a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

Author: Michael Andre-Driussi

The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction

Gene Wolfe and The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction

When Larry McCaffery interviewed Gene Wolfe in 1985, his third question was, “Did you read a lot of SF as a kid?” In his answer, Wolfe told about a small book that changed his world:

Once when I was a kid in Houston[,] I fell off my bike and hurt my leg badly enough so that my mother had to drive me to school for a while in the family car. On one of those drives she had a paperback book lying in the front seat, and when I looked down at the picture on the cover[,] I saw a picture like the one I had seen in the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comics . . . It was a paperback collection of SF stories edited by Don Wollheim, who was about 22 in those days. My mother had bought it to read while she was waiting for me to get out of school (she was a big mystery fan but had bought this for a change of pace). I asked her if I could read this one when she was finished, and she said I could have it right away since she didn’t much care for it. The first story I came across was ‘The Microcosmic God’ by Theodore Sturgeon, which was my first real encounter with SF. It was at that point I realized these were not just stories I enjoyed—like those of Edgar Allan Poe, or the Oz books . . . but that they constituted a genre. From the Wollheim anthology . . . I worked backwards and discovered the SF pulps. (Peter Wright, Shadows of the New Sun, p80)

The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction

Photograph by Mark Van Slyke

This quotation shows with exacting clarity an early milestone in Wolfe’s development, the precise moment at the age of eleven or twelve when he discovered that many of his favorite stories were members of a recognized genre.

The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction (1943) was the first anthology to use the term “science fiction” in its title. Rather than including purely pulp SF, editor Donald A. Wollheim assembled ten tales from three different types of publication: six stories from contemporary pulp magazines, frontloaded by a pair of 19th century “classics” and two tales from contemporary “glossies,” the high-end periodicals of the period. This approach provides the collection (and the new genre for Gene Wolfe) with a historical pedigree as well as layers of upper and lower tiers. Wolfe explicitly states that this book was his gateway to discovering the science fiction pulps.

The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction

Fantastic Tales of Super-Science

  • “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) Stephen Vincent Benét
  • “Moxon’s Master” (1899) Ambrose Bierce
  • “Green Thoughts” (1931) John Collier
  • “In the Abyss” (1896) H. G. Wells
  • “The Green Splotches” (1920) T. S. Stribling
  • “The Last Man” (1929) Wallace G. West
  • “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) Stanley G. Weinbaum
  • “Twilight” (1934) John W. Campbell, Jr.
  • “Microcosmic God” (1941) Theodore Sturgeon
  • “—And He Built a Crooked House” (1941) Robert A. Heinlein

By the Waters of Babylon

“By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét was first published as “The Place of the Gods” in the glossy magazine The Saturday Evening Post (July 31, 1937).

Synopsis: The coming-of-age story for a young primitive in a post-apocalyptic world, a place where only tribal “priests” can safely take metal from spirit houses in Dead Places. (Enough time has passed since “the Great Burning” that some bones will fall to dust if touched, though this might be a side-effect of the apocalypse rather than a sign of time’s passage.) The hero reaches the age for his manhood journey, where he will go to a spirit house and return with metal from it, but his secret ambition is to break tribal taboo by going to the forbidden Place of the Gods. When he does this, he is rewarded with a powerful spiritual vision of life before the Great Burning, and then he witnesses the Great Burning itself. Through this experience he realizes that the “gods” were just humans, and he mentions the taboo name for the Place of the Gods is “new york.”

Context: A pre-atomic post-apocalyptic story. It treats the new tribes with sympathy rather than the ridicule found in John Ames Mitchell’s novel The Last American (1889), or the pro-brutality found in Jack London’s story “The Strength of the Strong” (1914).

Commentary: I sense this story has a long shadow through the post-apocalyptic subgenre as perhaps the first to use the ruined ancient city of Babylon as an image of how our own civilisation might appear when viewed from the perspective of futurity. Its precedent was followed by Edgar Pangborn’s “Music Master of Babylon” (1955) and the most famous example of the trope, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959). But “Babylon” is a tricky metaphor in this usage. The titles for the Benét and Pangborn stories allude to Psalm 137 regarding the Babylonian captivity:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (Psalm 137, v1-3, ESV)

In contrast, the title of Frank’s novel relates to the apocalyptic destruction of Babylon in Revelation 18:10. While Benét’s “Babylon” at times hints at Revelation’s Babylon with the witnessing of the Great Burning, the tale is set firmly in a Babylonian captivity, where the narrator looks to returning from exile in generations to come.

Wolfe Notes: I am strongly reminded of “’A Story’ by John V. Marsch” in The Fifth Head of Cerberus (all references to first edition, hardcover, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1972), which frames the vision quest within an anthropological romance reconstructed by a knowledgeable scientist. (Come to think of it, the framing of this Babylon tale is utterly absent!) One sharp detail: “They were singing the Star song in the outer chamber” (p3) recalls the singing of the Sky songs by the Shadow children abos. There is a named song, “The Bending Sky-Paths Song that none may come” (p87), and an unnamed one: “We have sung to hold the starcrossers back. . . . Suppose I now sing them in, and they come?” (p129). The meeting of the dead god in his home is like Wolfe’s hero making an offering to the dead priest in his cave. Another point of similarity is that of seeing “the end of the world,” where the vision of the Great Burning during Benét’s story is matched by the arrival of the starships near the end of Wolfe’s story.

There are also a few suggestions of this story’s influence in Peace, including the scattered reference to post-apocalyptic tribes in Den’s writing. The ghostly vision of life before the city died is echoed as the ghostly vision of life in the future city (and possible apocalypse) in the “Ghost Chasers” article by Den’s aunt.

The meeting with the wild dogs in Benét’s story reminds me of trouble in the dead city section of Nessus (The Citadel of the Autarch and “The Map”), while the spiritual time-travel links to the resurrection of the stone town in The Claw of the Conciliator.

Moxon’s Master

“Moxon’s Master” by Ambrose Bierce first appeared in The San Francisco Examiner (April 16, 1899).

Synopsis: A nameless narrator is arguing with an inventor called Moxon, who is expounding upon intelligence in unusual places. A sound from Moxon’s private workshop in the next room draws Moxon away, and he returns with four scratches on his cheek. The narrator, supposing this wound was dealt by a woman, leaves in a scandalized huff, but as he walks, he finds that Moxon’s strange philosophy has given him a profound change, “like that which fell upon Saul of Tarsus” (p23). Upon returning to Moxon’s place after this “road to Damascus” moment, he spies on the man playing chess with a robot. Maxon wins, and the robot throttles him. The narrator wakes up in the hospital, where Haley, Moxon’s workman, explains that he rescued the narrator from the fire that destroyed the workshop. The narrator says he saw the robot kill its inventor, but Haley questions that, and now the narrator has doubts.

Context: The story is clearly inspired by an historical pseudo-automaton, “The Mechanical Turk,” a fake chess-playing machine which operated from 1770 until its destruction by fire in 1854 (note the destruction by fire). Poe’s essay “Maelzel’s Chess Player” (1836) tries to solve the mystery of its operation.

Commentary: The story is short and wooly and has both a twist ending and a twist title. But this is Bierce, who is legendary for his twists, and this story shows him in top twisty form.

Bierce is also known for his atheism, so his heavy-handed use of Saint Paul’s conversion is cause for caution and suspicion.

The twist ending can go many ways, but I think the cleanest interpretation is that robotic life is real life, and therefore robots, like humans, can have murderous passions. Working back from this, the interruption was not a lover’s impatience, but a secret life-form alarmed that its secret was about to be divulged.

The twist title makes us ask who or what is Moxon’s “master”? In simplest terms, considering only Moxon and the robot, the robot is the master. Is this because Moxon is a slave to his own dreams, in a Pygmalion way? Or is the meaning chess oriented, in that a chess expert is a “master?” Moxon won against the robot but the robot killed him, achieving greater mastery in a horrible way. But the kicker is that Moxon seemed to see his death coming; his behavior with the narrator is retrospectively that of a man knowingly heading to his certain doom, like a “lamb to the slaughter.”

The creative ambiguity here reminds me of Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” (1954), where the connection between master and android is something more symbiotic, and the story “Farewell to the Master” (1940), inspiration for the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but the twist in the end of “Farewell” is that robot Gort is the master, and Klaatu is the biological slave.

Wolfe Notes: The identity ambiguity in this story feeds directly into The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) and elsewhere in Wolfe’s work. The creator/monster ambiguity goes straight to Baldanders and Talos in The Book of the New Sun. Robots that behave badly are especially strong in The Book of the Long Sun.

Wolfe wrote his own take on “The Mechanical Turk” in “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton” (1977), set in a post-apocalyptic USA.

Green Thoughts

“Green Thoughts” by John Collier first saw print in the glossy Harper’s Magazine (May 1931).

Synopsis: An orchid fancier named Mr. Mannering obtains a unique specimen. Through mishap, he discovers that it eats and absorbs the memories of animals: first a house cat, then Cousin Jane, and then Mr. Mannering himself. Upon his disappearance comes the complication of his heir, a nephew of bad character who looks forward to squandering his inheritance as soon as possible. Through a twist, however, the base young man avoids being absorbed, and when he kills the monster plant in a fit of pique, it screams like the legendary mandrake.

Commentary: This story from the thirties might be the unacknowledged ancestor of the motion picture The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). The predatory plant is a cross between the legendary mandrake and the Wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Wolfe Notes: The memory absorption aspect of this story is an obvious inspiration for the dread alzabo in The Book of the New Sun.

In the Abyss

“In the Abyss” by H. G. Wells initially appeared in Pearson’s Magazine (August 1896).

Synopsis: An engineer designs a spherical metal vehicle with which to explore the ocean bed five miles down. He undertakes the descent and returns with news of having discovered another civilization. The people living at the bottom of the sea take the visitor as a god. In a postscript, the hero visits the ocean bed a second time . . . and is never seen again.

Wolfe Notes: The idea of undersea people has obvious relevance to Severian’s narrative, with its undines and monstrous submarine villains Erebus and Abaia. The religious interpretation of those who cross barriers to visit other worlds or dimensions also appears in the Urth Cycle, as noted below in the discussion of Theodore Sturgeon’s story “Microcosmic God.” Then there are the layered worlds of The Wizard Knight, wherein the denizens of lower levels worship those from higher levels, with all sorts of complications.

The Green Splotches

“The Green Splotches” by T. S. Stribling first appeared in Adventure (January 3, 1920).

Synopsis: A mysterious area of South America turns out to be the landing site for a spaceship. A geographical expedition encounters a galactic expedition.

Wolfe Notes: The alien humanoids have green blood, the source of the “green splotches” of the title, because their bodies use chlorophyll. Wolfe deploys this idea in the green man from The Book of the New Sun. The expedition that gets increasingly spooky evokes the field notes portion of Wolfe’s “V.R.T.” in The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

The Last Man

“The Last Man” by Wallace G. West saw first publication in Amazing Stories (February 1929).

Synopsis: “M-I” is the last man, an exhibit in the woman-dominated world of the future. He is contacted by an atavistic woman, also an exhibit, and together they explore the world’s forgotten history. Ultimately, they destroy the hive-like society of their era and become a new Adam and Eve.

Wolfe Notes: The “Hive Queen” in this story is a totalitarian result of the so-called “War of the Sexes.” Wolfe’s “The Doctor of Death Island” (1978) is set in a future where inter-racial conflict has been succeeded by a violent war of the sexes, while “In Looking Glass Castle” (1980) posits a future where men have been outlawed. The female captain in “Silhouette” (1975) is also a Hive Queen type.

A Martian Odyssey

“A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum was first published in Wonder Stories (July 1934).

Synopsis: The hero tells his fellow explorers a picaresque series of wonderous vignettes about his long walk across Mars after an unexpected crash. In the end it turns out the natives who fought him with such fanatic ferocity were only trying to keep a miraculous artifact, which has subsequently healed him, from being stolen from their temple.

Wolfe Notes: The key ingredient here is the stolen alien dingus that miraculously heals, a motif that Wolfe uses, among other places, in The Claw of the Conciliator, and in the green box of Interlibrary Loan.


“Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr. first appeared in Astounding Stories (November 1934).

Synopsis: In 1932 a man tells of a hitchhiker he picked up, a fellow who claimed to be a time traveler from 3059. The traveler is trying to get back to his own time, after having first shot into the future by seven million years. He tells the driver in 1932 about that distant time of little, bewildered men, and the machines that could not stop. It is a vista of vast melancholy, the twilight of humanity.

Wolfe Notes: This story has its parallel in Cyriaca’s tale of the library in The Sword of the Lictor, where the machines continue after humanity has fallen into barbarity. Wolfe uses the “overshooting” accident of time travel in The Urth of the New Sun.

Microcosmic God

“Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon first saw print in Astounding Stories (April 1941).

Synopsis: A scientist, in his quest to push beyond human ability, creates intelligent, microscopic lifeforms, the Neoterics, who live at an accelerated pace. He becomes their god, pressing them to advance technologically. When the banker who finances this project tries to steal the scientist’s work, the Neoterics answer their god’s request to throw up a shield, an impenetrable force field. The Neoterics continue on at their accelerated pace, and, as many years have gone by since the shield went up, the narrator worries about the fate of humanity whenever the Neoterics take down their shield and emerge.

Wolfe Notes: I find it curious, perhaps telling, that Wolfe started reading The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction with this novelette located near the end of the volume. It is the one story which he mentions by name in his interview with Larry McCaffery, and it seems to have especially caught his imagination. He would go on to write his own microscopic adventure, “Peritonitis” (1973). The tension between inventor and investor found in “The Doctor of Death Island” (1978) may also have had its roots in Sturgeon’s tale. Be that as it may, Wolfe’s fiction certainly contains various “god games.” They feature in short stories such as “The God and His Man” (1980) and “Procreation” (1983), but they are central to the concerns of the Solar Cycle.  The godlike Hieros create the Hierogrammates to go back and steer human history so as to ensure that it results in the Hieros’ own evolution. Severian is a tool in their hands, but in the narrative’s convolutions he himself is put into various god-roles, first in the dawn time as Apu-Punchau, and later in Ushas as The Sleeper. And, just as in “The God and His Man,” there is tension between the god and his subjects.

—And He Built a Crooked House

“—And He Built a Crooked House” by Robert A. Heinlein initially appeared in Astounding Stories (February 1941).

Synopsis: A kooky architect builds a tesseract house, and a Californian earthquake makes it real.

Wolfe Notes: Space-bending architecture occurs frequently in Wolfe’s writing, from room “expanders” in “Slaves of Silver” (1971), to Father Inire’s botanic gardens in The Book of the New Sun, to theoretical room expanders expounded by a scientist in A Borrowed Man (2015). But there is also the Last House of Master Ash in The Book of the New Sun, a “tower at the edge of things” like the Starkness observatory in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920).


In conclusion, I hope this study will blaze a trail for others. Just as we are familiar with the threads of Dickens and Proust shot throughout Wolfe’s oeuvre, so perhaps The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction might become a common touchstone in Wolfe studies. The ten stories in the Wollheim anthology could have been purely pulp, but I find significance in the 19th-century/glossy/pulp mixture, which seems to map to Wolfe’s own output, and I find in each of the ten stories elements that Wolfe used to memorable effect.


Posthistory 201

In this new study of how human history is measured and portrayed in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, Michael Andre-Driussi reassesses the subject of his earlier essay “Posthistory 101” (originally published in Extrapolation, Vol. 37, No. 2,1996) and examines the textual evidence for estimating the duration of the Autarchy.


Let me propose the following model for the underlying structure of Urth history as depicted in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle:

  • Prehistory (before starflight)
  • History (Urth’s galactic empire)
  • Posthistory

The text gives us starting- and end-points for the this tripartite structure: Apu-Punchau at the beginning and the Deluge at the end.

Most of the details available are either prehistoric (from Apu-Punchau to the picture of the Apollo astronaut on the Moon) or posthistoric (Era of the Monarch Typhon and the subsequent Age of the Autarch).

The historic period of galactic conquest by Koreans includes the terraforming of Mars, Venus, and the Moon into Verthandi, Skuld, and Lune. It has a decline and fall, I believe. In any event, Typhon plans to create or recreate a galactic empire.

Jonas now shines for me as the man of history, in the Urth sense described above. Previously I had grasped that he shared common threads with us prehistoric readers: he has read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, he knows the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and he is accurate in his comments on the European Middle Ages. In this respect he is our stand-in, our surrogate in Severian’s Commonwealth.

But now I see Jonas was there at the beginning of history: he saw Citadel Hill when it was the bustling Port of Urth, he knew Nessus under its earlier name, and he knows why the Wall was built (probably as a containment device to keep hazards in, rather than as a protection against things from outside). Jonas went up in his rocket ship and participated in the galactic expansion, but when that same ship came back, history was over, there was no longer a port on Urth, and they crash-landed the rocket somewhere in the Commonwealth.

I now believe that the enigmatic Kim Lee Soong was the navigator of his ship, and the poignancy is that Jonas has found the long-time descendants of his old friend imprisoned in the antechamber of the House Absolute.

The text often emphasizes the similarities between Jonas and Hethor, and I believe they are contemporaries, but Hethor went onto the Big Ship and adapted to starsails, whereas Jonas stayed with rockets.

When Jonas says the city was not called Nessus yet because it did not poison the water, it now seems crystal clear to me that the poisoning of the water is a direct result of technological decline. That is, it was a metropolis of the high population density only possible through 20th century technology for water treatment. The technology fell until finally the city had to move upstream to avoid its own filth.


2.1 Overview

In “Posthistory 101” and Lexicon Urthus I stated that the time from Ymar to Severian was about a chiliad. Recent reading suggests that the range is actually between one thousand and thirty-thousand years, most accurately “many chiliads,” which means “more than three chiliads” and yet it is probably unknowable beyond that.

2.2 Revising my estimate
I had been working on a chapter guide to The Book of the New Sun for many months, and thus I was engaged with the text again.

Nigel Price and I were chatting in email about the timespan of Urth’s history. We agreed with the basic principle that Severian’s post-historic vantage point means that all time is vague. In this Wolfe goes against the Vancean grain of numbered Aeons known as history by the grubbing wizards of the dying Earth, as in the following examples from Rhialto the Marvellous (1984):

During the 17th Aeon, a land-bridge rises across the Straits of Garch…


For double security I reverted the object to the 16th Aeon…

Then Nigel asked the simple question of why I was so certain that the Age of the Autarchy was about a thousand years. This proved surprisingly difficult to answer, because it turns out I had not adequately cited the source text for that detail in my essay “Posthistory 101”.

After putting in some research, it seems that my millennium autarchy (hereafter “1K”) was following the model put forth by Vodalus in his recruitment pitch to Severian:

“Has it never struck you that mankind was richer by far, and happier too, a chiliad gone than it is now?” (II, chap. 10)

This statement strongly implied to me that the autarchs had reigned for about a thousand years. For more context, I assumed that the exultant Vodalus was as well-educated as Thecla, so he might plausibly know such a thing. Furthermore, Vodalus was not presenting himself as a “reformer” but as a revolutionary who would restore Urth to a former glory of pre-Autarchial times.

In addition to that line from Vodalus, I was perhaps unduly influenced by a statement from Gene Wolfe in a 1983 interview by Robert Frazier, where two lines near the end go as follows:

RF: Perhaps we could end this by telling something about Severian which doesn’t end up in the books [The Book of the New Sun].

GW: There was a time when Severian encountered assassins in the Secret House who had come to kill Ymar, an autarch a chiliad dead. (Peter Wright, Shadows of the New Sun, p. 55)

Based, then, on Vodalus’ and Wolfe’s comments, I took the 1K model as being solid beyond reasonable questioning.

But then I found another timespan model, this time coming from Agia, of all people. She is a commoner, with no education. As she walks toward the Botanic Gardens she is larking along in flirtatious banter with Severian, but it turns out in hindsight that many of her statements are prophetically true.

At one point she says about the Conciliator: “Then there is nothing to prevent him, from a position, say, of thirty thousand years ago, coming into what we call the present” (I, chap. 19).

This is highly specific. She is saying that the era of the Conciliator was thirty chiliads back (hereafter “30K”).

Initially there is no solid link between the time of the Conciliator and the era of Typhon. This changes in The Urth of the New Sun, where it is established that the Conciliator met the Monarch.

2.3 Narrowing the range

The range in these two models is from one to thirty chiliads. In an attempt to narrow that down a bit, I set upon a brute force method of searching for the terms “chiliads,” “thousand years,” “ages,” “aeons,” and “eons,” in order to sift for further clues. (A trivial task now, with e-text.) My results are summarised in the following section.



  1. Jonas to Severian: “Once I read a history. I don’t suppose you know anything about it. So many chiliads have elapsed here” (II, chap. 16). This statement is generic. Jonas is probably referring to the “post-historic” nature of Severian’s culture, and/or the technological decline evidenced by the fact that Urth’s “(space)port” was missing.
  2. Cyriaca to Severian about her uncle at the Library: “It was a book no one had opened, as he believed, for a chiliad” (III, chap. 6). Since the Library was formed by Typhon, then this line can be read to support the 1K model, but of course it supports the 30K form as well.
  3. Severian to Typhon on the Conciliator: “He has been dead for many chiliads” (III, chap. 25). This might be honest, perhaps based on what Agia had said, but there is a strong case for dissimulation here.
  4. Severian on Typhon: “The heart that had not served him for so many chiliads ceased to beat” (III, chap. 26). An attempt at dissimulation would not work against Typhon at this point so this one cannot go into the 1K pile. It is too non-specific to go into the 30K pile, however. (Too bad Severian did not use “several,” since it seems that he always means “three” in that case!)
  5. Severian as Conciliator to his followers: “To the ice of ten chiliads will be added the ice of the winter now almost upon us” (V, chap. 27). This line is ambiguous for bringing in ice time. On the positive side, he definitely knows he is early in the Autarchy at that point, I think.
  6. Severian returned to the House Absolute, presumably at the eleventh year of his reign. Looking at the dead assassin, he is tempted to “replace the knife I had lost so many chiliads ago” (V, chap. 41, 292). Since he had just come from the Typhon Era, the knife he refers to is the one he drove into Typhon’s table (V, chap. 39, 275). This item cannot go in the 1K pile.


  1. Agia to Severian on the Conciliator as quoted above: source of 30K model.
  2. The aquastor Malrubius regarding the second time ship: “its range is but a few thousand years” (IV, chap. 31). Since this likely means that the mausoleum builder is alive in that time frame of a few thousand years in the past, it implies that the mausoleum builder’s era is there, which would require the Autarchial Age to be many chiliads. These speculations suggest it cannot be added to the 1K pile.


  1. Severian about the Atrium of Time: “No doubt because the frost of these latter ages entering the tunnel below had heaved its foundations” (I, chap. 4). Interesting that the “ages” here are shorter than the autarchial age.
  2. Agia about the Wall: “it has stood through a dozen ages” (I, chap. 25). Too ambiguous for use, but does use a figure (12!).
  3. Severian on duelling: “Those ages that have outlawed it (and many hundreds have, by my reading) have replaced it largely with murder” (I, chap. 27). This case seems to conflate “ages” with “societies” or maybe “reigns.” For example, we look to Wikipedia under “Duel” and see that Italy outlawed it in 1215, and the Holy Roman Empire outlawed it in 1650, etc. Still, he is talking about many hundreds of units here, whatever their actual duration.
  4. Jonas: “what they called the dark ages” (II, chap. 16). Based upon the points he gives, this is an anchor to the early middle ages (AD 500 to 1000), a span of 500 years. Hmm, so with the plural, each “age” of the dark ages might be 100 years? Hard to say!
  5. Severian: “costumes drawn largely from remote ages” (II, chap. 23).
  6. Severian on towers: “of metal so closely fitted that they had, ages ago, diffused into one another” (II, chap. 30). Another case where the multiple “ages” are tucked within the Autarchial Age.
  7. Merryn on the Cumaean and the stone town: “She is very old, but this city was devastated whole ages before she came to be” (II, chap. 31). The Stone Age/Bronze Age stone town seems to be a far point in time from the Autarchial Age, but “whole ages” seems (to me at least) less than “dozens of ages” or “hundreds of ages.”
  8. Appendix to Volume II: “An age is the interval between the exhaustion of some mineral or other resource in its naturally occurring form (for example, sulfur) and the next” (301). This note slyly shifts from the standard models of “materials of use” (Stone Age, Iron Age, Steam Age) to the 1970s concern for “resource depletion” (petroleum, uranium, etc.). While the Bronze Age lasts something like 2,000 years and the Steam Age around 145 years, the depletion schedule remains only theoretical. The text is plain that the citadel wall is made of unsmeltable metal, and that some things called “metal” are really more like cloth, etc.
  9. About seeds that “sink to the bottom of Gyoll and remain there for whole ages of the world” (III, chap. 11). Too vague for my task.
  10. Severian about his narrative: “I shall call it The Book of the New Sun, for that book, lost now for so many ages, is said to have predicted his coming” (IV, chap. 38). Could be used for 1K pile or 30K pile.
  11. Conciliator to Typhon: “and whole ages of the world will stride across it before my coming reawakens you to life” (V, chap. 39). “Whole ages” being equated with 30K, or at least “many chiliads.”
  12. On the estimated time of arrival for the White Fountain: “no matter how fast I drew my star to me, it was so distant that whole ages of the world would pass before it reached us” (V, chap. 40).
  13. Vulcanism: “In ages when men were only higher beasts, there were indeed such mountains” (V, chap. 42).
  14. “After ages of Urth, a bold man forced his way into that temple” (V, chap 47).
  15. The three Hierodules to Severian in the House of Day: “Whole ages of the world have passed since we’ve seen you” (V, chap. 50). The span they refer to is from Severian’s first year to the era of Apu-Punchau. The usage here resembles that in the earlier example involving the Cumaean.
  16. “Age of the Autarch” is used by Wolfe only in his article “Cavalry in the Age of the Autarch.”

So “ages” are all over the place, which is especially confusing when relating to governments or reigns or something like that.


Here are some more terms (given in upper case) and concepts relating to the passage of time which Wolfe uses in The Book of the New Sun and related texts:

Chain of civilizations: Wolfe writes, “in Severian’s time for the scholar-heirs of a sequence of civilizations that may be over a million years old” (“Books in The Book of the New Sun,” Wright’s Shadows of the New Sun, 195). Note that a million years = 1,000 chiliads.

Fossilization time: minimum 10,000 years. (Regarding the cliff-exposed city as a natural fossil.)


  1. “pounded to powder by aeons of tumbling in the…sea” (I, chap. 16).
  2. “the world is ordered to some plan…or one derived during the billion aeons of its existence” (III, chap. 27).
  3. “Ages are aeons to us” (III, chap. 33). [Good to know that aeons are greater than ages!]
  4. “for so many aeons” (V, chap. 21).
  5. “among the fallen towers [of the undersea city]…treasures…had withstood the passing of aeons” (V, chap. 48).


  1. “to have walked among us eons ago” (I, chap. 29).
  2. “perhaps, [he is separated from his readers] by the abyss of eons” (II, chap. 4).
  3. “the eons [for the manapes] of struggles in the dark” (II, chap. 6).
  4. “In the earliest eons he [Apu-Punchau] had appeared” (II, chap. 31).
  5. “substance of the tiles [cliff city] in eons past” (III, chap. 14).
  6. “but during the eons of its existence [telecommunications], it laid upon him a spell” (IV, chap. 26).

The first instance of “eons” is especially interesting. This is Severian talking to Agia about the Conciliator, where he uses “eons” and she replies with “thirty thousand years,” which suggests that an eon could be around ten thousand years.


When Jonas refers to “the dark ages” (II, chap. 16, 137), I am unsure as to his context. Still, he is talking very specific points:

  • king elected at Marchfield (AD 509).
  • counts appointed by kings (AD 450-751).
  • “baron” only a freeman of Lombardy (Old High German 750-1050).

Jonas seems to be highlighting that the Early Middle Ages, or “the Dark Ages”, were only five hundred years, and had these meritocratic qualities, whereas the High Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages, lasting 250 years each, showed improvements in some ways but positions became inherited. So the context seems to be, “I am shocked to find that this Autarchial Age has lasted longer than the Middle Ages,” which would move the scale from the one thousand years to the multi-thousand years model.

Urth cannot climb up out of the pit of its own “Middle Ages” because resources have been so comprehensively depleted.


What can we conclude from this survey? Does the period that I have described as “Posthistory” have a precise duration?

My sense is that the autarchy is entirely within the posthistorical phase of Wolfe’s time scheme, but it probably started before then. Typhon had come in, made Urth his capital, and tried to conquer the galaxy, but it seems that Urth had already been fallow for some time at that point.



The Feast of Saint Katharine (with a “K”)

Wolfe scholar and regular contributor to Ultan’s Library Michael Andre-Driussi describes his latest article thus: This essay traces the vestigial novella “The Feast of Saint Catherine” cryptically contained within the published text of The Book of the New Sun as a fossilized embryo. The plot of the tale will be established, along with the internationally recognized word count requirement for the form “novella.” Following these unassailable facts are speculative projections as to the novella’s resolution, conjectural notes on genre authors Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance, and suppositions regarding Gene Wolfe’s rejection of the novella.

A Lexicon Urthus update

Cover image for Lexicon Urthus - A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle, by Michael Andre-DriussiWolfe scholar Michael Andre-Driussi recently got in touch to let us know that he has published a list of corrections and errata for his masterful “Dictionary of the Urth Cycle”, Lexicon Urthus.  

The ebook version has been updated in the kindle store, and recent copies of the hard and softcover editions have also been updated, and are marked “Second Edition 2008: corrected 2014” on the copyright page. Michael has provided Master Ultan with the following lists of corrections. He says:

“For hardcopy books, I think an acceptable method would be to write in the corrections, thereby personalizing the volume. Use of vermilion ink would be an added bonus!”

Japanese Lexicon for The Book of the New Sun

by Michael Andre-Driussi

In the fall of 1987 I found myself with a new job in a rural town, where one Sunday I visited the local shopping mall, and there in a dump of used paperback books I found a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer. It was auspicious, I thought, to find an old friend in a new place, especially since it was a Japanese edition. But then again, I was living in Japan at the time.

To be clear, I couldn’t read Japanese very much at all, but I could spot the “Sci Fi” symbol on the book’s spine (a planet Saturn), and I could read the phonetic writing they use for foreign words and names, such that “Jiin Urufu” is Gene Wolfe.

The Death of Catherine the Weal and Other Stories (1992)

by Michael Andre-Driussi

This essay was written for John Clute’s proposed book of essays on Gene Wolfe’s fiction. Back in the early 90s, before the Internet as we know it existed, I was posting messages on the Gene Wolfe topic at GEnie (it was a message board system). Before long, Gregory Feeley kindly suggested that I write an essay for John Clute’s proposed anthology of Wolfe criticism. It seemed at the time that the book would be published by 1994. It may well be that my essay killed the whole project with its leaden prose. I once read it aloud at a bookstore and literally put people to sleep–good people, I might add. [Jeremy Crampton’s essay, Some Greek Themes in Gene Wolfe’s Latro novels, was also written for Clute’s collection of essays]

Lions and Tigers and Bears . . . of the New Sun

by Michael Andre-Driussi

1. The Strange Bear Man at the Threshold

The first time I read The Urth of the New Sun, one scene tantalized me more than any other. I could see just enough to know that there was a great deal I could not see yet. The symbols were there, I just could not understand them.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén