The Shadow of The Torturer (Book of The New Sun #1) – Gene Wolfe (1980)
Severian is an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers who have plied their trade from the Matichin Tower for centuries. While out swimming with other young torturers Severian nearly drowns and causes the boys to be late back. Having made their way through the locked gates into the Necropolis they are separated and, in the almost pitch black, Severian witnesses a scene involving the revolutionary Vodalus and helps him escape, for which Vodalus gives him a golden coin. This sets Severian on a destiny which is is not yet clear. The narrative is written by a much older Severian who gives very little clue as to what situation he ends up in.
Having given a knife to one of the female ‘clients’ as the torturers call their prisoners, who subsequently killed herself, Severian is given a broadsword ‘Terminus Est’ and as punishment for his crime, sent off to a post in the distant City of Thrax.
Comparisons have to be made with Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ from some thirty years prior, with his premise of decadent human civilisation on an Earth impossibly far in the future, orbiting a sun that was about to die.
Like Vance and the other proponents of Science Fantasy, Wolfe has employed some of the trappings of Fantasy but with a scientific or social rationale. David Pringle, in The Hundred Greatest SF Novels goes to great lengths to emphasise that this is Science Fiction, and SF of the highest calibre, despite the four novels of this tale being reprinted under the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks label.
In the best tradition of the classic quest tale, Severian is sent out of his normal environment and into a world filled with mystery and danger. He meets several odd characters along the way and makes both friends and enemies.
Wolfe has been very clever in his use of language since he employs archaic terms, or at least archaic-sounding terms since one is never entirely sure whether some of the words are real or invented, although I am subsequently informed that all the words are bona fide dictionary entries, although one presumes a larger dictionary than necessary would be required.
Titles such as ‘Portreeve’ or ‘Carnifex’, especially if employed in a tale with an almost medieval class structure – immediately puts the reader in a particular frame of mind.
One is given the impression that Humanity, having spread its genes to the stars has now devolved into a decaying decadent state where all important events have already happened. This entropic concept is also one of the themes of M John Harrison’s ‘Viriconium’ sequence where Humanity is feeding culturally on its own past, a thoroughly post-modern concept for a post-modern era.
There is also a direct route through stylistically from Clark Ashton Smith to Jack Vance to Moorcock and M John Harrison and Wolfe and on to some of today’s newer writers, McCarthy and John C Wright, who have added a hard science edge to the gothic SF style.
The next volume is ‘The Claw of The Conciliator’