Monday, August 31, 2009

"Shadow", Chapter 1, Part 1

We are introduced to our hero Severian and some of his fellow torturer's apprentices, Roche, Drotte, and Eata. A little commentary about names. They and others introduced in the book all have a bit of the made-up feeling of names in bad fantasy epics, but in all cases they are real names with sometimes complex meanings. Drotte, Roche, and Eata are all the names of saints. Severian was the name of a bishop in the 4th and 5th centuries. I think having "sever" in the name of a character that later chops off heads for a living is a little black humor on Wolfe's part. It's also a pun, because Severian is probably a form of Severus (Harry Potter fans take note), whose real meaning is "stern," i.e. "severe." Wolfe has other moments of understated humor. The apprentices are trying to get through a locked gate, and Drotte scams the gatekeepers into letting them through with a fairly ridiculous story. Another author might just move on, but how does Wolfe explain how it was so easy?
Certain mystes aver that the real world has been constructed by the human mind, since our ways are governed by the artificial categories into which we place essentially undifferentiated things, things weaker than our words for them. I understood the principle intuitively that night as I heard the last volunteer swing the gate closed behind us.
I think the mystes ("initiate; a person who was being instructed in the mysteries;") that are being referred to are Hindu theologians, some of whom believe that everything is essentially undifferentiated (Brahman) and that our artificial categories are created by human perception via illusion (Maya). I remember hearing a lecture on a Greek or Roman theologian (whose name I don't remember, leave a comment if you know) who said something similar. He used the image of our soul or consciousness on the surface of a sphere. We are always looking outward, focused on what our senses tell us. But if we could focus inward, turn around, we would see that our self is merely the surface of things, and it is connected to the center of the sphere, the source of all things. This is how Hindus try to dispel illusion. I also think it's essentially the same as a goal of Christian prayer, to become closer to God, who is omnipresent, the creator of all things, the Truth, etc. And that's why it's easy to scam people. At least it's a good reason :) Okay, I made it to page 3. The climb continues.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Introductory notes, "Shadow" dedication

I've decided to reread "Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe yet again. It's one of those books you can always have some new thoughts about, or maybe just old thoughts you forgot you had. To combat the latter, I'm going to go slowly and keep a record this time. My goal is to post something every weekday. Not an essay or anything, just little notes on my thoughts. Thus this blog's title. The Book of the New Sun is.... Well, I'm expecting it to take hundreds of blog posts to start to decide what it is. It's epic science fiction. It's fantasy, although I think all the seemingly magical things in it have alternative rational explanations. It's a pastiche of ancient cultures. It's an allegorical novel like Pilgrim's Progress or Moby Dick. Just what the allegory means is something I hope to make progress on here. It's a theological and philosophical rumination. It's a commentary on the fallibility of human perception. I'm sure it's other things that I haven't thought of yet. And because of (or in spite of) all that, it's a good book. The first volume is "The Shadow of the Torturer." It's kind of a corny pulp fiction title, which might be the idea, since Wolfe puts elements of space opera and mystery stories in there, and occasionally makes the title character play hard-boiled detective. After the title page, where some authors like to put a quote that hints at the subject or inspiration for the novel, is the excerpt
A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
It's pretty obvious who it refers to, but I checked to be sure, and it's from the hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past, which is an English versification of Psalm 90. So, the subject or inspiration for the novel is God. And since the quote is in the place some authors put the dedication, I think it's also dedicated to God. Wolfe also references the setting of the novel here (the far future), and starts with the sun symbolism. If he didn't start in the title, that is ("Shadow"). Well, I've gotten through the title and dedication of the first of four volumes; I'll call it a day. This might take a while.