I would like to stop being a man. Sometimes people take their own lives for that reason. Did you know that?"

"Or they do things that might hurt them," he said. The way he said it told me of arguments overheard; Becan had very probably been that kind of man, or he would not have taken his family to so remote and dangerous a place.

"Yes," I told him. "That can be the same thing. And sometimes certain men, and even women, come to hate the burden of thought, but without loving death. They see the animals and wish to become as they are, answering only to instinct, and not thinking. Do you know what makes you think?"

"My head," the boy said promptly, and grasped it with his hands.

"Animals have heads too - even very stupid animals like crayfish and oxen and ticks. What makes you think is only a small part of your head, inside, just above your eyes." I touched his forehead. "Now if for some reason you wanted one of your hands taken off, there are men you can go to who are skilled in doing that. Suppose, for example, your hand had suffered some hurt from which it would never be well. They could take it away in such a fashion that there would be little chance of any harm coming to the rest of you."

The boy nodded.

"Very well. Those same men can take away that little part of your head that makes you think. They cannot put it back, you understand. And even if they could, you couldn't ask them to do it, once that part was gone. But sometimes people pay these men to take that part away. They want to stop thinking forever, and often they say they wish to turn their backs on all that humanity has done. Then it is no longer just to treat them as human beings - they have become animals, though animals who are still of human shape. You asked why they did not wear clothes. They no longer understand clothes, and so they would not put them on, even if they were very cold, although they might lie down on them or even roll themselves up in them."

Cruelties happen. Harsh dictators like Typhon, only concerned with their well-being and status, occur from time to time in human history. At times, these people and those misfortunes are confronted. But when people abdicate their right to determine their own futures as best as they can, when they deny the common natures of other people and instead treat them in ways that we label as being "inhumane," when people abandon hope in favor for living any which way they live, are they in fact "human?" In this passage, as well as the one already cited above, Wolfe appears to be arguing that no, no they are not "human" in the sense of how people ought to be. These man-animals, the zooanthrops of this volume or the man-apes of Claw, are the products of the self-dehumanization that Wolfe argues that occurs when one has given up their responsibility to be a true human being. This discussion, I believe, sets up the later discussions that Severian will have in Urth of the New Sun. It bears repeating that freedom and self-determination are as much of an undercurrent in this series as are the religious symbols that appear. In fact, one might argue that the two are just two sides of the same coin.

The Citadel of the Autarch

My memories have always appeared with the intensity, almost, of hallucinations, as I have said often in this chronicle. That night I felt I might lose myself forever in them, making of my life a loop instead of a line; and for once I did not resist the temptation but reveled in it. Everything I have described to you came crowding back to me, and a thousand things more.

This quote from the second chapter of the concluding volume to The Book of the New Sun, The Citadel of the Autarch, serves as a foreshadowing of what the reader (as well as Severian, of course) shall experience in the course of the reading. As the series winds to a close, events and people touched upon in the previous volumes return for a time, not to mention that there is a "loop" of an even more literal sense of the word that Severian experiences during the course of this novel. So with this in mind, those who have not yet read this volume may want to wait until they have read it, since there shall be some thematic discussions as well as my first extended look at the character/personalities of Severian himself.

War is hell. It rends, it tears, it shreds its sometimes willing victims apart in ways that go beyond mere physical or emotional trauma. It is a product of two groups of people manipulating others into attempting to destroy one another. It is rather fitting that after the encounter with Typhon in The Sword of the Lictor and Severian's clash with the giant Baldanders (where Severian's sword, Terminus Est, is destroyed), we discover that Severian has gone north to where the forces of the Autarch are battling the Ascian invaders.

Wolfe does not skimp on displaying the horrors of war, having himself been a Korean War veteran. We see not just touching elements such as Severian's discovery of a dead soldier's letter (perhaps intended to hark back to a similar scene in Erich Maria Remarque's classic World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front), but also encounter soldiers from both sides of the conflict. While some might make the argument that the Ascian prisoner, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen is little more than a caricature of Cold War era representations of Soviet propagandists being like puppets parroting phrases learned over the course of a lifetime under an inhumane regime, I would counter by noting that this person, who in the story he tells "as translated" demonstrates quite a bit of awareness of the world, albeit shaped in a way that is very difficult for us to fathom. It is as though the worst hints of manipulation that we've seen in the earlier volumes have come to fruition in this rather decent person who cannot speak in more than platitudes that his homeland forced his people to adopt.

But this book is much more than just about the horrors of war. In many senses, this book is devoted to reintroducing characters and showing them in new lights. For example, Severian's old nemesis, Agia, has grown in her time away from Severian. Where earlier she seemed to be devoted solely to her hatred of Severian, her actions and eventual escape from the climatic scene with the wounded Autarch puts her in a Vodalus-like opposition to Severian. It is no longer just a simple personal affair but rather that her opposition has come to symbolize a sort of selfish, "anti-life" rebellion similar to that of Vodalus's against the Autarch, which Wolfe makes explicitly clear in a passage near the end of the book.

We also learn more about Dorcas and her tragic reunion with her now-elderly husband, plus we get further hints in regards to Severian's paternal ancestry. While Dr. Talos and Baldanders do not appear in this volume, there are more than enough hints given that the two represent artifice and its counterfeit nature against the "trueness" that is represented in the Autarchs. And speaking of the Autarchs, or "self-rulers," while much more about their origins is explained in the coda Urth of the New Sun, it becomes quite obvious by the end of the volume that they are the rightful rulers of Urth because they recognize that rule involves much more than just dominion over another. It involves a self-sacrifice and a heavy burden of sacrifice and commitment to the needs of others. It is for this reason, Severian reminisces, that the Autarchs have not been descended from a prior Autarch but have come from people of human origin who usually are not the greatest in any of their fields. After all, pride is an insidious thing that can emerge from the glories of greatness and greatness often is antithetical to being truly concerned with the rights of all.

And so over the course of these four volumes, the reader has encountered many base and treacherous characters. From greed and the thirst for dominion over others, we have seen people such as Vodalus, Agia, and Typhon lust. There is no love involved in their quests for power and, in Typhon's case, immortality. We have also sensed that behind this lurks the nihilistic impulses of Abaia and Erebus, those aptly-named beings who symbolize the darkness and coldness which threaten not just the physical Urth but also the spiritual well-being of its inhabitants. We have witnessed the results in the persons of the Ascians, as Severian so eloquently notes in this passage:

These Ascian soldiers had a rigity, a will-less attachment to order, that I have never seen elsewhere, and that appeared to me to have no roots in either spirit or discipline as I understand them. They seemed to obey because they could not conceive of any other course of action.
But opposed to these horrors is a sense of responsibility and of duty to be just and to love what can be loved among the peoples and creatures of Urth. Much has been made about the calls for the New Sun over the course of the novels (and much more of this in Urth of the New Sun), but in the scene where the last Autarch passes along his responsibilities to Severian, there is a passage that sums up quite well the good/evil conflict that has occurred:

"You were right to hate me, Severian. I you will stand...for so much that is wrong."

"Why?" I asked. "Why?" I was on my knees beside him.

"Because all else is worse. Until the New Sun comes, we have but a choice of evils. All have been tried, and all have failed. Goods in common, the rule of the people...everything. You wish for progress? The Ascians have it. They are deafened by it, crazed by the death of Nature till they are ready to accept Erebus and the rest as gods. We hold humankind barbarism. The Autarch protects the people from the exultants, and the exultants...shelter them from the Autarch. The religious comfort them. We have closed the roads to paralyze the social order..."

His eyes fell shut. I put my hand upon his chest to feel the faint stirring of his heart.

"Until the New Sun..."

This was what I had sought to escape, not Agia or Vodalus or the Ascians. As gently as I could, I lifted the chain from his neck, unstoppered the vial and swallowed the drug. Then with that short, stiff blade I did what had to be done.
There are no clear-cut decisions to be made; only a choice of evils. Urth is an imperfect world and each choice is fraught with evil possibilities or consequences. In such a world, it is hard to hold hope, Wolfe seems to be arguing, but yet, somehow, people have managed to do so. Until the New Sun. A phrase laden with symbolic meanings of rebirth and renewal. A phrase that hints at the washing away of the old creation in ways akin to the language of Revelations. And who is to bring this New Sun?

No other than Severian. A Torturer who shows mercy in spite of the strictures placed on him. A self-deceiving and not always likable person who has undergone so many changes during the course of his travels. A person who finds a holy relic, only at the end to learn this:

At that time I did not think of it, being filled with wonder - but may it not be that we were guided to the unfinished Sand Garden? I carried the Claw even then, though I did not know it; Agia had already slipped it under the closure of my sabretache. Might it not be that we came to the unfinished garden so that the Claw, flying as it were against the wind of Time, might make its farewell? The idea is absurd. But then, all ideas are absurd.

What struck me on the beach and it struck me indeed, so that I staggered as at a blow - was that if the Eternal Principle had rested in that curbed thorn I had carried about my neck across so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in anything, and in fact probably did rest in everything, in every thorn on every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground.
We have come full-circle; the symbols that shaped Severian's journey have mostly been unraveled. We create relics, Wolfe appears to argue, because we need them to remind us of the Increate/Pancreator. We need material things to remind us of the spiritual, for which we ever seem to be grasping. Severian is not a perfect man, but he has sought to relieve himself of his impurities. He has been through the fires of temptation, especially with Typhon, but now he is changed. He is not a Christ, but he certainly has become the ideal of a Christian, some might argue based on Wolfe's liberal sprinkling of Christian symbols throughout the narrative.

And that rose carved into that tombstone? It is a symbol for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox for the Virgin Mary and also for Christ. The fountain? It is the well-spring of the Water of Life, or of the Christ of St. John 7. The spaceship? It symbolizes the next step in Severian's life.

And the tomb itself? It is empty. Not the way that Christ's tomb is empty, but empty nonetheless due to the matter of time (which is addressed in  Urth of the New Sun).  Hopefully these reviews have encouraged people to re-read and to re-consider this masterpiece of literature. I know I did not touch upon everything and that some of my interpretations certainly can be challenged. Nonetheless, a work like this deserves nothing less than honest people arguing over matters of interpretation, no?  

Fantasy Masterworks #1: Gene Wolfe, Shadow and Claw

The four-volume The Book of the New Sun is widely considered to be Gene Wolfe's magnus opus and it consistently ranks as one of the most highly-regarded literary works of the past 30 years. Blending elements of science-fiction and fantasy into a first-person narrative, these four volumes (The Shadow of the Torturer (1980); The Claw of the Conciliator (1981); The Sword of the Lictor (1981); and The Citadel of the Autarch (1982)) have won or been nominated for multiple World Fantasy and Nebula Awards. Filled with allusions to creation myths, Christianity, hagiography, the Cold War, etc., these books have provided fodder for all sorts of speculation as to what lay underneath the surface of the narrative.

The Shadow of the Torturer

The epigraph to this book holds an important clue towards one of the themes of this series, that of religious parousia (or the Second Coming) and eschatology (or the belief in the "end times" of the world as we know it):

A thousand ages, in thy sight, are like an evening gone; short as the watch that ends the night, before the rising sun.
Taken from the fourth stanza of Isaac Watts's famous hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," this epigraph highlights the religious imagery and metaphors that will appear repeatedly during the course of these four volumes, albeit many of these religious symbols will be kept to the background and the reader can enjoy the story without needing to be well-versed in Christian (and especially Catholic) theology and traditions.

The story itself begins near the end of the narrative timeline. The main character, Severian, has just finished recording a narrative of his adventures that led him from being an apprentice (later journeyman) of the ancient guild of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, more commonly known as the Torturers. Severian, who tells this tale in first-person PoV, claims to have an eidetic, or "perfect," memory. As he narrates his life from growing up as an orphan among the Torturers to his coming of age, he reveals in passing certain discoveries that will later play a role near the end of the series. Among these is his playing in the necropolis of the ancient city of Nessus and his discovery of a tomb that has etched upon it the likenesses of a rose, a fountain, and a spaceship. These shall be discussed later.

However, there is a scene at the end of the first chapter where the boy Severian receives a coin from the rebel Vodalus. Severian makes an interesting observation that will bear heavily upon the importance of the events that follow:

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life - they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.
It is this self-defining of ourselves, of our surroundings, and of our "purposes" and how each affects the characters' interactions with each other and their surroundings that drives much of the action that occurs. From Severian's later acquisition of a religious relic, the legendary Claw of the Conciliator (who in presented as being an analogue to Christ although not in a direct one-to-one correlation), to how others refer to the blasted and diseased red sun of ancient Urth and the belief that one day that the Conciliator would "return" to bring a "New Sun" (literal, metaphorical, or both depending upon the person), this notion that we are defined by the symbols we choose to represent our hopes and fears is one that Wolfe returns to on multiple occasions in the course of the series.

One such example of this symbolic interplay is that of Katharine (St. Catherine of Alexandria), who is the patroness of the Torturers. From the slightly altered re-enactment of her martyrdom to the quite ironic adoption of her as being the patroness of the Torturers, the symbolic execution and the expression of faith done through such a re-enactment serve to underscore Severian's later betrayal of his guild via the forbidden showing of mercy to an exultant (high-born, genetically altered nobility on Urth) lady, the Chatelaine Thecla. It is this "betrayal," perhaps akin to some degree with the scene of Jesus and the adulteress in the Gospels, that leads to a journey of exile for Severian.

During this exile/assignation to the city of Thrax, where Severian is to be the Lictor (or executioner) in lieu of being held in hopes of a death sentence, Severian meets up with many characters, from the vengeful Agia to the monstrous Baldanders and his companion Dr. Taltos to many others. One of the more mysterious characters is that of Dorcas, who lives up to her namesake when somehow she is "revived" when Severian finds himself diving into a pond to retrieve his sword Terminus Est (more on that shortly). The latter volumes hints not just at the healing powers of the Claw of the Conciliator, but also at the tangled skein of Severian's own personal past.

When Severian was presented with the executioner's sword Terminus Est, the presentation of its meanings (line of division, this is the end) illustrates Severian's role. Not only is he the executioner of those sentenced to die, not only is he the final image of authority that the condemned see before they die, but the name itself refers to the old Roman god Terminus, the lord of boundaries. In this case, the boundary between life and death and their interrelationships with each other are symbolized with how Severian uses the sword during the course of his travels.

While I certainly could continue to narrate various symbolic actions during the course of this first volume, I want to focus instead on a discussion Severian has near the end of this book with the apparent shade/ghost/image of one of his former Masters, Malrubius:

"Severian. Name for me the seven principles of goverance."

It was an effort for me to speak, but I managed (in my dream, if it was a dream) to say, "I do not recall that we have studied such a thing, Master."

"You were always the most careless of my boys," he told me, and fell silent.

A foreboding grew on me; I sensed that if I did not reply, some tragedy would occur. At last I began weakly, "Anarchy..."

"That is not governance, but the lack of it. I taught you that it precedes all governance. Now list the seven sorts."

"Attachment to the person of the monarch. Attachment to a bloodline or other sequence of succession. Attachment to the royal state. Attachment to a code legitimizing the governing state. Attachment to the law only. Attachment to a greater or lesser board of electors, as framers of the law. Attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal."

"Tolerable. Of these, which is the earliest form, and which the highest?"

"The development is in the order given, Master," I said. "But I do not recall that you ever asked before which was highest."

Master Malrubius leaned forward, his eyes burning brighter than the coals of the fire. "Which is highest, Severian?"

"The last, Master?"

"You mean attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal?"

"Yes, Master."

"Of what kind, Severian, is your own attachment to the Divine Entity?"

I said nothing. It may have been that I was thinking; but if so, my mind was much too filled with sleep to be conscious of its thought. Instead, I became profoundly aware of my physical surroundings. The sky above my face in all its grandeur seemed to have been made solely for my benefit, and to be presented for my inspection now. I lay upon the ground as upon a woman, and the very air that surrounded me seemed a thing as admirable as crystal and as fluid as wine.

"Answer me, Severian."

"The first, if I have any."

"To the person of the monarch?"

"Yes, because there is no succession."

"The animal that rests beside you now would die for you. Of what kind is his attachment to you?"

"The first?"

There was no one there. I sat up. Malrubius and Triskele had vanished, yet my side felt faintly warm.

This scene reveals quite a bit, not just about how Severian orders his priorities in accordance to a hierarchy of legal standards, but more about how this attachment to the Divine in the personal form not only foreshadows what occurs later, but also how it symbolizes the views that the religious have in regards to matters of faith. This concept of ordering the power relationships not only refers back to the medieval Great Chain of Being, but it can also symbolize yet again the passage that I quoted at the beginning of this post.

The Claw of the Conciliator

Thecla, the Chateleine who once was was the Autarch's leman (in this specific example, quasi lover, as we shall see later in this volume) before being seized and brought to the Torturers because of certain papers that implicated her as being associated with Vodalus, is in many senses the half-overlooked center of this series. We only learn the basics about her torture and how the diabolical Revolutionary drove away her will to live. I did not note it in the first review, but one could make an argument that the Revolutionary serves to represent our tendency to find faults in ourselves, often to the point of us committing what many Christians might call the most insidious of the Seven Deadly Sins, that of sloth/despair. In the course of the narrative, Severian stops at the point of exploring just what were the exact effects of the Revolutionary, but based on his passing comments, the hypothesis that I presented above might be developed from it.

Thecla's personality, which later we learn is often petty and cruel, is important not so much because we "witnessed" her torture and suicide, but because of a recurrent theme in this volume, one that was hinted at earlier with Dorcas's rising from the pond: resurrection of the body. A great many of the events that occur in this volume revolve in some point around the resurrection of the body or soul, or conversely, around the decay and corruption of both body and mind.

Jonas, a companion from afar who joins Severian near the end of the first volume, is one such example. Wounded in an attack about two-thirds into this volume, Jonas's body of cells and metal represents a sort of a reverse cyborg; a machine clothing itself in human parts in order to repair some prior damage. Severian's attempts to "heal" Jonas are only partial, but this melding of the biological with the mechanical in the person of Jonas perhaps could be viewed as a metaphor for the interactions between the physical body and the spiritual soul. However, the text is ambiguous on this point and I do not have citations to present to support this point.

Jolenta, the Nessus barmaid who becomes part of Dr. Taltos and Baldanders's travelling troupe, serves as an example of this mind/body union. Altered by Dr. Taltos's arts, she has become a thing of beauty and of desire, but yet there is a sickness within that mutates from a metaphorical matter into a very real and visible disorder near the end of the book. Her façade has crumbled and what we see then is now related to what the astute reader might have perceived soon after the first encounter with her after her transformation.

Dr. Talos, that mad scientist whose skills have managed to create simulacra of life, beauty, and truth. The composer of that play near the end which serves to foreshadow the concluding two volumes of Severian's saga. The fox-like creature, so clever and so manipulative, the apparent source of so much subterfuge. I have read elsewhere that some have postulated that Talos is based on the mythological Cretan creature of bronze that guarded the island, while others have noted his role as artificer as being but an extension of this attempt to replicate life via mechanical means. I side more with this second explanation, as Talos (and by extension, Baldanders) seem at first to have goals so similar to the more mystical bringing of the New Sun (or the second blooming of life on Urth), but whose means betray their real end goals.

By now, perhaps you are weary of my digressions and wondering just why I haven't discussed the plot of The Claw of the Conciliator. While it may seem as though I have digressed and not have attempted to explore the "story" of this novel and its strengths and weaknesses, in many ways I have covered just that, albeit via those seeming detours of character study. While The Claw of the Conciliator certain can be read on the surface level as the continued travels of Severian and friends from the gates of Nessus to the outliers of Thrax, to understand why the multitude of events such as Severian's second meeting with Vodalus and what transpired there occurred the way they did means adopting some of Severian's own approaches towards telling his story.

There were quite a few lacunae in this tale. Not only does the opening chapter pick up on the other side of those colossal gates of Nessus, in the town of Saltus (some commentators have noted that since the action apparently is set in South America, that Nessus may be the corruption of Buenos Aires and Saltus may be the alteration of the Argentine province/town of Salta), but the tone of the narrative changes. The careful reader has already noted, doubtless, that while Severian's eidetic memory has left him sharing all sorts of petty little details such as the stories from the brown book from Ultan's library in Nessus that he took after Thecla's suicide and his banishment to Thrax, there is so much that he is skipping or deigning to downplay. The open lies and lies by omission that will later become a hallmark of Severian's character are more on display here.

Also, the scene about halfway into the novel where Vodalus and his associates invite Severian to partake in what Wolfe later called a "diabolical eucharist" of consuming Thecla's body while drinking an elixir from an alien creature known as the alzabo (more on that in the next volume) is a turning point in the narrative. Lies of omission or not, the Severian "voice" that we have encountered to date appears to be singular in nature, but slowly after this scene, the thoughts and personality of the consumed Thecla emerge and occasionally the "Severian" we encounter on the pages of the book is somehow different; sometimes Thecla in tone, sometimes Severian, other times an amalgamation of the two. This partaking of the body and receiving something of the mind/spirit of the deceased is a sort of a perversion, some might say, of the Catholic/Orthodox doctrine of the Real Presence of the Christ in the wine and bread consumed in the Eucharist. It certainly something whose ramifications will become more evident in the succeeding volumes.

As I said earlier, resurrection motifs abound in this volume. From the healing of the man-apes (how did those creatures evolve or perhaps devolve over time?) to the partial healing of Jonas to the nigh-useless attempt on Jolenta, the blue gem that Severian carries, the legendary Claw of the Conciliator, serves to highlight this theme of healing in the midst of death and suffering. While I will address the theme of suffering later in the review of the second omnibus, it bears to keep this matter in mind as one reads these volumes.

The allusion-filled play near the end that Severian, Dorcas, Jolenta, Dr. Talos, and Baldanders perform (before I forget, there are a couple of scenes that I'm purposely leaving out as I need to wait until the fourth volume to discuss them at length) serves to foreshadow what lies underneath the journey of the exiled journeyman Torturer. From the Persian names for Adam and Eve to the mention of the "dawn" of Ushas (herself a Hindu deity of the dawn), the eschatological interpretation of the New Sun is presented in a way that seems opaque at first, but which yields so much fruit once the series is complete. Since I am writing this review with those who have just finished reading Shadow and Claw for the first time, I will pause here. After all, the road again is not an easy one to travel.