Monday, August 3, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shadow of the Torturer

Like a lot of things in this blog, my understanding of "pulp fantasy" is idiosyncratic. I don't use it as a term of opprobrium, since I adore the genre and read it voraciously, including the works of lesser authors whose ideas and execution are often deeply flawed. While pulp fantasy has a lot of different elements that draw me to it, the one that stands out is its powerful focus on individual wants and desires, thoughts and feelings. The goals of the protagonist -- and often his antagonists -- are what's important and everything else are largely obstacles to or consequences of that individual's peripatetic search for his (typically ephemeral) intensely personal destiny. That's why I view Moorcock's Elric tales, for example, as pulp fantasy, even though they're set against a backdrop of a cosmic battle between Law and Chaos. In the end, that battle is secondary to the battle within the character of Elric to find his place in the world, as it is in most pulp fantasy.

For that reason, I feel comparatively little shame in dubbing Gene Wolf's 1980 novel The Shadow of the Torturer a pulp fantasy. This book and its three sequels tell the story of Severian, an apprentice Seeker of Truth and Penitence, which is to say, a torturer. Unfortunately, Severian chooses to be merciful to one of his charges, allowing her to commit suicide rather than suffer, thereby breaking the oath to his fellow Seekers. Rather than being punished with death for his oath-breaking as he expected, Severian is instead sent away to a far-off city to serve as its executioner, precipitating the beginning of the protagonist's many travels and his growth and development into one of the most interest characters in recent literature.

The Shadow of the Torturer is an extremely difficult book to characterize. It definitely occupies a similar place as Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels, taking place in a world so far in the future as to be beyond time. Like Vance, Wolfe effectively uses language to convey the decadent antiquity of his setting, Urth. Through a combination of English archaisms, Latinate neologisms, and words purely of his own invention, the text can sometimes prove hard going. Additionally, Wolfe maintains the fiction that the novel is in fact a mere translation from "a language that has not yet achieved existence," which, when combined with the unreliability of Severian's first person account of his activities, creates further levels of complexity and nuance.

I read this book long ago and dismissed it out of hand, mostly because I found it impenetrable. Fortunately for me, I read some articles about Wolfe that convinced me I'd missed out on a classic of science fiction and fantasy. I then took my time and re-read The Shadow of the Torturer and very soon thereafter made my way through the rest of the The Book of the New Sun series, very much enjoying it. There's a great deal going on in these books, on both a dramatic and literary level, and it's an amazing thing to behold. Wolfe's talents as a writer are unique; I can think of no other fantasy/science fiction author else who manages to achieve what he does in this series of books.

Because of publication date, there's no question that The Shadow of the Torturer exercised no influence over the development of D&D or AD&D. Even if it had been published earlier, I'm not sure what kind of influence it could have had. Though there are certainly lots of things within it, such as Severian's sword Terminus Est, that I can easily see some gamers swiping for use in their campaigns, doing so strikes me as far more crass than any of OD&D's borrowings from Tolkien, the author whose work strikes me as closest to that of Wolfe and even his closeness is limited at best. Nevertheless, I highly recommend Wolfe's work. It is not an easy read by any means, but it does repay the time and energy spent in working through it, making him one of the few authors I've ever given a second chance.


  1. Wow! A blast from the Past!
    I may have read waaaay back in Junior High. Didn't finish it, though. If it's the same book, then the author is weak by being squeamish about the torture and violence and using abstract "draining magics" in place of dealing with the violence, the victims and suffering. Perhaps this is because the year before we had to read The Legend of Thyl Eulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak (Charles De Coster Novel, not the folk tales), and that one was about the War of Dutch Independence, The Protestant Reformation, and so the spanish inquisition figures prominently in it. So, I was spoiled for the Torurer's Apprentice.

    Come to think of it. The Coster story deals with Thyl, whose father burns at the stake falsely accused, and Thyl gets banihed, and wanders the conquered territories as a jester taking on the church and the establishment.

  2. Through a combination of English archaisms, Latinate neologisms, and words of purely of his own invention

    Specifically Spanish words too as the book is set in a future South America as far as I can tell from various clues.

    One of my favourite of his clues leads to the realisation he is describing Armstrong on the moon at some point.

    Im glad to see you mention Wolfe. His ability with the English language sets him apart from most genre writers though many readers are not so interested in language.

  3. I also had a lot of trouble with it the first time I tried to read it, back in high school I think. Not too long ago I picked up the two omnibus editions collecting the stories and I'm glad I did.

    Have you read his Book of the Long Sun series? It's set in a generational ship with many of the same trappings.

  4. I loved it from the first word.
    --An enormous influence upon my milieu, let alone as a writer.

    Nice to see that you gave it a second go. :D

  5. Oh, I forgot to mention that Wolfe was also the lead Engineer on the Pringles Potato crisp 'saddle' design.


  6. Interestingly, Severian did ultimately end up having an influence on D&D. 4e's Avenger class is partially based upon him.
    Thought that might be an interesting addendum.

  7. FWIW Gary never read these books (and it'd be an interesting alternate history if he had, and they'd influenced his work on AD&D, Dangerous Journeys, etc.). His first/only exposure to Gene Wolfe came very late in his life when someone at ENWorld (Col. Hardisson?) recommended Wolfe's The Knight and The Wizard to him and he read them -- he very much liked and strongly recommended the former, but claimed he found the latter hard to get through. When asked about his favorite post-70s fantasy authors for the last time in early 2008 he responded with the usual suspects (Cook's "Black Company," Pratchett's "Discworld," Anthony's "Split Infinity") and added something to the effect of "and to a slightly lesser extent, Gene Wolfe."

  8. Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun" is one of my all-time favourites. Wolfe created a genuinely original world in those novels.

    A friend of mine who is a Wolfe fanatic leant me a book entitled "Lexicon of Urth" (or something like that), which made the novels *much* more comprehensible during a second read. Tracking that book down, or the GURPS book on Urth, might help one appreciate just how complex and unique Wolfe's creations is.

  9. "The Castle of the Otter" is another great companion book to the New Sun - it's a collection of essays Wolfe wrote about the series. I think that's where I read that one of the impetuses for the character of Severian was that Wolfe was disappointed that none of his characters were being chosen as costumes at SF convention masquerades.

  10. Vance is one of those authours who's works I adore, even when i mist concede that I can't figure out what the hell he's talking about. Although I sort of followed the New Sun, to this day i still can't figure out what the hell transpired in the Book of the Long Sun.

    But even as I'm totally bewildered, he's just a great writer.

    @Kent--what makes you think the setting was South America (other than the Catholicism)?

  11. Wolfe was also the lead Engineer on the Pringles Potato crisp 'saddle' design

    hah! I've often wondered whether some math nerd arrived at the Pringle as an attempt to cram non-Euclidean flavour into a humble chip. Thanks for clearing that up for me.
    If he'd worked for Thomas' he could have had a go at the poppyseed problem.

  12. @ Matthew Slepin: I assume that you meant "Wolfe", not "Vance". ;)

    Also, looking at the map of Urth, it is clearly South America. Also, Machu Picchu plays an important role in the novels.

  13. Wolfe--Vance: whatever. :)

    There's a map? My copy didn't have a map.

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  15. @richard: sadly my difference engine is unable to correctly parse the media regarding the poppy-seed solution. I will 10^100 it and see what I can make of it. :)

    Yes, non-Euclidean. I try my best not to bring that up. R'lyeh and all that scuttle. :D

  16. _The Urth of the New Sun_ is essentially _TDE_ rewritten by someone who had read a WHOLE LOT of Borges, and also wanted to inculcate you into a freaky Neoplatonic quasi-Catholicism.

    I dig it. LOTS.

    There was actually a GURPS supplement for it, which was pretty damn good. The one game I played set on Urth was an interesting little dungeon crawl with some memorable NPCS (one played by my actor and director friend Joseph "Chepe" Lockett, and one by designer of the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (computer) adventure game (and others) Josh Mandel).

  17. "Through a combination of English archaisms, Latinate neologisms, and words purely of his own invention..."

    Inspired by some of the work Ms Timeshadows has been doing recently, I picked up my ancient copy of "Shadow of the Torturer" just the other day....

    Anyway, I'm pretty sure that Wolfe has always said that their were NO made-up words contained in the series - I have been looking up the ones with which I am not familiar as I go and have found all of them so far.

    Part of the beauty of Wolfe's writing though is that you don't actually need to understand the exact meaning of the words as he uses them. They act as a wonderfully subtle colouring device that builds layer upon layer of atmosphere and texture. the effect of the books is like a series of oil paintings or collages.

    That said though, they are a great story. And light years ahead of the sclerotic second rate Tolkien (and Ayn Rand) pastiches that have clogged the genre...

  18. really good books - and I've yet to find anything by Wolfe that has not been fascinating. Just got a copy of The Wizard today in fact! Can't wait to start it.

  19. I can't remember where I found this, but I've definitely read that the Urth books began as a direct response to Vance. The Book of Gold that the Master Librarian describes to Severian is actually supposed to be an ancient copy of Tales from the Dying Earth.

    I wish I could remember where I saw this, but it was from what I took to be a 'reputable source' (for whatever that's worth...).

  20. "There's a map? My copy didn't have a map."

    Ah, right. I think that my map appeared in the Lexicon. IIRC, there is also one in the GURPS book.

  21. @Akrasia--but is there something, for lack of a better word, official about that?

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  23. James, do you mean to say that you've only read the first book in the series?

    Read on! It gets heaps better... : )

    @ Matthew, I think it's pretty obvious (for me anyway) that the great river he mentions, in a great southern continent is the Amazon. It's been a while since I re-read it though.

    For the Tolkein fans, in an interview with Wolfe I read somewhere, he says that he loves LotR and when he got the first editions (when they came out) he wanted to take his time with them knowing it would be great, reading a chapter a night to savour the writing fully - or something along those lines.

    I have to admit the Knight/Wizard novels didn't quite do it for me...

    I highly recommend Peace and Devil in a Forest, esp. the latter if you're after a more mediaeval style fantasy.

  24. I loved the Book of the New Sun. I did find it a bit misogynist though - I went through the whole series and if you believe Severien's accounts, he only *ever* executes women!

  25. I have loved this series for years and years. Also, someone else mentioned the Long Sun series, which is itself followed by the Short Sun series when the generation ship finally arrives at its destination. These books are not only related thematically, but are actually set in the same world. The generation ship was actually launched by Typhon, the two-headed king that Severian wakes up and fights.

    @Adam Thorton, Wolfe is very, very Catholic. The most unapallagetic Catholic writer that I think I know of (even more so than Walter M. Miller, Jr.), and more particularly, the Sun Series is Christian Kabbalah--implicitly in the first four books (as well as the follow up series), and very, very explicitly in the coda to the original-The Urth of the New Sun.

    James--I seriously recommend following up this series with its coda, The Urth of the New Sun, as well as the follow up series, The Long Sun and the Short Sun books. Wikipedia tells me also that The Fifth Head of Cerberus is in the same universe, prior to the events described in any of the above books.

    I hope all of that makes sense. . .

  26. "but is there something, for lack of a better word, official about that?"

    Wolfe approved/endorsed the Lexicon, including the map.

    Also, as I mentioned earlier, Machu Picchu plays an important role in the series.

  27. A few clarifications:

    The "lexicon" book referred to by another poster is Lexicon Urthus.

    The Book of the New Sun is definitely set in South America. (The capybaras are strong evidence, among other things.)

    And there are no "neologisms" in the book -- Wolfe has said that part of his inspiration was a desire to write a fantasy novel with no made-up words. Every word in the books can be found in a sufficiently unabridged dictionary.

    (Oh, and like 'most everyone else I love and respect Gary Gygax, but I have to wonder about anyone who prefers Piers Anthony to Gene Wolfe...)

  28. @Chris T
    Matthew, I think it's pretty obvious (for me anyway)

    I have never used the word "obvious" in relation to Wolfe. :) As I say, I adore him, but almost never know what's going on.

    That said, I only read the New Sun once.

  29. I really appreciate the pulp fantasy library posts, James. Almost all of these titles are going on my “to read” list. Though, at my rate, I may never get to them all.

  30. Gene Wolfe matters beyond the realm of fantasy litterature. He introduced highest uncertainty in narrative that imho will outlast Borges talent. He kinda changed my life, like y'know, rock'n roll changed my life...