‘The Shadow of the Torturer’ is the first of five installments to Gene Wolfe’s saga, ‘The Book of the New Sun’. It is written as a translation for us, in our time, of a memoir written in another dimension of another galaxy in the future-yet-irrelevant time. Or, perhaps the time is relevant though undisclosed. And, I am left wondering how?! -If Gene Wolfe is in fact the translator of these foreign documents, just how he came to possess them and by what means and/or knowledge aided their translation? Or, is the translator not Gene Wolfe at all but only another character of unknown relevance to the plot a step outside the initial story as his voice is only unique from the narrator of the memoir to which it is translated from in the appendix at the end of each book?! WTF?! Two Gene Wolfes maybe? A lot is brought up but little is explained of the enigmatic universe depicted in this epic by the end of book: 1.
“Yeah, but is it any good?” you may ask. Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles! This is top shelf SciFi. If you’ve rolled a D-20, read DUNE, seen La Planète Sauvage on Blu-Ray and own a few prog-rock albums you’ll be fine.
Our narrator is Severian. An apprentice (and eventual journeyman) in the Seekers for Truth and Penitence (the guild of torturers). He opens his narration describing a pinnacle moment in his childhood where he helped a notorious revolutionary named Vodalus escape the necropolis (an intricate cemetery-garden) where he was stealing a body from its grave. The book takes us through life in the guild. The Torturers are housed in a mighty citadel amongst several dozen other unique guilds in the center of a sprawling metropolis autocracy called Nessus on the planet Urth. In the course of his duties Severian befriends a prisoner whom he betrays his guild for. Instead of putting Severian to death the guild masters instead banish him from the citadel – sending him to take the role of executioner in the far off city of Thrax with nothing but the clothes on his back and a really cool sword called Terminus Est. Severian might not be the Harry’est of Potters but he is head strong and unpredictable and I like that in a narrator.
In ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’ you are taken from gate (the citadel) to gate (the boundaries of Nessus). The environment is complicated but seeing as it is Severian’s first time out of the citadel you and your narrator get to learn together. There is a lot to learn. Gene Wolfe’s language has a strong Latin European influence which shouldn’t be too hard for those of you who didn’t cringe through the vocabulary section of the SAT’s. Even still, the prose works. There are an intricate cast of characters which bring about continually evolving subplots and that keeps the pages turning. Thrax is far away and understanding Severian’s destiny is beyond your immediate understanding but the interconnected encounters color in the world of Urth and explain its politics so by the time you get to the point, hopefully, you understand it.
Having already read McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Road’ I knew to expect his frequent eschewing of proper punctuation and grammar. His stories also have the tendency of beginning before the first sentence leaving you behind before you even get started. There is a beautiful flow to the prose but no easy introduction of plot or characters so it’s hard to know what’s happening to whom and the punctuation leaves you confused as to who’s telling who what. Imagine going to a party in a strange house hosted by people you’ve never met and all the lights are turned out and you’re two hours late. I know that sounds awful but really it’s not because if you give it time your eyes will adjust. The room will come into focus, and the stories exchanged are so lyrically told that you’ll feel transported to the time and place. McCarthy can only be compared with the greatest writers and this is his masterpiece. It says so on the cover. However, if you’re looking for my POV – books like Blood Meridian are the reason I read.
I love westerns but you don’t have to because although this book is overflowing with cowboys, Indians, shootouts, deserts in the Southwest, ponchos, whiskey fights, dehydration, horses and all that stuff…it is just the symptoms and not the whole disease. This nightmare fable takes place in the 1850’s on the Texas-Mexican border during a time when Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving. It follows a fourteen-year-old boy from Tennessee known as “the kid” who falls in with a group of marauders led by two devils at opposite ends of the spectrum: The Judge, judge Holden, and John Joel Glanton. These three along with a party of interesting side characters as diverse as Dick Tracey Villains scrape a bloody wound across a new America and the remnants of its preexistence.
The violence is incredible and thicker than any gorefest. McCarthy’s depictions of the brutality capable by man reads like a spell conjuring raw evil which is then contrasted powerfully by descriptions of beautiful landscapes lost in time yet still radiating so sharply it hurts my heart to imagine them. The story exists only superficially as a western. The realities of this novel live underneath describable things and they are brought to life in a dreamlike environment of which the deserts they’re played out in are but borderlands to the void. The character known as “The Kid” isn’t the main character of the novel but only a witness sitting front row center to the performance put on by The Judge who uses Glanton and his gang as marionettes. Everyone has heard a story of the Judge Holden and I myself had trouble not believing him to be the Devil himself. I reckon I believe it enough not to say he isn’t out loud.
I don’t mean to hide my review of Blood Meridian in theatrics but I mean every word I write. I have trouble breaking down a novel this good in a basic play-by-play and it is not my style to dissect a book’s core and expose the twists and turns to make a point of its themes. I mentioned before that you don’t have to be interested in westerns to get into this novel but it certainly helps. McCarthy’s prose reads like Nick Cave at his very best da rapid staccato. If you’re interested in getting into the feeling might I recommend for your listening pleasure, Murder Ballads by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; and for your viewing pleasure, The Proposition directed by John Hillcoat and starring Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce and Emily Watson.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
I’m sitting on a green bit of vintage couch at The Daily Grind coffee bar in downtown Elkhart sipping my usual. The coffee is coffee plus. Plus soy milk, hazelnut, and cinnamon. I’m reflecting back to when I was but a molodoy malchick having my first ever viddy of Mr. Kubrick’s, ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Real horrorshow. A raskass sinny of ultraviolence and mischief of one kind then another. I was impressed and impressionable. By the end of the movie I was coining Nadsat terminology, referring to my friends as droogs and saying “right right” after every agreement. I started wearing eyeliner and wanted both a bowler cap and those radical nightclub eyelashes Alex is wearing in the opening scene. When I found out there was a book first I got my hands on a copy with every intention of making it my new bible. But, I couldn’t get past page 10 and it sat on the shelf as a reminder to not judge a book by it’s movie. I attempted the novel several times during reading lulls over the years but with no more success than before. Nadsat, so lyrical on screen was a nightmare with no flow on page.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
I decided to add ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to my 52 for two reasons. 1. I was looking for an excuse to watch the movie again since it popped up on my Netflix “watch instantly” queue. 2. CBRiii demanded a book a week and I thought the peer pressure of all you scathing, bitchy people would give me the gusto to musto. I got 10 pages in and thought, “What did I get myself into?” I got 15 pages in and thought about just skipping to the movie…but I finished the chapter and by page 20 I was hooked and the Nadsat flowed and I knew such bliss. I was able to slooshy the words as if I’d known them all along and found them turning up all over again in my day-to-day. But, no longer was I molodoy and excited by spontaneous confrontations to authority. I was of age of a different mentality to Alex’s exploits and those of his droogs. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is a coming of age tale set in a dystopian future of violence and control. The duality of the story’s presentations in my life as both film and novel, appealing to both my childish whiles and adult reflectiveness has allowed me to come of age with the narrator in a unique and unparalleled way.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
The book is told in 3 acts, each with 7 chapters. (Be warned, the early American publications leave out the last chapter of act 3!) The 1st act being an introduction to and tour of Alex’s exploits as he narrates you through routines of casual ultraviolence while commenting haphazardly on his personal choices and their effects on society. He lives as a carnal alpha male amongst his peers and regards only music as being of substantial worth. Particularly that of Ludwig Van Beethoven. The effect reminded me of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, “American Psycho” and I think it is more than fair to compare the two books. The 2nd act deals with Alex’s arrest and rehabilitation. He is no longer in control though our narrator seems to be the last to admit to his new situation. Alex is processed and placed in an overcrowded cell where he is confronted by prison inmates and Christianity before being selected to undergo an experimental cure. The 3rd act reintroduces Alex into society where he no longer is capable of violence. In fact the very thought repulses him to a state of physical distress. But, the world is a violent place and the restrictions of his new condition turn Alex into the ultimate victim of that violence.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
The title, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ implies the meaning, a person with a mechanistic morality or lack of free will. The themes revolve around human nature, free will, order, and chaos. How can we have free will if we live by our instincts, or by a prepared system of laws that keep our impulses in check? What is the point of choice? What is the nature of violence? These questions are not answered but explored and all is left to interpretation. Anthony Burgess never asks you to sympathize with Alex nor does he condemn his reasoning. The morale scale is constantly tilting hither and thither with you being both disgusted by heinous acts of ultraviolence and yet affronted by the drastic actions of correction. I found my empathy overloaded but the clever writing and lovable lingo (the Nadsat really is so much fun to read) kept me from stressing out over the extreme subject matter. My favorite quote on the back of the book is from William S. Burroughs and I think it sums up how I personally feel about the novel:
“I do not know of any other writer who has done as much with language as Mr. Burgess has done here-the fact that this is also a very funny book may pass unnoticed.”
“We” is the progenitor of almost all twentieth century dystopian sci-fi novels and movies. As an obvious sign of its influence, the novel’s themes and settings can be found in a number of related works: a woman causing a man to doubt (1984), a glass dome and wall keeping nature at bay (Aeon Flux), the elimination of arts and a single person who still has access (Equilibrium), crowds gathering to watch citizen vaporization (Logan’s run), government overseen recreational sex (Brave New World), desiring reality as opposed to a machine like efficiency (The Matrix). Zamyatin’s novel wasn’t ahead of its time but timeless. Still being relevant today closing in on 100 years later. In other words, this is the Grand-pappy of the Dystopian Genera.
“We” takes place in the 26th Century after the 200 year war eliminates all but 0.2% of the world population. The last remnants of humanity seal themselves off from the post apocalyptic leftovers by constructing a powerful glass city surrounded by a glass dome wall. The city is ruled over by one man called The Benefactor in a totalitarian system. The citizens are known by numbers with the males indicated by a consonant, (D-503, R-13) and the females by vowels, (O-90, I-330). Though suppressed of any inclination of individuality the society gets along believing that their society, One State, is like one organism and that each person is only a working cell to continue the growth and production of One State. The word “happiness” is no longer a personal expression of the self but a term meaning whether a decision is logical. Promoting progress, balance, and production. Having created the perfect society One State sets out to build the Integral, a spaceship that will bring the “great flywheel of logic” to other planets and help the One State conquer the solar system, having already conquered the world.
The book is written as journal entries by the chief engineer of the Integral, D-503. His journal entries start out as a personal narrative describing life in the perfect society of One State. Being pleased with the productive nature and direction he writes fondly of the city, the walls, the Integral, and The Great Benefactor. Then one day, while out for a group walk he meets a woman, (I-330) and falls in love. The feelings conflict with his numerical logic causing him to feel defensive and aggravated towards the situation. Even believing he is sick. The more he focuses on these inner conflicts the more he feels outside of the normal productive community of One State. He finds himself to be an individual confronted with the power of decision. Tormented by his self discovered love for I-330 and his lifelong loyalty to a system that’s so comfortably controlled and guided his every previous action.
The writing is fantastic. There is zero filler in this 250 pager, and I enjoyed every page. I think the discovery of the individual is crucial no matter what century, or what form of oppression threatens to stifle one’s creative outlet. The nameless characters and blandly named oppressors of “We” allow a certain freedom and agelessness to the novel allowing it to still be relevant today. Writing a review for this book has been extremely difficult it being more the type of novel which themes would be better understood in discussion rather than summed up in a few paragraphs. That said I strongly encourage you all to read this fine piece of Russian Literature (translated the world over) and get back to me with your own thoughts and ideas.
As I sit back to write this book review of Anarchy Evolution the volume of my stereo is cranked up loud. Whether my neighbors like it or not I am blaring “New America”, the 11th album by west-coast-punk-band Bad Religion (BR). Before I tell you about the book let me tell you a bit more about my copy of “New America”. It is printed on 180g clear red vinyl and includes all original liner notes. It sits on my impromptu record shelf in a special 30th anniversary box-set alongside the rest of BR’s discography also printed on clear red 180g vinyl. I have CDs, T-Shirts, Concert Tickets, the two folk albums singer (and author) Greg Graffin released and you better believe my copy of Anarchy Evolution is a first edition and it’s signed. I have been a BR fan for over half my life and remember clearly the moment my older brother played “Punk Rock Song” and said, “This is Bad Religion.” I was 11; I’m 24.
Anarchy Evolution (subtitled: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God) presents Greg Graffin’s world view and a brief history of his life from grade school to present. This is a lot of ground to cover in 260+pages, but short, fast, and impacting is the basic structure of a punk rock song and our author plays to his strengths. The book is broken up into categorical chapters dealing with authority, life, natural selection, atheism, and faith. Each chapter is written with the duality in which Greg Graffin leads his life. By day he teaches evolutionary biology at UCLA. By night he is the front man of BR. I found this balance of memoir and theory helpful in understanding the messages of naturalism and very satisfying as a longtime fan. The extensive Notes section at the back helped out as well.
I got my fair share of looks while reading this book on lunch breaks at work. I didn’t mind. I’m used to it. I got the same looks when I walked through the halls of my high school sporting the BR logo on my T-shirt. The title is very standoffish (as is the logo, a crossed out crucifix) because it takes courage to read it. This test of courage isn’t so much to prepare you for the content but for those looks and spiteful comments you might receive while reading it. I found the content to be largely passive and very accepting no matter what your world view. The idea isn’t to convert, but to bring awareness and connect. You won’t find bitterness and hate in these pages. I have always appreciated being challenged and informed by Graffin and BR’s ideas through non aggressive yet challenging medias.
For any BR fan this is a must read. It is personal and generous and I often felt while reading it, This is exactly what hanging with Greg would be like! For any monist thinker, atheist, or naturalist this is a great companion book with numerous references to branch off from. For any theist of any religion struggling to understand atheism and/or naturalism, READ THIS BOOK! Lastly, for anyone with a beginners interest in evolution, this book is for you.