First, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series of books may not be seen as pulp by many modern readers in the new pulp scene, but Dying Earth stories certainly trace their history directly through the pulp greats. There’s a direct line back from Wolfe to Jack Vance through CJ Cherryh, Lin Carter, and Poul Anderson, among others. And Vance absolutely traces back to Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique series, so while Wolfe’s writings in the early 1980s might not hit the bullseye where pulp resides, it’s definitely close to it in the overlapping Venn diagram of genre fiction.
Before I go much further, I have to come clean and say this is my second crack at Wolfe’s novel. The first time I tried to get through it was about 15 years ago when I was looking at books that inspired the Dungeons and Dragons creators when they were forming the game. D&D, being published first in 1974, predates Wolfe’s 1980 debut, but I got to Wolfe when I finished Vance and was hungry for more Dying Earth stuff. Wolfe wasn’t Vance, and I felt much the same as when I moved onto Lin Carter’s Conan after exhausting Howard: let down. As with Carter, the overall stories shared the rough outline of their predecessor’s, but they were clearly pale imitations. I realize now it’s less fair a comparison because unlike Carter, Wolfe wasn’t just picking up where his predecessor left off, but at the time it hit the wrong nerve. So I dropped the book onto a bookshelf where the rest of my D&D-a-like books sat and moved on to something else.
Having now reread The Shadow of the Torturer (and being about 50 pages into its sequel The Claw of the Conciliator) I’m at a different place. In hindsight I still prefer Vance as a storyteller, but Wolfe is probably more technically skilled as a writer.
Wolfe’s novel is a first person narrative, ostensibly the written record of a torturer, Severian, as he comes of age on Earth as the sun is burning down in its death-throes. Severian is at best an unreliable narrator, so there are contradictions and loose ends which I’ll bet are never fleshed out (I’ll know for sure once I finish all four books, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion I’m right). The actual setting is Nessus, a gigantic walled city ruled over by the Autarch, an autocratic administrator at the head of a very rigid caste and guild system. The torturers, officially the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, carry out the Autarch’s wishes by torturing people deemed to be criminals or rebels. The torturers treat their occupation as a life-work and follow their duties with exacting detail, both to actually obtain information in interrogations and to inflict harm and eventually death upon their “clients,” as the guild members refer to their victims.
Severian is charged with accompanying a high level prisoner, a woman who is being held hostage for political reasons, which he does until it becomes her turn to undergo torture. Out of compassion Severian slips her a knife with which she commits suicide. As a result of this action, Severian is exiled from the guild. The rest of the novel follows Severian as he walks through Nessus to get to the outpost city of Thrax where he is to take up the role of executioner. As the book is older, the risk of spoiling is practically non-existent, but then there really isn’t a whole lot to spoil. He makes some friends and some enemies along the way and eventually ends up at a gate in the wall at the edge of Nessus proper. And that’s where this story really diverges from the pulp tropes of old.
While Wolfe is an entertaining writer, adept with description and dialogue, the story itself does seem to have an inordinate amount of philosophical navel-gazing, common to speculative fiction during and after John W. Campbell’s tenure at Astounding (now Analog). A certain amount of that can help with characterization, but Wolfe clearly had aspirations to literary greatness. Navel-gazing isn’t enough for literary greatness, but it does seem to be a prerequisite. There was definitely merit to Wolfe’s aspiration as he won some major awards multiple times, including the World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Campbell Award, and Locus Award. But there’s a reason he doesn’t have as wide a readership as, say, Stephen King or Jim Butcher (to pick two authors at random…nope, nothing at all to do with their books being within my eyeline while I was searching for examples…except that’s totally the case).
Wolfe’s awards are certainly well deserved from the standpoint of literary legitimacy, but if I’m honest, I did find sections of the novel to be a slog. I had to force myself through paragraphs of text I’m not sure added much, if anything, to the story beats. That said, the overall effect of the work left me wanting to continue reading the tetralogy, so in the grand scheme of things the critics and award committees are right: Wolfe is master craftsman and highly recommended for readers of speculative fiction. Just don’t expect much in the way of pulp pacing or action-fronted fight sequences.