The Book of the New Sun

It took me three months, but I finally finished The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It was published as four novels, but it is clearly one giant novel. Each one practically ends in the middle of a sentence, and none are standalone. There’s so much to say about this, and yet it basically defies talking about.

The initial critical reception was quite good. It was published throughout 1980-1983. So it fits into a transition time for SF/F. The pulps had died off by this point and a lot experimentation happened in the 60’s and 70’s, but the genre hadn’t fully evolved into the literary phenomenon that it would become by the end of the 90’s.

This book is very much ahead of its time in this sense. The Washington Post said Gene Wolfe is “the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced.” Maybe. But the genre has taken the best of both worlds: fast-paced genre action/adventure/fun and quality literary writing that imparts deeper meaning on subsequent readings.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any sufficient amount of time will know my views on abstract, difficult, or avant-garde art, especially writing and music. I love it. I love having to dig in and listen to a piece of music 10+ times to start to understand what’s going on.

These types of pieces often give the listener the most rewarding artistic experiences. As DFW once said (I paraphrase), art is a relationship between artist and viewer. Relationships can’t be meaningful if all the work is done by one side. The more you put into experiencing a work of art, the more you get out of it.

Anyway, I won’t rehash that argument any further. My views when it comes to long novels have evolved a bit. There’s something of a difference between getting more on repeated readings and requiring multiple readings. It’s a respect thing. I respect an artist who promises more depth on another visit. An artist is disrespecting my time if I spend three months experiencing their art only to be told at the end that I can’t have understood it on the first time and I absolutely must spend another three months rereading it to make that first time around meaningful.

So that’s where The Book of the New Sun ends. The novel intentionally draws the reader out of the story many times. Two of the most difficult points for me were the long play within the novel in Book 2 and the sequence of short stories told by various characters in Book 4. Yes, I get that they are vital pieces to that underlying secret story that couldn’t be understood the first time. But they’re pretty obnoxious if you aren’t on that second read.

Overall, don’t let this dissuade you from reading these. The first read is pretty good outside of those complaints and a few meandering bits. The futuristic society Wolfe creates is shockingly deep and remains fresh and original today despite the number of dystopian/dying earth novels that have come out since then.

The writing is incredible. Wolfe is often too good I’d say. First off, he has created an SF/F series with a bunch of weird terms that sound oddly fitting. It turns out that every strange word in the book is actually a legitimate English word that has fallen to the wayside of history. This is an incredible idea to create both an ancient, strange sound that also feels very familiar. Same thing with the names of characters. They look all fantasy-like, but they are all names that were common at one point in history but have fallen out of fashion.

The dense, precise writing often challenges the reader to stay in the story rather than contemplate what it says:

War is not a new experience; it is a new world. Its inhabitants are more different from human beings than Famulimus and her friends. Its laws are new, and even its geography is new, because it is a geography in which insignificant hills and hollows are lifted to the importance of cities.

Many genre writers, to the extent that they think about prose, might want to show the horror of war by having the description be short, choppy, and crude like the thing it is describing. How many times have you read something like: “War is hell—horror everywhere. It changes your world.” This is lazy and cliched writing.

Wolfe’s elegant imagery does so much to bring the terror to the readers mind. War is a new world. This hinges on the cliche, but the followup prose doubles down on the imagery by precisely describing the geography of this new world: insignificant hills are lifted to the importance of cities. I get chills when I’m transported to such a devastating world. And then I’m off thinking about this and pulled out of the story. It’s almost a catch-22: write too well and it might be a distraction to the reader. I’m only half joking about this.

The astute reader is presented with some difficulties early on. The narrator claims to have a perfect memory. Later on, we start to get contradictory information about what happened. So either he lied about his memory or he’s lying to us about parts. This isn’t a logic puzzle. We have 100% confidence that the narrator is unreliable at that point, which puts the reader in an awkward position.

Since I recently read Imajica, I was struck by the similarities. I’m pretty sure Barker was not inspired by New Sun, but the archetypes and structure are the same. Barker has the Reconciliation and Wolfe has the Conciliator. I guess these, or similar terms, are bound to come up in any grand savior plot.

Will I reread this? I’m not sure. It won’t be anytime soon for sure. Do I recommend it? I’ll cautiously say yes. It’s very, very good. As Neil Gaiman said, “The best SF novel of the last century.” I’m not willing to go that far.

My main reservation is that you’ll certainly struggle at points, and you might be disappointed that everything changes at the end, requiring another reading. On the other hand, if you want to sink a few years of your life into discovering the hidden depths of an excellently written book, this is probably your best bet (seriously, peruse urth.net for a half hour to see the truth of this).

 

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Year of Giant Novels Part 6: Seveneves

Seveneves is a giant sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson. I use the term novel loosely here. It isn’t so much a novel as a history textbook about an event that didn’t happen: the moon exploded. I say this because there isn’t really story or characters in the traditional sense.

The sense in which these elements exist is the same as a history textbook. The facts are presented in sterile, detached fashion. The main characters exist in the same way that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. are “characters” in a history textbook. History texts don’t really have character development, but the figures still go around doing things.

Another parallel is that the story often completely stops for huge, in-depth descriptions of important inanimate objects. I think of this as similar to how a U.S. history text might go into great depth on how a cotton gin, or some machine from the industrial revolution, worked. These might be important in preserving certain historical moments, but it is a terrible way to write a novel.

There was a time in my life where I would have praised this type of thing. I would have talked about how brilliant it was for him to break with standard novel writing conventions to record this alternate history of Earth in history textbook form. I would have actually considered this harder to do than to write a more traditional novel. Oh. The pretentiousness of my youth.

Nowadays this novel strikes me as a huge ego trip by the author (or laziness; I’m not sure which is worse). He’s written the first step of an SF novel and now expects everyone to read it just because he’s famous enough to get away with it. Every great SF writer produces 250,000 words worth of material about their world and story as the first step. It is such a common thing to do that it even has a name: worldbuilding.

What Stephenson doesn’t seem to realize is that when he reads a 90,000-word novel that doesn’t contain all 250,000 words of excessive detail about every little thing, it isn’t because the author didn’t think of it, it’s because that author actually did the hard step of writing and producing a novel from their worldbuilding notes. You don’t publish the notes to the novel just because you wrote them.

The reason I say this is ego rather than just laziness or confusion about what writing an SF novel entails is that he breaks other golden rules of SF “just because he can.” (I don’t know why I put quotes there. He didn’t actually say this.)

If you go to any of the famous print SF magazines, you’ll usually find a list of terrible things that will get you an automatic rejection. One thing that appears on all of these lists is basing a story on a random, major, unexplained event. In this case, the moon explodes. And what caused this? Eh. He seemed to want to write the book, needed this to happen, but couldn’t come up with a reason, so he left it out.

The reason this golden rule exists isn’t arbitrary. Stephenson is writing hard SF. To put some mysterious event in like this turns the genre into paranormal or supernatural or worse. You may as well use as your starting sentence: And Sauron came out from hiding and told the inhabitants of Earth that he would, in two-years time, bombard the surface of the Earth with fireball spells for thousands of years.

Then write a hard SF novel after that. It is deeply unsatisfying and lazy. The Sauron start would change absolutely nothing. It is effectively equivalent to the opening we actually get, except more honest. To use the moon exploding feels like a shady trick in an attempt to pull one over on the reader into thinking it is an explainable event.

For some reason, he thought he was above this (hence ego) and went ahead and wrote a book that wouldn’t have any chance at being published if by a lesser name. I can almost see the board meeting where the publishers are talking about this.

“Should we tell him this isn’t okay?”

“No. He might go with someone else. This book will make us tons of money. Who cares if it violates standards we’ve set for other writers.”

“Okay. I guess you’re right.”

Ugh.

I didn’t mean to bash the book this hard, but while I’m at it, I may as well continue to air my complaints. The second most important event is also weakly justified. The moon fragments keep colliding until there are millions (billions? irrelevant to this discussion) of them. At some point, their orbits will decay and start pummeling the Earth, killing everyone on it.

So much of this is left a mystery, despite the fact that smart minds in the book have all worked out these calculations. This is hard SF. I want this explained better. I couldn’t care less about a several page description of how treadmills work on the International Space Station.

The fact that anyone predicted this is astonishing. The insane accuracy with which their models predict it takes this out of the realm of SF for me (they were within a few days). It was only a model. First rule of science: all models are wrong. Surely some of the parameters they thought they had nailed down were really wrong. I actually kept expecting a major twist of the book to be that the hard rain never came. That would have been cool. But it did come, just like the models predicted.

To go into more detail about what I would have like explained, why did these billions of chunks of moon orbiting Earth mysteriously start to fall to Earth? How small are the chunks at this point? Clearly they aren’t so small that they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, but they’ve crossed some critical size that they lose orbit. This, again, just strikes me as something Stephenson wanted to happen, couldn’t figure out why it would happen, and so just left it a mystery.

I think what’s frustrating about this is that if Stephenson had just written a 90,000 word novel that drew out the story, it would be a much more compelling read and simultaneously fix every one of these complaints. As I pointed out in my previous post, tonal consistency is important in SF. Stephenson goes into painful depths of science on some things, but then glosses over highly improbable other events. This inconsistency would be fixed if he let go of all the excessive description and focused on the story.

Now that the above 1,000-word rant is over, I will say that the book isn’t that bad. It’s an interesting thought experiment that goes on way too long. Prepare to be bored to tears by some excessive, irrelevant descriptions. Prepare to be frustrated to tears by other things that have no (or implausible) explanations.

You won’t connect to any characters. It isn’t really a novel. Once you get over all that stuff, you can start enjoying it. I never felt like quitting for any of the reasons I’ve given, and that’s better than some books I’ve read recently *cough* Ulysses *cough*.