Urth of the New Sun, The by Gene Wolfe

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Book Information  
AuthorGene Wolfe
TitleUrth of the New Sun, The
SeriesNew Sun
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by Archren 
(Aug 06, 2006)

It’s hard to know what to say about a Gene Wolfe book that hasn’t been said better before. He is quite possibly the greatest science fiction writer of his generation, and “Urth of the New Sun” is simply more evidence to bolster the claim. The only reason not to give it the highest possible rating is because the previous four books in the series “The Book of the New Sun” were a little better than this one.

As in the previous novels, Severian is our first person narrator. His narrative voice has one of the best rhythms I have ever read, pulling you forward through the story and completely enclosing you in the world he is weaving. I find it one of Wolfe’s biggest strengths: while his writing is complex, it is never slow or boring. Severian begins this book casting away the manuscripts that make up the previous four. Then he returns to the space ship that will bear him on his quest to bring the New Sun to Urth.

The first half of the novel takes place on this ship, and is the best part. As in the other books, he is buffeted from event to event, gaining and losing companions along the way. The ship is such a huge and diverse environment, with so many potential stories, it reminded me of the world ship in Robert Reed’s “Marrow.” Things can seem random at times, but all the vignettes add up to a greater whole. I don’t believe that it will be too much of a spoiler to say that halfway through the book, Severian’s quest to be granted the New Sun is fulfilled. However now he must somehow get it back to Urth, at the right time, and he begins to realize the consequences of his ambitions. The best of intentions are no defense against the birth pangs of a new world.

In the second half, the narrative becomes more disjointed. Severian is flung around in time, from far past to the future. The religious overtones become explicit as he tries to educate people about what is coming and what is needed. He has also been granted ill-defined powers that even he is unsure how to use. Even at the very end, when it seems his purpose is completely fulfilled, there is another fascinating vignette as he goes to spend some time in yet another time. It gets confusing, but it is always profound.

Wolfe delves into the depths of questions of religion and faith and symbolism, using the fantasy quest format and science fictional world building to illuminate issues in brilliant ways. Consider this exchange:

"The hetman continued, 'Yet the monarch taxes us as before, taking our children when we cannot give him grain. We have gone to the high places as our fathers did. We of Gurgustii burned our best ram before the frost came. What is it we should do instead?'

"I tried to tell them how the Hierodules feared us because we had spread through the worlds in the ancient times of Urth’s glory, extinguishing many other races and bringing our cruelty and our wars everywhere. 'We must be one,' I said. 'We must tell only the truth, that our promises may be relied upon. We must care for Urth as you care for your fields.'

"He and some of the rest nodded as though they understood, and perhaps they did. Or perhaps they at least understood some part of what I had said."

Eminently readable, and showing the stark contrast between what people care about day-to-day vs. theoretical religious concerns. And this is merely a brief scene along a much larger journey.

You can’t start with this book, there are too many references to characters and scenes from the previous four books. However, if you have read up to this point this one will not disappoint you in the least. The vividly imagined and described scenes, the quest, the characters, and the writing are all on the same level as what came before.

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