the Little Red Reviewer

The Conclusion of the Book of the New Sun

Posted on: December 9, 2017

So, I finally finished The Citadel of the Autarch, the 4th book in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.    The days after I finished felt like going through tangential stages of grief.  First, I was mad “that’s how it ends!? I’ve got to read the entire damn thing all over again from start to finish now!”.  Then I was confused, by a whole tone of WTFery at the end, then I was curious and got some helpful spoilers online.  Then I experienced acceptance that Gene Wolfe is, as always, a brilliant mastermind of storytelling. Even better – these aren’t the stages of grief, but the stages of awakening.

 

As I’ve done in previous entries in this little series of blog posts,  we’ll start with new words

 

Bacele     Graisle        Orphicheide        Orpiment

 

I didn’t take much notes while reading this fourth book, but I’m laughing at something I wrote down on my scribble sheet –  “I know it is gross and taboo, but I’m surprised Severian doesn’t get more people’s memories the way he got Thecla’s (although he hadn’t planned to get hers). It seems a simple way to learn about a person’s world. Wait a minute. . .  is this narrator just someone who got Severian’s memories?”

 

Once I’d finished the book, my comment became hilarious. And only half right.

 

Some other notes I wrote down –

 

  • Love hearing Thecla’s voice, in first person. When Severian gets tired, it seems easier for her to come to the surface.
  • The Ascian in the field hospital, is he satirical?  I love the stories that were told in the field hospital. Once it’s the Ascian’s turn, Severian learns how language, story, and communication actually work.
  • The Anchorite’s house!!!  The top layers are in the future, that is SO cool!
  • One of the very last scenes, where they go back to the Inn near the Sanguinary Fields, and talk with the guy there.  Oh, that made me cry!

 

Like i said, it’s been two weeks, and I should have written this blog post when the end of the book was fresh in my mind, as everything is a little fuzzy now. Although now I better understand why everyone says you need to read this series multiple times to get all the pieces. It’s a little like walking through where Rudesind is cleaning the paintings – only a few paintings are perfectly clean at the same time, so if you want to see them all, you better walk through the galleries every few weeks, because each time, you’ll see something different.  Everytime you read this series, I imagine you’ll catch more and different things, everytime you read it you get more of a foundation for the next time.

 

Warning: major spoilers ahead.  If you haven’t read this series, stop reading now. Not only will this spoil the series for you, but our of context it makes zero sense.

But back to my silly note about why doesn’t Severian get more people’s memories the way he got Thecla’s.  So, of course he DOES get someone else’s memories in a similar fashion, and that is how the end of the book happens.   So, why doesn’t EVERYONE do this?   Weren’t there other people at the supper party who partook? Aren’t other people walking around with Thecla’s memories?

 

Severian likes to brag that he remembers everything perfectly.  He’s also walking around with two sets of memories in his head. I’ll bet he remembers his time with Thecla differently than she remembers it, but both memories are valid, they are just from different points of view.

 

And now that he has the Autarch’s memories, he can remember all sorts of things, but from other points of view. AND, since I’m pretty sure he has lived his life over and over and over again (wow, Groundhog Day?), all those memories are equally valid, if somewhat different.  So, saying “I crossed the river that day” and “I didn’t cross the river that day” could both be perfectly correct, even though they aren’t the same.

 

Again, why doesn’t everyone gain memories and knowledge this way? If this was a straight up science fiction book, the characters would be downloading knowledge into their brain instead of consuming it through a taboo rite akin to cannibalism, and readers wouldn’t blink an eye.  “Downloading” knowledge and memories right from someone’s brain seems a pretty brilliant way to share knowledge. Wait, unless you didn’t want people to have the knowledge? Would it have been a wonderful thing or a terrible thing if an autach died in front of an audience, and had everyone in the room partake of the ceremony? Would everyone who partook, then be an Autarch?  And we can’t all be rulers, can we?

 

And if someone really had knowledge you wanted (Baldanders! I want to know what he knows!) could you just kill that person, take the drug, and then eat their brain?  How would you protect yourself from that fate?  How would you protect what is in your mind?

 

As you can see, I have more questions now than when I started.   I guess that’s how I know I’ve read a Gene Wolfe? Something else that happens to me when I read a Gene Wolfe is that I often feel like I want to read the book again immediately, but read it backwards, to see if it is the same story, or the mirror image of a completely different once.

 

Some people say the Urth of the New Sun is excellent, others say it sucks.  Well, now I totally want to read it.  In fact, I might already have a copy of it somewhere. And once I’ve read it, I think I’ll read the Book of the New Sun books in backwards order.  It’ll feel like I’m reading it in the correct order, since the 4th book ends with Severian hanging out with his friends,  stopping in at a crypt, and a visit to an Inn.

 

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9 Responses to "The Conclusion of the Book of the New Sun"

Urth is not as good (how could that be?), but it’s worth a read for sure.

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Conveniently, you could probably describe Urth as BEING a mirror image of Book…

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Ha! Why does that not surprise me?

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I’d heard great things about Gene Wolf, and that his Book of the New Sun series is one of the best ever written, so I’ve always wanted to check his work out. I had the opportunity last year when I was going through The Time Traveler’s Almanac when one of his short stories came up. I forget which one, but I remember that I was not a fan. Nothing to do with the story itself, but his writing style… I just couldn’t do it and I was very confused reading it.

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Re: Why doesn’t everyone just absorb memories that easily?

For starters, the alzabo analeptic has to be harvested from a certain gland in a certain manner and processed in a particular fashion, making it (I have to assume) fairly rare. Secondly, didn’t the Autarch direct Severian to ingest a specific section of the brain? That again limits the number of people who can “partake” of another person. (Remember too that the corpse must be “fresh” enough for any of this to work.) With Thecla, I believe the communion was done in such a fashion that the effect only lasted a short while; Severian’s perfect memory, however, along with his prior connection to Thecla, let her “live” on in his memory. (Remember how Severian says that, for him, remembering something is essentially the same as reliving it. Thus, while everyone else has forgotten Thecla’s memories after 24 hours or whatever, Severian still has perfect recall of them.)

URTH is definitely a different beast than BotNS, just keep an open mind going in. It didn’t do a whole lot for me the first time, but it really grew on me during later reads.

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if you could get past the ick factor though, imagine the literal impact of that dinner party / ritual / funeral / wake.

IIRC, the autarch simply says his “forebrain”, i’m not sure how much grey matter that is.

do we know that everyone forgot Thecla’s memories? And even for the 24 hours (or so) that people had her memories, wouldn’t they be like “who is this asshole who tortured our friend”? It’s interesting to me that the trauma of her torture isn’t foremost in her memories, that she thought more about her childhood and other young women she was friends with.

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Reblogged this on Andrew Wallace and commented:
Book of the New Sun is my favourite fantasy book – some good insights in this blog post by the Little Red Reviewer.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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