If you’re a science fiction & fantasy person, you’ve maybe heard of Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun. It’s a four-part series, tracking the story of a dude from a guild of torturers in a future world, but one degraded into a fantasy-style medieval setting. Armor and swords and whatnot. The reason I bring it up is kind of interesting.
Give me a second here. There’s a larger point about why we stop reading books after a page or two, and why we keep going.
Anyway, people in the know brag about this series like it’s Tolkien or the Bible or Dickens. They go on and on, writers whom I respect very much and who should know dregs from riches. If they say it’s worth the read, even though it’s dense and uses esoteric words that look made-up but are actually in the dictionary (when you bother to look and don’t just skim past hoping they’ll make sense in context), you figure you should give it a shot. Well I did. Four times.
Four separate times, I tried to start reading the first book, Shadow Of The Torturer. “It’s mind-blowing”, they said. “A masterpiece”. I had not found it to be so. In fact, I tried some other Gene Wolfe books (in the library so I wasn’t blowing money on things I expected to hate) trying to see the big deal. I couldn’t do those either. So I figured this dude just isn’t the beans for my java and moved on.
Let me put just a little flesh on the bone before we move on here: The opening scene seemed to me to have some typical fantasy-trope band of misfits at a gate of some kind, whispering about how to get inside. Or something. The word choices were exotic, the descriptions dense, and I hate plain-vanilla bands of misfits doing fantasy thieving stuff. It’s. Been. Done. I honestly never got anywhere with that first book because it seemed like tired content, done in an unnecessarily obtuse style.
I listen to a lot of disparate things when I go running at the lake. Seriously, it’s all over the place. Here’s a good one, if you’re into Harlan Ellison, a collection of all his Sci Fi Buzz appearances called ‘Harlan Ellison’s Watching‘. It’s great to hear him rant or get excited about something, then have the ability to fast forward with a Google search to see what became of it.
But I came across these two intelligent, informed gentlemen, discussing at length one of my favorites…a set of pieces collectively called Viriconium by M. John Harrison.
Here, just click this one to listen to these two, it’s hypnotizing: Books Of Some Substance with guest Brett Campbell of doom metal band, Pallbearer.
I’d never heard of ‘Books Of Some Substance’, nor have I listened to anything from a doom metal band from Arkansas (and likely never will), but Viriconium‘s one of the great ones. That’s a life changer, at least for me. It gets in my head. I can’t read it without it changing how I think, how I choose my words. Harrison’s a genius at mood-setting, at impressionistic fiction, at sending your mind off to flights of fancy. Maybe not of telling a story – he’s not great at that. But otherwise, a true work of art there. These two gents had a fascinating chat about Viriconium, so I heard them out on that count. And towards the end, when these two had completely won me over with a rich, insightful conversation that encourages you to think maybe they’re not all Snapchat-addicted neanderthals out there, the doom metal guy mentioned Book Of The New Sun.
Well crap. He said if you really like Viriconium, you’ll like that one too. He said it’s set in the far future where the old technology is literally a toe-scratch below the dust and shards of decaying cities. He said it was amazing.
So I took a fifth go at Gene Wolfe’s supposed masterpiece. I kept an open mind, telling myself this isn’t a piece of Dungeons & Dragons fan fiction or a bajillionth clone of Tolkien, that the exotic words can be skipped or considered in context without constant jaunts to the dictionary, that this very intelligent, insightful doom metal person who held a series I cherish in such high regard was telling me to give it a chance because it holds some of the magic that Harrison’s work does. He earned my trust, so I dug in with as open a mind as possible.
And honestly, it’s pretty good. They weren’t D&D-style thieves at all, but apprentice torturers. That scene was short and not at all what I thought it had been. They were young trainees basically, and this was going to have elements of coming-of-age tales. It’s super easy for me to connect with coming-of-age tales, especially when they hint up front at the great heights to which this person will reach (as this book does). I like to examine their choices, to question whether I’d make them as well, to see where external factors advanced their cause and when they seized their own fortunes alone. I saw this after a few chapters, beyond where I’d stopped those previous times.
The word choices remain exotic and annoying, but they add flavor and atmosphere, which was his point I imagine. I understand there will be an element of the unreliable narrator as I proceed, so I’m on the lookout for nonsense he pitches at me. We’ll see how that goes.
My point today is just to hand you a few links you might find interesting, and to suggest that our preconceived notions of what a book is about can throw us off the rails, that our impatience and lack of attention span can cheat us of some great tales, and that when you find reviewers or podcasters or other folks whose opinions you trust, maybe listen to them with an open mind.
If you’re into Gene Wolfe’s works, shoot me a note and let me know what you think. I’m anxious that this series will fail me at some point, but so far so good.
Till next time, guys.
Dreams are engines. Be fuel.