Introduction

I just finished reading the four book series by Gene Wolfe known as The Book of the New Sun, along with its sequel, The Urth of the New Sun. It is the story of a young man’s journey of growth and redemption that takes place tens of thousands of years in the future, in a time when knowledge of our current time is almost completely lost. The books are very challenging to read, partly because the world is so foreign to us, but also because it is told by the protagonist in the first person, and he’s not always good about giving us all the details we need to understand things easily. Several times he casually mentions key details as he reflects on an event much later in the books, and you wish he had mentioned such things much earlier. The plot contains a series of seemingly random events that actually do fit together if you pay close enough attention to minor details that are often much more important than they seem to be at first. Reading this series is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box as a guide. It’s not until you’ve worked through most of the puzzle that you start to grasp the picture. I missed a lot when I read the first four books about ten years ago. This time I read them much more carefully, and then I read the sequel, which explains many of the mysteries of the series.

I was interested in these books because Gene Wolfe was a Catholic writer with a reputation for high quality writing that is very deep, and The Book of the New Sun is commonly regarded as his masterpiece. The series builds a world that is very different from our own. It has a depth and complexity that approaches that of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, but is not as deep and complex as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

I am not going to talk about the plot in this post, but I do want to talk about the view of God, the universe, and history that is the background of the story. Since these ideas are slowly developed and revealed as the story progresses, anyone who intends to read the series for the first time might not want to read the next section. I don’t consider it to be a major spoiler, but I do explain some things that took me a while to figure out. If you want to struggle through it like I did, skip to the conclusion.

The world of the New Sun (with minor spoilers)

The books present a monotheistic world-view in which God is referred to as the Increate (the one that was not created). God is mentioned casually in the beginning, but as the story progresses, sophisticated metaphysical ideas of creation and causation, as well as a deep theology of divine providence are developed. Jesus Christ is never mentioned, but there is a Christ-like character that appears. This Concileator has some resemblance to Jesus, and the story has themes of sin and redemption, but we learn more about the Concileator in the sequel, we learn that he cannot be the divine Logos of the Bible, who is the second person of the eternal Holy Trinity.

The book plays with a multi-dimensional view of time in which cause and effect relationships are confusing. There is also a cyclic view of the universe in which the Big Bang and expansion of the universe is followed by a contraction and a Big Crunch. The Big Crunch causes another Big Bang that is the beginning of another universe. This cycle appears to have no beginning or end, although that is not explicitly stated in the text. It is possible to travel between universes as well as different times in the past or future. For some of the characters, past, present, and future mean different things than we usually think.

The result of all of this is a world where divine providence operates in the midst of the existence of extra-terrestrials, time-travel, and multiple lines of history. I have to credit Wolfe for trying to make all of that work together. It is helpful that the details of how all of it works are vague because his narrator does not understand all of these things himself.

Wolfe was an engineer before he became a writer, so he had a strong scientific background. He wrote these books in the 1970s and 80s when the Big Bang/Big Crunch theory was popular. I wonder if Wolfe was trying to figure out how to fit his Catholic beliefs with the science of the day that said we are in one of an endless series of universes. Ironically, the science has changed since the 1980s. My understanding is that evidence now shows that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, so a collapse into a Big Crunch is not likely to happen.

As interesting as this all is, I am unable to make the world view of The New Sun exactly fit with Christianity. The Biblical, Catholic Christian view of history is linear. The eternal God creates a world at the beginning of time, whether it is one “universe” or multiple ones. Events will proceed to a climax when God intervenes to end our current mode of existence in which good and evil contend against each other, and He will bring about a new creation where good and evil are separated for eternity.

Conclusion and recommendation

Despite my disagreements with the books’ big picture of history, I really enjoyed reading the New Sun series. If you are willing to spend time working through a long, difficult, but beautiful work of science-fiction literature, you will be rewarded with a rich story set in an amazing and mysterious world. If this sounds attractive to you, I recommend you give it a try.