I've just read this, and it's a case of 'at long last' to put it mildly. It's the 4th and final volume of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, which started appearing in the Eighties and it was then that I read the first two volumes. I bought them as they came out in paperback, and they've yellowed over the years, waiting on various bookshelves in the course of several house moves, until last year when I picked up the 3rd volume, The Sword of the Lictor, found I still had a taste for it, and so duly finished the series with this.
It's the writing.
Some time after reading the first two volumes, I virtually gave up reading science fiction, whether due to 'growing up' or because I'd come to appreciate that for all the fascinating ideas, most science fiction wasn't very well written.
The Book of the New Sun is different, very different. Some friends noticed me reading this old paperback and wondered why it was worth picking up after such a long gap. But I knew that even if some plot details were now hazy, some names or events inscrutable - well actually, that was always the case. And the densely textured writing would still be there, to be relished in all its rich exotic flavours. One discovers that whereas so much science fiction and naturally, fantasy, is filled with bizarre and generally silly names, Gene Wolfe's language which at first sight seems much the same, employs names and terms which while arcane and obscure, are still to be found in the far recesses of dusty old dictionaries. The obscurity doesn't help understanding, but the fact that it's rooted in real if ancient language does firm up the foundations of the extraordinary world he builds.
What looks like fantasy is in reality a story of the far distant future. It's the 'Book of the New Sun' because the theme is the search and the hope for it, in a world lit by the slowly dying Old Sun. And I probably did latch on to it initially because as the title of the first part - The Shadow of the Torturer - suggests, its protagonist and narrator is an apprentice to the Seekers After Truth and Penitence, otherwise known as the Guild of Torturers. It's a horribly fascinating prospect, but I don't recall any detailed scenes of 'excruciation'. I'll go further and spoil it a little bit, and tell you that well before the end Severian has been in trouble more than once for declining to torture or execute, and has resolved to end the practice of torture.
It's a demanding read throughout. Wolfe makes few concessions to the reader and our imagination has to work overtime. It's not just the language that is opaque, but almost every feature of this strange future world, which seems to have reverted to something medieval, but which also is filled with mysterious examples of future technology, occasionally even alien. For aliens have indeed visited Earth in the past, some are still here, and we're told that once upon a time we ourselves headed out into space. Humanity is now exhausted, just like Earth's sun. And there is genius in this depiction, in the skill with which Wolfe shows us people who are in some ways recognisably human in nature but in others unknowably different. There are so many beings who are alien or otherwise monstrous - amongst all the other technologies that have been exercised over the centuries, genetic manipulation has clearly been prominent - but certain ordinary human beings are sometimes the most monstrous of all.
The story is superficially a journey of maturity for Severian; that is, it takes us, with his picaresque travels and strange experiences, tested in love and in war, up to the point where he has become Autarch of the Commonwealth, and due to face a test which will determine whether he can bring the New Sun to the Earth. And ends. It's such an odd ending - and in fact a later book tells the story of that test, but it's not part of this one - that the reader realises that it wasn't the point of the story at all. I reserve comment on that. I've found some reviews today, and agreed with none of them, and yet in part with all. Especially that this is a supreme example of a book which needs to be read again. A bitter irony for me, when I thought I'd actually finished something for once. Will I? Maybe. The writing will remain just as intoxicating, the world of Severian will be just as bizarrely engrossing, and for me, it's the characters most of all which demand to be met with again.
I hope the book doesn't get forgotten in time. I can't see it being filmed; not because you couldn't do it these days, with amazing special effects, but because it'd be somewhat pointless to present it that way. It's been called a 'masterwork' of science fiction. I know it to be literature as well.