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Mapping a Masterwork: A Critical Review of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun

  • Volume One: Shadow and Claw
  • Volume Two: Sword and Citadel (Millennium, 2000)

Reviewed by Peter Wright

Long before its inclusion on Millennium’s SF Masterworks list, Gene Wolfe’s densely allusive four volume The Book of the New Sun (The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1981) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)) was acclaimed as one of science fiction’s ‘masterpieces’. Universally praised, each volume won at least one of sf’s most coveted awards: The Shadow of the Torturer took the Howard Memorial Award and the World Fantasy Award in 1981, and the British Science Fiction Award in 1982; The Claw of the Conciliator brought Wolfe his second Nebula Award in 1981, whilst Locus honoured the novel with its Best Fantasy Novel Award in 1982; The Sword of the Lictor received the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1983; and The Citadel of the Autarch took the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1984.

Critics and reviewers were unrestrained. The Book of the New Sun was applauded in a variety of periodicals ranging from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine to The Library Journal and The New York Times. In short, it became a publishing event, the repercussions of which were felt in fanzines, journals and mainstream publications alike. It was acclaimed widely for its imaginative fertility, its formidable characterisation, its controlled and meticulous style, and the craftsmanship of its construction. Colin Greenland, reviewing The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator for Foundation provides a somewhat restrained endorsement when he considers the texts as ‘the next classic sf sequence, on a par with Earthsea, the Titus Groan Books or even…the Foundation Trilogy.’ 1 However, embedded within this, and more extravagant praise, was a burgeoning paradox. On the one hand, critics like Michael Bishop were lauding The Shadow of the Torturer for being:

an immediately accessible book for anyone with moderate intelligence and the ability to read. (Certainly it does not present some of the problems of interpretation that The Fifth Head of Cerberus has posed for wary and unwary alike.) 2

Conversely, Algis Budrys was expressing a growing scepticism as the tetralogy saw print. Whilst recognising that the publication of The Book of the New Sun was a ‘seminal event’ in the history of science fiction, Budrys gave voice to his growing suspicion that the narrative might not be as straightforward as it first appeared:

I am in the presence of a practitioner whose moves I cannot follow; I see only the same illusions that are seen by those outside the guild [of writers]. I know the cards are up the sleeves somewhere, but there are clearly extra arms to this person. 3

The image of Wolfe as illusionist and card-sharp is accurate and one which critics would adopt as they began to share Budrys’ sense of deception. Colin Greenland, in his tellingly entitled article, ‘Wolfe in Sheep’s Clothing’, observes:

Wolfe is subtle as well as bold, lavish with sly puzzles, mysteries and revelations that have had more than one reader waking up in the middle of the night saying, ‘My God, it can’t be!’ But it is. Second and third readings are indicated. 4

The feeling of having been duped by Wolfe led Baird Searles to suggest the origin of this critical discomfort and pose a provocative question:

The Book of the New Sun is too complex a work to evaluate on one reading. It will undoubtedly be considered a landmark in the field, one that perhaps marks the turning point of science fiction from content to style, from matter to manner. Mannered it certainly is, and stylish; [but] under all that glittering edifice of surprising words and more surprising events and characters, is there a story or a concept of any stature? 5

Twenty years after the publication of The Shadow of the Torturer and four years after completing a Ph.D. that attempted to answer Searles’ question, the reprinting of The Book of the New Sun provides me with an opportunity for a retrospective view. Indeed, everything about the new SF Masterwork’s edition invites retrospection, from the Jim Burns cover of Shadow and Claw – itself a homage to Bruce Pennington’s evocative, eroded image on the first UK edition – to the very term ‘Masterwork’ that appears several times on the jacket. Whilst the SF Masterworks imprint is just that, an imprint packaged to sell books under a grandiose banner, there is a strong case to be made for considering The Book of the New Sun as a ‘masterwork’.


Although Searles prophesied that The Book of the New Sun was ‘certainly the sort of novel that will provide a field day for critics, essayists, people who make lists, analysers, and academics’, his prophecy has gone largely unfulfilled, with the notable exception of Michael Andre-Driussi’s commendable Lexicon Urthus (1994). 6 Consequently, any claims made for viewing Wolfe’s tetralogy as a masterpiece are somewhat flimsy and subjective. Rather than engaging with the text to any meaningful degree, critics have tended to extol The Book of the New Sun for its fluidity of style, the conception of its enigmatic, alien Earth, and the depth of its characterisation. This conventional, narrow and unimaginative approach was unsatisfactory in 1983 and will remain so until readers take up the gauntlet Wolfe throws at their feet.

Clearly, it is impossible to provide satisfactory justification for considering The Book of the New Sun a ‘masterwork’ in the space of a short review or to anticipate Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader, my own study of Wolfe’s fiction to be published by Liverpool University Press in 2001. However, it is possible to suggest criteria that would enable critics to qualify Wolfe’s beguiling, manipulative text as a ‘masterwork’ – if they are prepared to face the intellectual challenge.

On a first, superficial reading, there is little to distinguish Wolfe’s tetralogy from many other sf and fantasy novels, with the exception of the aforementioned xenography, or world building, the credible characters and the polished, literate style. The plot itself is apparently unremarkable. Set on the ancient world of Urth, under the roseate glow of a dying sun, The Book of the New Sun is the memoir of Severian, an apprentice torturer exiled from his guild for showing mercy to a condemned ‘client’ with whom he had fallen in love. Leaving the sprawling and manifestly ancient city of Nessus, Severian begins his phantasmagoric journey north to Thrax, the City of Windowless Rooms, where he is to act as Lictor to the Archon. Once in Thrax, he refuses to murder a faithless wife for the Archon and must flee ever northwards. Eventually, he finds himself on battlefields scarred by the constant war between Severian’s Commonwealth and the armies of the northern continent, Ascia. It is here that he encounters the Autarch, ruler of the Commonwealth, who nominates Severian as his successor. The Citadel of the Autarch concludes with Severian awaiting judgement on the world of Yesod, where the Hierogrammates will assess his worthiness as the epitome of Urth. If he succeeds in his trial, Urth will receive a new sun; if he fails, he will be emasculated and condemn his world to entropic dissolution. Wolfe picks up the story at this point in the sequel to the tetralogy, The Urth of the New Sun (1987).

Throughout Severian’s journey, there are moments of creative brilliance: Severian’s unwitting ‘resurrection’ of Dorcas at the Lake of Birds; his bizarre duel with Agilus; the chilling execution of Morwenna; his incarceration in the House Absolute; Dr. Talos’ allegorical and metafictive play, ‘Eschatology and Genesis’; Severian’s encounter with the alzabo and, later, with Typhon, the two-headed tyrant whose legacy is felt again in The Book of the Long Sun; the apocalyptic battle between the Commonwealth and Ascia; the final meeting between Severian and the Autarch; and the revelations provided by the aquastor of Master Malrubius that recontextualise the entire narrative.

Each of these encounters provides the reader with an indication of the story that can be reconstructed from the plot. Reconciling plot with story, perceiving the text not as the religious document it purports to be but as the product of a manipulated individual caught in the Hierogrammates’ evolutionary machinations (something made explicit in The Urth of the New Sun) is the first step towards understanding Wolfe’s strategies and purpose. The gulf between plot and story, between the apparent and the real, alerts the reader to the fact that Wolfe is playing a complex and contrived textual game that facilitates a number of methods of interpretation.

Coming to understand The Book of the New Sun is like learning the rules of a game. If the reader succeeds in perceiving the rules of Wolfe’s literary game, achieves the reconciliation of plot with story, then the experience of reading becomes an educational one. By stimulating the reader to reject primary assumptions and existing preconceptions, Wolfe not only lifts the reader onto a level of alertness that allows for his most subtle effects, but also reveals to the more cautious reader how they ascribe meaning to a text. This is, perhaps, the most fundamental factor in any claim that The Book of the New Sun is a ‘masterwork’: it encourages the growth of the reader towards what Jonathan Culler terms ‘literary competence’.7 In short, Wolfe organises the text to be understood only by those readers willing to question their own literary assumptions, pause, reflect, and reread.

The literary game Wolfe constructs is most notable in terms of textual structure. Wolfe’s presentation of his rational sf novel as a non-rational fantasy, together with his subversion of the Campbellian heroic cycle, provide an insight not only into the possibilities of the genre but also into how habitual modes of reading inform and construct the reader’s reception of a text. Of course, there are a number of novels that achieve this synthesis and/or recontextualisation, which alone is insufficient to distinguish The Book of the New Sun. However, for Wolfe, the recontextualisation is little more than a starting point for his wider concerns. He is not necessarily preoccupied with demonstrating how proficient he is as a writer. Rather, by effectively concealing his narratological sleight of hand and constructing a puzzle for his reader, Wolfe attempts to alert that reader to the level of perception required. Hence, The Book of the New Sun does not invite the reader to marvel at how clever Wolfe can be, but to marvel at his or her own intelligence in perceiving one facet of the elaborate textual game the author plays. In this sense, Wolfe’s tetralogy is a masterwork in that it can be read as a paraliterary fantasy but demands to be read as a comment upon, and a reaction to, such narratives. In effect, it is a coolly intellectual denunciation of passive reading practices, a clarion call to readers dulled by formula fiction.

Similarly, Wolfe’s deployment of a first person narrator and the autobiographical form confronts the reader with familiar paradigms that oppose the reader’s reception of the subtle subversions Wolfe works on their conventions. As other critics have noted, without realising the implications of their observations, Severian is one of the most detailed and complex characterisations found in contemporary literature. He is also the principal means by which Wolfe distracts the reader from apprehending the story of his text. Despite appearances to the contrary, Severian is an unreliable narrator – and not only because he tells lies detectable by the cautious reader. Ironically, Severian is unreliable because of the very characteristic that makes him appear wholly reliable: his eidetic memory. Although Wolfe provides indicators of Severian’s fallibility, it is his status as a mnemonist that marks Severian as someone who cannot be trusted. As a mnemonist, he is characterised by a passive-receptive attitude that precludes organised striving, by limitations of intellect concealed behind his capacity for thought and imagination, and by his tendency to be a dreamer whose fantasies constitute another world through which he transforms his everyday experiences. Even the concealment of the story driving the plot of The Book of the New Sun is explicable in terms of Severian’s characterisation, given that mnemonists have a tendency to remember a wealth of detail (plot) which scatters meaning (story). Wolfe provides clues to Severian’s ‘inconscience’ – to borrow a term from Henry James – on a number of occasions, provoking the reader to see beyond the masquerade to what lies beneath. In this way, Wolfe not only asks his reader to question the narrator’s reception and interpretation of events, but their own reception and interpretation of the text.

Whilst the reader is attempting to decode what is actually occurring in The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe elaborates his textual games-playing by introducing significant levels unfamiliar diction, designed to ‘convey the flavour of an odd place at an odd time.’ 8 This apparently innocuous comment obfuscates the fact that despite the conceptual, allusive and thematic functions served by words like ‘peltast’, ‘optimates’, ‘carnifex’ and so forth, Wolfe is deliberately opening his text to post-structuralist analyses. In his appendix to The Shadow of the Torturer, Wolfe invests his diction with an enforced polysemy when he explains that the obscure nouns found in his ‘translation’ of The Book of the New Sun are ‘intended to be suggestive rather than definitive’. 9

In this appendix, which, in a typical inversion, reads more like an introduction, Wolfe destabilises the status of his language; previously concrete nouns have their unequivocal meanings subverted by his ‘translation’; they become indeterminate ‘substitutions’. Accordingly, by destabilising the meaning of his signifiers, Wolfe ensures that his narrative can be perceived as a writerly text in the Barthesian sense of containing indeterminacy of meaning.10 Thus, The Book of the New Sun may appeal to a post-structuralist reading as it marks a shift from meaning to staging, from the signified to the signifier. It fractures the relationship between the stable sign and the unified subject. Equally, the text’s obscure diction invites any deconstruction-orientated approach by showing a limitlessness of linguistic play, a dérive or drift of meaning. Equally, reader response critics can invoke Wolfgang Iser’s gap theory to discuss the ‘spots’ of indeterminism created by Wolfe’s indeterminate nouns.11 These critical approaches, all of which were prevalent before and during the publication of The Book of the New Sun, are a part of Wolfe’s intellectual gamesmanship. The reader should not be fooled, however. As Severian states early in the narrative, ‘rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all’,12 that is, they act in context, in harmony with their own nature, regardless of their name or terminology. Ironically, then, The Book of the New Sun can be claimed as a ‘masterwork’ because it both acknowledges and denies the validity of critical theory. Whilst it permits, and even invites, post-structuralist or deconstructivist approaches, which would provide one form of insight into the text, it undermines the potential of such analyses by indicating the contextualising story that reveals how ‘things act of themselves.’ Theoretical approaches, Wolfe seems to be suggesting, will generate interpretations, but a more holistic understanding will only follow from personal and untheorised reflection.

Similar observations could be made regarding Wolfe’s deployment of metafictional devices. Not content with changing generic codes, subverting literary conventions, employing an unreliable narrator, and exploiting the deflective effect of the unfamiliar, Wolfe manipulates traditional metafictional strategies. These devices are used to create a confusing series of connections between the text and its hermeneutic circle, between the action of its heavily intertextual hypodiegetic tales and that of the main narrative. Critics have largely overlooked the metafictional aspects of the text and the purpose they serve. This oversight, which would have exposed the text’s self-reflexive preoccupation with itself, arises from the fact that Wolfe and his commentators, including John Clute and Joan Gordon, have their creative and analytical powers concentrated in opposite directions. Where Wolfe turns his attention inward to fabricate a lengthy and involved puzzle for his reader, his critics have peered outwards from the text, searching for a point where The Book of the New Sun correlates with life itself. Accordingly, they have failed to appreciate that the metaphorical significance of the text (its examination of faith and deception) is sustained and deepened by the game Wolfe initiates with the reader. It is only by observing how s/he has been deceived and cajoled that the reader comes to appreciate more fully Wolfe’s vision of humanity as a helplessly subjective species attendant to the whim of manipulatory forces. This observation is encouraged by the self-conscious stress on deception, artifice and artificiality that permeates the text and which emblematises Wolfe’s textual game with the reader.

It could be argued that The Book of the New Sun is science fiction’s Ulysses. Like James Joyce, Wolfe has ‘put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep professors busy for centuries over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.’ 13 However, to do so would be to deny Wolfe’s determination to wed the reading process with his particular conception of existence through his games playing. From his other fiction, it apparent that Wolfe perceives the world as an ambiguous round of perceptions and misperceptions in which the individual struggles, and ultimately fails, to apprehend the precise nature of existence. The senses form a barrier to understanding; the memory an unreliable recording device to which the individual must return for clues to the conundrum of life; the world a system of manipulation where in people must live as best they can according to their physical, psychological and social restrictions.

Whilst it could be argued that the literary importance of Wolfe’s fiction derives from the thematic integrity by which this vision is conveyed, it is, perhaps, more pertinent to argue that the real strength of his work arises from his ability to make the reader experience this conception of existence during the reading process. Accordingly, throughout The Book of the New Sun, habitual modes of reading become metaphors for systems of manipulation and deception; unreliable narrators emphasise the reader’s own subjectivity; and unfamiliar diction calls into question the accuracy with which we can perceive the actuality of ‘the real’.

Like the constriction in an hourglass, The Book of the New Sun marks the point at which, and from which, Wolfe’s themes, techniques and preoccupations converge and diverge. To understand it is to understand Wolfe’s oeuvre entire. Yet, it is much more than that. The Book of the New Sun reminds us of our potential and our vulnerability as readers and, in so doing, it reminds us of our potential and vulnerability as individuals. Through each reading of the text we learn not only what it is to read, perceptively and critically, but also what it is to live, perceptively and critically, in the world. Every reading is, then, an individual resurrection. For that reason, if for no other, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun deserves to be hailed as a masterwork and not just a masterwork of science fiction but a considerable achievement within twentieth century fiction itself.

* * * * *


1. Colin Greenland, review of The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator, Foundation, 24 (1982), 82-85 (p. 85).

2. Michael Bishop, ‘Pitching Pennies Against the Starboard Bulkhead: Gene Wolfe as Hero’, Thrust: Science Fiction in Review, Fall 1980, pp. 10-12 (p. 12).

3. Algis Budrys, review of The Claw of the Conciliator, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1980, p. 49.

4. Colin Greenland, ‘Wolfe in Sheep’s Clothing’, City Limits, 21-27 October 1983, p. 17.

5. Baird Searles, review of The Citadel of the Autarch, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May 1983, p. 167.

6. Ibid.

7. Jonathan Culler, ‘Literary Competence’ in Reader Response Criticism from Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. by Jane P. Tompkins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 101-117.

8. Gene Wolfe, Castle of Days (New York: Tor, 1992) p. 236.

9. Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer (London: Arrow, 1981), p. 302.

10. Roland Barthes, ‘From Work to Text’ in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. by Joshué V. Harari (New York: Cornell University Press, 1979), pp. 73-81.

11. Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, trans. by The Johns Hopkins University Press (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), p. 24.

12. Ibid., p. 17.

13. James Joyce, cited in Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 64.


Desanctifying Victor Trenchard: some notes on Peter Wright’s “Confounding the Skin and the Mask”


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


  1. nate

    The Book of the New Sun is the only story I have ever called a “literary masterpiece”.

  2. Michael E. Bierman, Esq.

    An erudite and illuminating analysis of an exceptional, well-crafted and paradoxical work. This haunting novel has been in my mind for years as I have struggled to peel away the layers of the onion only to find I was holding no onion at all. I still do not believe I understand this landmark work, so must begin again, for the fourth time. Thanks for your great insight!

  3. Book-Brain

    I have been reading consistently since I was about twelve or thirteen years of age. I am twenty-six now, so you can imagine that I have read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy novels over the years.

    I can safely say without a shadow of a doubt that nothing I have read before had affected me like The Book of the New Sun. I remember after I read it for the first time I literally could not get it out of my head for months. That has never happened to me before, and it has certainly never happened since.

    I am gearing up to read it for the second time. A splendid piece of literature by quite possibly one of the most underrated magicians in the writing world.

  4. Gerald Leb

    I have lived with this book at my bedside for years, now. It, including the coda, the Urth of the New Sun, is a meditation on the deepest themes, while at the same time being a great adventure story. It is circular in form, because Severian’s triumphs create an entirely new world, which he himself probably comes to inhabit.
    ’nuff said.

  5. Charles L

    I find this an interesting review as Peter Wright has spent three thousand words saying how dense and wonderful the books are without providing a single example. Perhaps he wants us to find out for ourselves. Perhaps. Yet a book that is a (quote) “complex and contrived textual game that facilitates a number of methods of interpretation” should not diminish from exposing a few of these.

    The Book of the New Sun is definitely an engrossing read. It is an adventure story with some religious overtones but I hardly think that makes it a garden of monstrous delights.

    What strikes me from this review is a feeling that the literary adept are desperately scrambling to read deep meanings in Wolfe’s work. Thus they quote each other and show off tiny slivers of inconsistencies that could not possibly be minor mistakes in writing but must be clues to this master puzzle.

    Perhaps I am being uncharitable. Perhaps the elite who seek do find deep and complex meanings in the text beyond the imagination of the plebs. Imagination is a wonderful thing after all. Yet I wait and wait in vain for some meat, all the while being offered motley descriptions of it’s smell and softness…

    • Nate C-K

      Peter Wright wrote a Ph.D. dissertation and a trade book on this subject. I would encourage you to read those if you want the details of his argument.

    • Will M.

      Thank you! I am glad I am not the only one trying in vain to find some concrete point P. Wright makes not totally shrouded in obnoxious, faux-intellectual language . The thought of reading an entire THESIS on this when this little essay has so few substantive insights fills me with dread and is an insult to the source material.

      Where is the real Gene Wolfe criticism?

    • AaronDaBomb

      I understand the space that you are coming from, and also fear, or even suspect, that some literature is revered on arguments themselves founded in little but time and the typically credible name that first uttered them. I, certainly, do not have the knowledgebase that would permit me to understand or respect the arguments alluded to frequently here (not a criticism, merely acknowledging my unsure footing in understanding this article, and its cousins). However, I stay amazed and astounded by this piece. It, somehow, suggests more than it says, as do all great works of art. It is difficult to explain or disect how it’s accomplished; the suggestions from these books seem to be fueled by our own (or at least my own) subjective reactions to the words and images Wolfe created. The suggestions allude to something unapproachable and fantastically huge, to let us get our fingers on that perfection for just an instant, because in reality it is impossible, now, to grasp it for any longer. It’s something that I think all artists aim to do, by which I mean they aim to evoke the glory and beauty of a cathartic and magnificent understanding without themselves stating it explicitly. To present it so plainly would not give you access to the experience, the epiphany, I think. I also believe we would read it as lofty but untrue. You can’t tell the reader to feel cosmic, epic, large; you have to make them, and this piece was successful in that, as well as presenting an interesting perspective on why human progress may (or seems to be) failing. To provide the example you desired, we look to the end of the last book, in which Severian is forced to become humanity in totality, not just a single human, whose desires and goals would unquestionably contradict those of others and stifle the unification as a race that is fully evolved, totally just and correct. I am not sure we can say that every inconsistency that is discovered by readers was truly a well devised tool that was effectively and cleverly deployed (nor can we say the contrary, mind). But, were that true, and even if Wolfe doesn’t deserve the credit for those fortunate blunders, the result is undeniably, to me, enigmatic and magical, and so I must love the work for making me feel limitless, a part of something that isn’t yet understood but all the same, extant and important and glorious.

    • Jill Perker

      This comment is two years after yours, suggesting a lineararity of time. Something happens and after that another thing happens. We can speak to the hypotheses of time night and day but never perhaps reach an agreement regarding it. Your thoughts will be colored by your own thinking and inclinations as will my own. We will also be limited by capacities and capabilities of thought, by our own biases and in turn a limiting of thought based upon our biases. In this experience I see your argument and the sentiments expressed within them as limited by your own thoughts, experiences, and specifically the reflection of your insecurities as evidenced by your use of “elite” and “pleb”. Utilizing this binary pits one against the other in a contrived battle which is only a contrivance of your assumed position. You have access to literary texts, schools of thought, upon which Peter Wright’s essay is based. Your articulate writing suggests you are capable of reading them, though I am not sure if you are capable of accessing them. A number of things may stand in your way of reading them, least of which your atttitude, a subjective viewpoint. In this way your comments upon Wright’s essay and your experience with Wolfe’s books is emblematic of many of their themes. Thank you for underlining those meanings for me but I am sad your self imposed limits applied to your thinking do not allow this perspective for yourself.

    • SuperDachshund

      Thank you. I felt the same way. I’m half way through “Citadel” and have a deep concern that I’m missing something. Obviously, “New Sun” is an incredibly deep dive. I get it. Catholicism is the warp and woof of this story. We have cannibalism morphing into communion. Resurrections here and there due to the Claw (or is it due to Sevarian?). A good man in an evil world etc. However, I am having quite a difficult time with discovering Sevarian’s lies. He says he lies to a character here and there but that doesn’t count. This is a first person narrative. I’m trying to keep track of his claims but I’m having difficulty catching him in a lie to the reader other than perhaps he SHOULD by now (half way through Citadel) that he is more important to the arc of Urth than the Claw is or than he supposes.

      I know who Typhon is in mythology. I’m familiar with Urubous. Some reflections and INTERPRETATIONS of these literary devices and a score more would have been helpful. I suppose I’ll continue to surf the web looking for some.

  6. “… that everything, whatever happens, has three meanings.”

    — Gene Wolfe (Shadow of the Torturer, chapter XXXII The Play)

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