I recently read all four books of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, which concerns the adventures of the torturer Severian in the far, far, ridiculously far future, in which Earth’s resources are getting to be pretty much depleted, the Sun is old and weak, and humans live in a society that is primitive, somewhat barbaric and yet past the point where technology is definitely sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic.
(Yeah, some spoilers ahead, if you’re sensitive to that kind of stuff.)
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it’s narrated by Severian, who claims to have a perfect memory. Yet he is a notoriously unreliable narrator. I was (perhaps unfortunately) aware of this aspect of the book before I read it, and it’s not very hard to spot discrepancies — some are obvious, some less so, but it soon becomes apparent that for a guy with a perfect memory, Severian makes a lot of mistakes.
After finishing the book, I headed online to see how others had felt about the whole thing, but I was kind of annoyed to find that (admittedly predictably) a lot of the discussion about Severian appears be conducted on an extremely superficial, and, honestly, kind of dumb level. Even the more detailed discussions about the subject are pretty much limited to spotting discrepancies and arguing about whether they are discrepancies. (“On page X he says that he weeps for the first time since he was a child, and yet he already said that he wept on pages Y and Z!”)
All of this misses the point. Sure, Severian is unreliable because his memory isn’t as infallible as he claims it to be (and also, in some cases, because he clearly doesn’t understand correctly what he’s seeing). What’s so significant about whether he remembers everything correctly? First of all, it’s important to note that Severian isn’t just talking to the reader. He’s writing his memoirs, and he’s writing them as the autarch, the powerful ruler of an empire. Certainly, whether he remembers exactly what happened happened when he was a child — or even just months ago — isn’t in itself that relevant. What is relevant is that he keeps insisting that he does, and all too often that’s precisely when the discrepancies pop up; his demonstrably faulty memory isn’t the issue, but its implications are very interesting.
The point is, he wants us to think of his memory as infallible. That’s ego talking. Is it simply because he wants people to think that he’s cool? Or because he wants people to think of their ruler as a man born with some kind of vaguely superhuman capabilities? (He certainly is always quick to point out his mnemonic superiority.) That’s neither here nor there; what really matters is that he embellishes. And that’s where his unreliability really comes to light; once we know that he’s willing to lie to make himself look good, everything he says is a little suspect — and once you get to suspecting, things get fun.
Severian is a pretty slimy piece of work, you see. Sure, he talks a good game. In particular, he goes on and on a lot about undying loyalty and allegiances, but in practice, his commitments never last, and yet he never acknowledges that fact except when he rationalizes it away. And it doesn’t really take much for Severian to do a 180. Severian habitually makes a big deal of his devotion to his duty, or a certain cause, or a certain person, and yet he constantly proves himself to be thoroughly unreliable.
I don’t think he manages to follow through on a single major commitment in the book, certainly not if it’s tested in any way, and he habitually makes promises he has no intention of keeping. As I said, he rationalizes these things fairly convincingly, and an unwary reader would certainly be forgiven for thinking that Severian is merely unlucky and gets caught up in the flow of events. However, it cannot be denied that the common thread throughout his adventures is that when someone trusts Severian, he tends to betray them.
He betrays his guild, he betrays the revolutionary leader Vodalus, he betrays his employer, he betrays his lover by sleeping with another woman — sex, in particular, is a big motivator for Severian; in two major occasions he fails his duties as a torturer because of a woman. He prefers to present it in terms of compassion, but he feels no such compassion towards any of his other victims — it’s only the women who turn him on that get a free pass, and he’s willing to throw everything away just to help them out… provided that he gets some, of course.
It’s easy for a reader to believe that Severian does these things out of some basic decency instead of lust. Certainly, that’s how he likes to present it. But considering that Severian practices his trade in countless villages and performs excruciations and executions on a regular basis without any feelings of remorse and, more often than not, with considerable pride of a job well done) I doubt that he has any. It’s only when sex enters the picture that he finds these great humanitarian urges — and then he runs away from the consequences. And Severian spends a lot of time ducking responsibility; he spends most of the book traveling from one place to another because he’s been exiled or because he’s afraid of the repercussions of his actions.
So, I’d have to say that the rule of the thumb is this: whenever Severian describes what he’s doing or what’s happening, chances are that he’s making himself look good and masking his basic lack of empathy — which is, of course, in keeping with his sociopathic behavior. For example, when the boy whose father he calls himself for a while dies, he pretty much wallows in self-pity for a while. Oh, woe is he! He’s all “I almost threw myself off the cliff in my great sorrow” for a couple of pages — and then that’s that. I don’t think the kid is mentioned after that for the remainder of the book except perhaps in passing. Why? Probably simply because Severian likes to present himself as a compassionate man, but he really isn’t one.
Of course, it’s understandable that Severian is what he is. He’s been raised among torturers in dehumanizing conditions. He’s damaged goods by most standards, and I think he’s aware of it, at least on some level; he likes to romanticize what he’s doing and feeling, but it’s a case of telling instead of showing. This is particularly obvious in his relationships with women: he explains at great length how devoted he is to Dorcas, and then he goes and cheats on her with a woman whom he has previously described as someone he’s not at all attracted to, despite her beauty. When Dorcas is hurt by this, he glosses it over and displays no actual remorse — perhaps there’s some regret that she’s pissed off, but far be it from him to apologize for it.
Of course, all this makes for fascinating reading. Wolfe writes Severian in a fairly understated way, all things considered, and if you read it straight, Severian doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a personality or even motivations — things just kind of happen to him. Even on that level, Wolfe’s world and its myriad cultures are certainly fascinating enough. I particularly like Wolfe’s descriptions; he doesn’t spell things out and there’s very little in the way of technobabble. The world of The Book of the New Sun is at times nearly incomprehensible simply because Wolfe simply writes as if we already knew and understood much of the setting, and yet it remains fascinating. Even when he’s being vague, he still gives us enough to go on. It’s easy to see why some people find the books long-winded and boring, though, especially as Severian tends to seemingly pointlessly digress in his narration quite a bit… but once you realize that Severian (or Wolfe, if you insist) is doing it to fuck with your head, it gets to be pretty cool.
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