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▶  More from Fiction Book Reviews Before the Rising Sun
‘With These Tongs we are Held in the Forge’
The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
1982, Tor, reading from Shadow & Claw, pages 206-411
For my third reading of Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece, I sat up late one night and read The Citadel of the Autarch from first to last page with a small flashlight in my dark writing place. The fourth volume ties all of the loose ends up left in the first three, even ends that the reader did not think loose. Of the four volumes, it is the best adventure and makes the most of the author’s Korean War experience and deeply spiritual penetration of the human condition.
One facet of Gene Wolfe’s work which is present in all of his series which I have read—and do keep in mind that The Book of the New Sun is a single, 900 page novel, not four. It was simply released in four pieces—is the story within the story. This is done best in his Latro stories set in mythic Hellas. In The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian spends a full third of the narrative in a military hospital, trading stories with wounded war fighters, a prisoner from the Ascian enemy, a nurse, an orderly, a priestess… and here the book triumphs, as the reader might have wondered, why did I spend 70 pages reading the stories these wounded people who have nothing to do with the narrative, as Severian is chosen for a mystic quest by what is essentially a Red Cross Priestess, and leaves his hospital mates behind…
When Severian returns, having failed in his quest, he finds that the entire hospital has been blown to muck and one of the dying storytellers begs him, to tell their stories so that they won’t have died forgotten…
Through Severian’s quest it is discovered that the Autarch, or “Self-Ruler” caries the memories of his predecessors in an astounding manner and is neurologically incapable of being selfish in the manner of the millions of political leaders who preceded him.
Below are some of my favorite quotes from this segment of Gene Wolfe’s masterwork:
“I had never seen war, or even talked of it at length with someone who had, but I was young and knew something of violence, and so believed that war would be no more than a new experience for me, as other things—the possession of authority in Thrax, say, or my escape from the House Absolute—had been new experiences.
“War is not a new experience; it is a new world…
“I continued to stand there for a watch or more, rewarded from time to time with these mysteries of light. At last, having satisfied myself that they were a great way off and came no nearer, and that they did not appear to change in frequency, coming on the average with each five hundredth beat of my heart, I lay down again. And because I was then thoroughly awake, I became aware that the ground was shaking, very slightly, beneath me.”
“Minnows skittered away from my boots—always a sign of good water—and it was still cold from the mountain peaks and sweet with the memory of snow.”
“…that vast group of women (which may indeed include all women) who betray us—and to that special type who betray us not for some present rival but for their own past.”
“There is a payment made by Nature, to those who undergo hardships; it is that the lesser ones, against which people whose lives have been easier would complain, seem almost comfortable.”
While in fever Severian remembers his friend, the cyborg sailor from the galaxy ship, Jonas speaking of his journey:
“…driven around by the photon storms,, by the swirling of the galaxies, clockwise and counter clockwise, ticking with the light down the dark sea-corridors lined with our silver sails, our demon-haunted mirror sails, our hundred-league masts as fine as threads, as fine as silver needles sewing the threads of starlight, embroidering the stars on black velvet wet with the winds of Time…”
In the above passage and more, Wolfe invokes Melville brilliantly.
The most horrific aspect of Urth, is the army of Ascians that forever battle southward from what had once been North America, endless armies of clones and drones, of suffering human forms with no language, only a drive to suicide and a catalogue of communist slogans memorized by rote, with no personalities, only a grim intensity to kill and die in service to their masters.
And, in a lighter spot, the author permits his contemplative hero a jab at his aged world:
“There is no limit to stupidity. Space itself is said to be bounded by its own curvature, but stupidity continues beyond infinity.”
In the bittersweet end, the reluctant hero has done what he can to heal those doomed souls who shared his journey and reaches out on the part of his beleaguered human race to the stars beyond his battlefield in hope of a Second Going among the Infinite Stars.
Korsekes, an energy weapon
Demilunes, an energy weapon
Falchion, a heavy, single-edged cleaving blade, a cheap sword
Lazaret, military hospital
Masculine Axis: A Meditation on Manhood and Heroism
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