content by

Brian Evenson

Fiction and Excerpts [2]

Fiction and Excerpts [2]

What Makes an Unreliable Narrator: “Severian’s” Voice in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun

A few months ago, I wrote for about the first time I encountered Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun and how it struck me in a way that very little fiction, whether genre or literary, had done before. I’ve read The Book of the New Sun a number of times since, and have spoken about it frequently, and yet when someone asks me what it is about the tetralogy that makes it so resonant for me, I often find myself struggling to answer. That’s not due to me not being able to put my finger on what it is so much as finding it hard to pick one strand free of the larger fabric of the book. The Book of the New Sun works in an integrated way in which all the parts of fiction speak to and amplify one another—something that’s rarer than you might think in fiction—and if I try to explain what Wolfe does with one element, I quickly find the discussion shifting to the elements this first element touches. Better, always, just to go read Wolfe himself.

And yet, despite that, I’m going to do my best to focus here on one thing in particular: the way The Book of the New Sun is narrated and why Wolfe’s approach strikes me as distinctive, even unique.

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Blending Fantasy and Sci-Fi in Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer

I first encountered Gene Wolfe’s work when I was a sophomore in high school, when I accidentally stumbled onto the paperback of The Shadow of the Torturer at my public library. I picked it up not knowing anything about it, intrigued as much as anything by the fact that even though it was called science fiction it had a cover that looked like a fantasy novel: a masked and caped figure holding a massive sword. But it also had a blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin, whose Earthsea books I had loved, describing it as “the best science fiction I’ve read in years.” So, was this science fiction or fantasy?

This wasn’t clarified for me by the other words on the cover, where the book was described as a “world where science and magic are one” and, by Thomas M. Disch (a writer I wouldn’t read until years later) as “science fantasy,” a term I’d never heard before. Wasn’t science the opposite of fantasy? In short, I was confused and intrigued. I went into the book not quite knowing what to expect but feeling not unpleasantly off balance—which, I’m still convinced, is the best way to first encounter Wolfe.

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Five Books Where Insanity is Normalized

We all do this sometimes—it’s a survival tactic and probably largely instinctual: if we move very slowly and pretend nothing is wrong and make no sudden moves maybe we’ll be able to conclude the conversation and get out the door before the insane person we’re talking to really flips out. Some of the stories and novels I love the most do this as well, with the characters either not responding or responding differently than you’d expect. At its best, what that does to you as a reader is make you wonder about your own sanity: if the characters see it as normal, shouldn’t you?

We (by which I guess I mean I, though I hope I’m not alone in this) have all been in relationships where years later we look back and don’t recognize our actions, can’t really understand why we were willing to go along with the other person’s ideas or behavior which, now that time has gone by, we recognize as delusional. Since humans are imitative animals, we often take our cues from the people around us. If you do that long enough with the wrong person, you enter into the sphere of their insanity in a way that makes you regard the insanity as the new normal.

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Series: Five Books About…

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