Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Secondary Sources On Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun

A friend of mine, seeing my previous post (on FB), asked whether there were "annotations" of Gene Wolfe's SF masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun.  Since I wrote a lengthy reply, I thought I'd repost it here, with links.  (In the following, the "you" is my friend, natch.)

I don't think there's quite what you're looking for. The closest that there is—and in any event the first secondary work devoted to The Book of the New Sun that one should lay hands on—is Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle, by Michael Andre-Druisi. It defines many of the obscure words, and also has a certain amount of commentary/exposition, although hardly a complete reading. Beyond that I can think of three other books, none quite perfect for your needs: there is Attending Daedalus by Peter Wright, which is about Wolfe's work in general but which focuses on The Book of the New Sun; there is Marc Aramini's Between Light and Shadow, volume one of a projected three-volume work discussing all of Wolfe's fiction, but its entry on The Book of the New Sun, while good, is brief (c. 40 pages) and is more thematic than annotational. And then there's Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski, which has a number of essays on specific puzzles in the Urth cycle. All three are worthwhile; none are quite what you're looking for.

That's mostly it for books. There are a few essays scattered around — in review collections by John Clute, for instance — but nothing systematic. Three web resources might have some more of what you're looking for. First, there's the Wolfe Wiki, which is variable (some works get only a skeleton treatment, some a very detailed reading), but it looks like there's some good stuff there. There are the archives of the Urth List, which is the mailing list/forum for discussion of Wolfe's work, which has a lot of stuff in it, but so far as I know it's not indexed & you'd have to do a tremendous amount of searching. And then there's Reddit, about which I don't know much, but it looks like there's a fairly active Gene Wolfe section there. Again, while I imagine there's some good stuff in all three, none are quite what you're looking for.

One more set of resources to discuss. There are now two podcasts devoted to close readings of GW's work. One, The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast, seems good, but it's just starting (and I've heard only one episode), and is doing a lot of short stories & many novels before they get to the The Book of the New Sun. So they probably won't get to it for years. The other, Alzabo Soup, is actually doing The Book of the New Sun now. But at this point I can't quite recommend it. I find many of their readings simply careless: some strike me as flatly disprovable, others as wholly wrongheaded even if not flatly contradicted by clear textual evidence. I'm getting a lot out of it — even with its problems, they pick out details & things I missed on my several times through the books — but I think their overall interpretation is questionable, and I think that, unless you feel you have a good grasp on the text, they will mislead as much as provide insight. I wish this wasn't so; after the first ep or two I had great hopes for it, but I have been disappointed as I've kept listening. I haven't stopped listening yet, but I may; at this point it's more frustrating than enlightening, although it is that, too, at least in certain local observations if not more broadly considered. Alas! I really wanted it to be great. (It's gotten a fair amount of positive attention, so I may simply be an outlier here, but for what it's worth a Wolfean whom I respect a great deal — whom I can't name, because it was a private communication — said they dislike it too, for some of the same reasons.)

Beyond that, I would suggest that a large number of the mysteries—not all, by any means, but more than you'd think—can be cleared up by simply reading the entire work (i.e. both The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun, the sequel) closely & carefully, and then doing so a second time, while the first is still fresh in your mind. That's a huge time commitment, of course — five books, each twice — but it's the best route I know of.

I do wish someone would put out a proper annotated edition. (No one will, and if they did they wouldn't hire me to do it, but I would love to if both of these counterfactuals were miraculously overcome.) Or that there was a "rereader's companion", online annotations that went chapter-by-chapter.

will say, in conclusion (after far more than you wanted to read, I'm sure!), that the best route is to get Lexicon Urthus, do a careful reading with it to hand, and then either do a careful rereading, or read the Wright, the Aramini & the Borski volumes, the WolfeWiki pages, and possibly explore other online stuff as well, and then do a careful rereading. Wolfe is work. Personally I think it's well worth it. But many others, doubtless, won't find it so. (Of course the books can also be enjoyed on a surface level, as a sword & sorcery romp, although that's obviously, A) not what they are when read closely, and B) not what you were asking about.)  

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