The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

(discussed July 16, 1998)

On a ten-point scale (1=bad, 10=good), the people who read the book gave the following ratings: 4, 8, 9, 9, 9, 10, 10, 10
Average: 8.6

This book was sponsored by Michael Sullivan as a "going-away" sponsorship.

Raja notes that The Shadow of the Torturer is not a complete story; it is in fact one-fourth of a novel, The Book of the New Sun, that was published in four volumes by "the evil publishers" (he said, casting a beady look at John Gallman, who is a publisher. It's all in good fun, though.) Raja thinks it's an absolutely staggering work of near-flawless craftsmanship, but (in response to John's question) he does not include it among his 13 all-time favorites because of what he referred to as "politics." Raja is of the school of thought that values clarity above all else, which is why (e.g.) he doesn't much like books like Riddley Walker. Raja thinks it's a greater achievement to tell your story in clear, plain English, and still get the readers to mislead themselves about the narrative, which is one reason why Hyperion is one of his all-time favorites.

Michael Sullivan noted that one of the joys of being in our discussion group was the opportunity to discover new and fascinating authors. For him, discovering Gene Wolfe was one of the greatest joys. (Michael has read the Book a number of times now.) He also mentioned that much of the joy of the Book is that you only gradually realize what is happening, and that you see it very differently each time you read it.

For John Gallman, this was the second time he'd read Shadow, and he'd read it and Claw before. However, he has never gotten around to reading the whole Book. He said that it deserves a re-read (most books don't, in his opinion), and that he found more this time through. Wolfe is a brilliant writer who merits comparison with any author anywhere. Up to the scene were Severian met Baldanders (shades of Queequeg!) he thought the book was absolutely wonderful. Severian develops a moral center, and stands out against a larger community. The book is very smart, the language is good, and there is tremendous tension. John liked the whole business of being introduced to life outside the citadel, and liked the way the Guild masters handled Severian's crime. But after the meeting with Baldanders, it all fell apart, in John's view. It's as if the author started to just write things down at random. John couldn't make it through the business in the Garden. There were still some good scenes and good characters, but ....

(Raja said he believes that there is [almost] nothing in the Book that is there by chance, and also notes that time travel plays an important part of the novel in later volumes ....)

This is the second time Dedaimia has read Shadow; she had read the Book before. She agreed with the consensus that it's beautifully written, and that there is much that is only visible on re-reading. Dedaimia noted that she reads books to find "nuggets" of wisdom that the writer puts in (otherwise, why go to the trouble of writing?). She found several on this reading, but found herself disagreeing with many of them! An example she gave can be found near the end of the first chapter, "Resurrection and Death":

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. ... [I]t is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.

(p. 17 of the Easton Press hardcover edition)

Another example can be found near the start of Chapter XIV, "Terminus Est":

Art had been lavished upon her; but it is the function of art to render attractive and significant those things that without it would not be so, and so art had nothing to give her.

(p. 129 of Easton)

Dedaimia saw these as places where she "caught the author" and disagreed vehemently. Peter and Michael objected that the first-person narrator is Severian, not Gene Wolfe, and that (first) it seemed highly unlikely that any artist (and Gene Wolfe certainly seems to be one) would make any blanket statement starting with the words "Art is..." and (second) this is a book with tricky narration; it is written in the first person, but with a much older narrator commenting upon the things that happened to him when he was young, including some negative comments on his naïve, younger self. Dedaimia replied that it isn't necessarily that easy, and that Severian certainly seems to have "the sanction of the text."

(Raja commented that his own response to the second sentence was almost the opposite of Dedaimia's; he saw it as saying that art brings meaning and significance to things; Dave gave the example of a sculptor giving meaning to clay by creating a statue from it.)

One nugget that Dedaimia did like can be found near the end of Chapter VI, "The Master of the Curators", when Severian asks about the possibility of reliving the memories of the dead by ingesting a mixture of their flesh and a certain chemical:

"It is unwise to know too much about these practices," the archivist murmured, "though when I think of sharing the mind of a historian like Loman, or Hermas . . ." In his years of blindness he must have forgotten how nakedly our faces can betray our deepest feelings. By the light of the candles I saw his twisted in such an agony of desire that out of decency I turned away; his voice remained as calm as some solemn bell.

(p. 65 of Easton)

Another issue that was raised, as it always is in discussions of The Book of the New Sun, is vocabulary. The narrator tells the story in (mostly) modern English (unlike, say, Riddley Walker or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange), but the text includes many obscure, obsolete, and rarely-used words: barbican, palings, gallipots, simples (to name a few from the first three pages). Raja (essentially) tried to emphasize Gene Wolfe's Appendix from the back of the volume:

In rendering this book--originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence--into English, I might easily have saved myself a great deal of labor by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so. Thus in many instances I have been forced to replace yet undiscovered concepts by their closes twentieth-century equivalents. Such words as peltast, androgyn, and exultant are substitutions of this kind, and are intended to be suggestive rather than definitive. Metal is usually, but not always, employed to designate a substance of the sort the word suggests to contemporary minds.

(p. 302 of Easton)

Wolfe also returns to this idea in The Castle of the Otter, which is a book by Gene Wolfe about The Book of the New Sun. Here is the start of the article entitled "Words Weird and Wonderful":

Ever since The Shadow of the Torturer was published, people who like it have been asking, "Which words are real, and which are made-up?" And people who don't ask, "Why did you use so many funny words?"

The answers are that all the words are real, and I used odd words to convey the flavor of an odd place at a odd time. Some fans seem to be able to tolerate any amount of gibberish, so long as it is gibberish; but let a hard-working writer venture some perfectly legitimate word like epopt, and--but I'd better stop before my tears get my typewriter all rusty.

(p. 25 of the Science Fiction Book Club hardcover edition)

The rest of the article defines some of the obscure words from The Shadow of the Torturer, with the words listed in order of appearance. Raja notes that for a (more) complete dictionary of words from The Book of the New Sun, The Urth of the New Sun, and associated shorter works by Wolfe, he recommends Lexicon Urthus, edited by Michael Andre-Driussi. See Raja's "Bibliography of the New Sun".

Peter has done an alphabetized list of Definitions of Excruciatingly Arcane Words Found in The Shadow of the Torturer.