Classic SciFi authors will cringe when I admit this, but I am reading Gene Wolfe for the first time. It just hasn’t come across my path until I found a dozen Ursula K. LeGuin and Gene Wolfe books at a thrift store (for a quarter each!). I have now begun The Shadow of The Torturer (1980), volume one of the Book of the New Sun.
If anyone else is on the verge of picking up Gene Wolfe for the first time, I would encourage you not to hesitate. In a very short book, Wolfe has created a sophisticated fictonal world. The speculative air of this future world is shot through with the tang of invention. It is evocative, mood-laden, a story with the skyscape of an unknown futuristic world combined with the familiar cobblestones of a medieval court on the border between European Christendom and the lands of the Saracens.
As evocative as this little book is, it is also disorienting. Gene Wolfe is a committed “show” writer, avoiding the “tell” of info dump. So we discover his speculative universe little by little, and much remains obscure for pages on end. Wolfe demands the suspension of disbelief from his readers, and requires our patience as he carefully places the layers of his world into place.
From a writer’s perspective–and Wolfe’s story really is a kind of narrative writer’s workshop–we can learn from his ability to disorient the reader. One can do that easily enough through strangers, dreams, foreign lands, or other dimensional realities; there are some brilliant examples of these in all of the best fantasy books. But Wolfe takes it a step further. He not only enhances the texture of his world by having readers discover its idiosyncrasies, but he also disorients the reader by having her discover mundane realities in her world in new and surprising ways.
The following excerpt is a great example of this subversion of the normal. The protagonist falls asleep beside a giant. In his sleep he mounts a leather-winged beast and explores the dying globe that he has been forced to wander. Watch the way that Wolfe inverts our expectations, speaking of the vision ahead as a “sham of uniformity” and a “purple waste.” The Shadow of the Torturer is a narrative reprimand to the writer prone to info dump, as well as a template for the double inversion of the reader’s expectation in entering the speculative universe.
The Shadow of the Torturer
Chapter 15: Baldanders
And then I dreamed….
I bestrode a great, leather-winged being under a lowering sky. Just equipoised between the rack of cloud and a twilit land we slid down a hill of air. Hardly once, it seemed to me, the finger-winged soarer flapped her long pinions. The dying sun was before us, and it seemed we matched the speed of Urth, for it stood unmoving at the horizon, though we flew on and on.
At last I saw a change in the land, and at first I thought it a desert. Far off, no cities or farms or woods or fields appeared, but only a level waste, a blackened purple in color, featureless and nearly static. The leathern-winged one observed it as well, or perhaps snatched some odor from the air. I felt iron muscles beneath me grow tense, and there were three wing strokes together.
The purple waste showed flecks of white. After a time I became aware that its seeming stillness was a sham born of uniformity – it was the same everywhere, but everywhere in motion – the sea – the World-River Uroboros – cradling Urth. Then for the first time I looked behind me, seeing all the country of humankind swallowed in the night.
When it was gone, and there was everywhere beneath us the waste of rolling water and nothing more, the beast turned her head to regard me. Her beak was the beak of an ibis, her face the face of a hag; on her head was a miter of bone. For an instant we regarded each other, and I seemed to know her thought: You dream; but were you to wake from your waking, I would be there.
Her motion changed as a lugger’s does when the sailors make it to come about on the opposite tack. One pinion dipped, the other rose until it pointed toward the sky, and I scrabbled at the scaled hide and plummeted into the sea.
The shock of the impact woke me. I twitched in every joint, and heard the giant mutter in his sleep. In much the same way I murmured too, and groped to find if my sword still lay at my side, and slept again.