SF Academy 07 – Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

I briefly mentioned a few days ago my excitement at this wonderful new book, Shadow of the Torturer, which is the first of four books in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun Tetrology.

Shadow & Claw: The First Half of ‘The Book of the New Sun’

This is my first “Science Fiction Academy” entry in a while, partly because I’ve been reading a bit less this past couple of months (spending more time writing, which is fine in the short run, but in the long run I’ll have to stoke the fire by reading more), partly because I’ve been reading less science fiction stuff, and partly because I’ve finished a few books that I haven’t gotten around to discussing yet.

Shadow of the Torturer is a great way to start this blog feature rolling again, because this is an incredible book. I feel like I’ve just stumbled onto one of my new, favorite writers in Gene Wolfe. This past few years I’ve sorted back through various science fiction of the sixties, seventies and eighties (and to a lesser extent those “classics” in decades before and after that range), and I’ve been struck more than anything else by the generally very poor quality of the writing in the genre. There are notable exceptions, like the poetic prose of Ray Bradbury, and the breezy, masculine confidence of Heinlein, but far more sf writers create prose at a much lower level than the quality of the ideas. It’s such a relief to come across someone like Joe Haldeman, who writes in a clear, straightforward way that never interferes with the story or makes me roll my eyes.

Gene Wolfe, though, may be the best pure writer ever to work in the science fiction or fantasy genres.

This book applies elegant, poetic language to the compelling story of a torturer expelled from his guild for taking pity on a “client” (torture victim) with whom he’d fallen in love. The story is expressed with great sensitivity, and delves into metaphysical and ontological questions along the way.

If there is one drawback, it’s that this first book in the series ends rather abruptly. This is remedied by the recent release of Shadow of the Torturer together in a single volume with Claw of the Conciliator, the second New Sun book, so the reader may continue on without too much frustration. I can imagine readers being frustrated with this one when it came out, though, with no sequel at hand until a year or two later.

This work is so accomplished, so compelling and overall so successful that I find I have less to say about it than I would most novels. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who claims to love science fiction or fantasy, as it somewhat straddles the line between the genres. It feels like a fantasy novel, with swords and armor, horses and witches, and dark towers. Yet the story is based on a far-future Earth, where much has changed, and virtually everything we now know has been forgotten. I’ve seen this series referred to as “science fantasy” and though that’s not a term I normally like, here it fits.

The clearest recommendation I can make is that I not only intend to finish the series, but the related “Long Sun” and “Short Sun” series, and possibly everything else I can get my hands on by Wolfe. Truly one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

The Joy of Discovering Great Things

Remember that feeling you had, twelve years old (well, I was twelve at least — what about you?) walking out of the theater after seeing Star Wars for the first time? Maybe for you it was the first time you read Lord of the Rings, or Catcher in the Rye, or it might have been time you listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall on headphones.

Sometimes in this life — not too often or else it wouldn’t have the same magic — you come across one of these amazing things you immediately know you’ll always love, and revisit over and over. Often you don’t recognize it when you first come across the thing, and only looking back later do you try to remember that first encounter, try to remember how it felt the first time you saw that opening image in Blade Runner, with the first spine-tingling notes of the Vangelis score. In other words, we often don’t recognize the discover is so special when we first see it, and only get it in retrospect.

Once in a while you may be lucky enough to be told by a sufficient number of people you trust that you have a real special treat in store. In these case you know you should appreciate it, approach with respect and careful attention to your own sense of discovery when you finally get around to listening, reading, watching or whatever it may be.

I’ve somehow managed to miss Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun these past thirty years. I’ve seen the thing recommended so many times, with such passion, that of course I know I’m in for something great. The funny thing about approaching a beloved classic like this is that you recognize other people love it, but without understanding exactly what everyone responded to, what made it special, until you actually dig in for yourself. It was this way for me with reading Dune, for example, or watching The Sopranos. In both cases, I didn’t really “get” what was so interesting about the idea, but respected the many recommendations enough to finally give in, take a look, be swept away, and become a huge fan myself.

Same thing here, with this book. I’ve read a bit of Gene Wolfe, just a few short stories, enough to recognize the guy can write as well as anybody inside the Fantasy/SF genres, or even anybody in the mainstream. There’s nothing like the dawning recognition when you read something amazing, like Severian’s interaction with the blind librarian Ultan.

This isn’t so much a blog entry about Wolfe’s books (I’ll get to that when I’m done reading), but about that amazing experience of bumping up against true greatness. That first recognition is one of the greatest feelings in life, like falling in love, or traveling to a beautiful place for the first time. I’m so excited to continue with this book!