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SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 13): “Shadow of the Torturer” by Gene Wolfe

In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, the first volume of the Book of the New Sun quartet, published in 1980.

This is the first-person narrative of Severian, a lowly apprentice torturer blessed and cursed with a photographic memory, whose travels lead him through the marvels of far-future Urth, and who–as revealed near the beginning–eventually becomes his land’s sole ruler or Autarch. On the surface it’s a colorful story with all the classic ingredients: growing up, adventure, sex, betrayal, murder, exile, battle, monsters, and mysteries to be solved. … For lovers of literary allusions, they are plenty here: a Dickensian cemetery scene, a torture-engine from Kafka, a wonderful library out of Borges, and familiar fables changed by eons of retelling… The Book of the New Sun is almost heartbreakingly good, full of riches and subtleties that improve with each rereading. It is Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece. –David Langford

Despite reading this book in isolation from its series — which means that we are looking at all the set-up and none of the payoff — we find a lot to discuss and a lot to love in this classic novel.

About Karen Burnham (82 Articles)
Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a sf/f reviewer and critic. She has worked on the Orion and Dream Chaser spacecraft and written for SFSignal, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine.

8 Comments on SF Crossing the Gulf (Episode 13): “Shadow of the Torturer” by Gene Wolfe

  1. This just makes me want to read it again. Love the Wolfe.

  2. Fantastic Podcast. I loved hearing impressions of someone who hadn’t read the whole series yet. I hope she reads the rest!

  3. A nit: theoretically, the Book of the New Sun is not a quartet but rather a quintet(and longer if you really want to get technical)

    • Paul,
      I would advise new Wolfe readers to skip the fifth book (Urth of the New Sun). It’s easily the weakest volume in the whole extended series, and probably of interest only to Wolfe completists.

      That said, the other 11 volumes are the greatest long-form achievement in science fiction.

      • That makes sense–it was after book #5 that I wound up dropping the series. With luck someday I’ll pick up with book #6 and learn the rest of the story!

        • Well, technically the stuff after Urth is a couple of new series set in the same universe but with very different setting, characters and tone. Books 6-9 (The Books of the Long Sun) take place on a generation ship and books 10-12 (The Books of the Short Sun) take place on the generation ship’s destination world. I haven’t read the full Short Sun but I understand that there’s some kind of crossover with Severian at some point.

  4. I’m late to the party here, I know, but great discussion! And I’m definitely going to need to reread Book of the New Sun in the not excessively distant future.

    A couple of things: As far as the whole Dying Earth thing goes, I think Jack Vance himself was actually influenced by Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories.

    If you want to dig into the vocabulary that Wolfe uses, you could do much worse than Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus

    And if you want to hear what Wolfe has to say about BotNS in particular, I recommend his collection Castle of Days. Also Darrell Schweitzer did a really good interview with him back in Weird Tales #290 — I think the interview might have been reprinted in one of Schweitzer’s nonfiction collections.

  5. There’s certainly another nice layer to the Apollo painting, since Severian called it an unknown dead world, and in his time, the moon is a smaragd green jungle world on the night sky (another great throwaway remark in its own context)…

    And while Gene Wolfe easily can become an eminent writer to any reader of genre, I also get the sense after a while that I’d rather read something “normal”. I get the same feeling from Mervyn Peake. The trade-off is that while there may be many more “normal” writers, they may never get the unique sense of their writing so right. So it’s always going from one to other for sort of recuperation. The New Weird writers are kind of inbetween, and not unconsciously, but I think their impact is already wearing off, or at least it doesn’t quite catch my attention anymore.

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