The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This, as well as the first two books and theoretically the last in the series, is rapidly becoming the most difficult work of SF I've ever read. Why? It's not particularly difficult to follow; the Hero's Quest is rather straightforward throughout. Nor is the main character Severian particularly uninteresting or difficult to like.
My main concern, as well as my questionable joy, is in the author's requirement that we take not just an active role in the reconstruction of this tale, but that even a deconstruction, a literary analysis, a creative interpretation, a fuck-you-sideways until you bleed from your eyeballs reinterpretation, might not quite be enough for us to reconcile story elements from action elements from reflective elements from literary elements.
I'm assuming, just from my own idiocy, that this is a 4-d topographical map and I must rip out the pages according to odd-numbered reoccurring themes, plaster them together in the shape of the Claw of the Conciliator, and then read the text while standing on my head. And I can't do it while inebriated. This isn't, after all, noir fiction.
This is, supposedly, the most brilliant literary mindfuck of a SF novel ever written, only it's so far beyond bizarro fiction that it has usurped James Joyce's throne. Take your pick if you want to liken it to SF Ulysses or SF Finnegans Wake. I mention the last just because this has darkened depths to it where deep literary beasties roam, unseen, and not because it's batshit crazy like the author.
I'm not saying that Gene Wolfe is crazy. Not at all. But for all the ways that this *appears* to be sword and sorcery on the surface, and decent sword and sorcery that happens to take place a million years in the future on Earth where the sun is dying and aliens mess with us and tech indistinguishable to magic roams the earth, events, plot elements, and narrative elements will sometimes hit is from out of nowhere and they will make absolutely no sense at all if you are reading on the simple surface.
Truly, just the little hints are enough to drive me crazy. Yes, I pick up quite a few, like Severian's little discussion with little Severian about men who decide that living like men is too much for them so they get a special lobotomy so they don't have to reflect or worry about what it means to be a man, that they can live happily like beasts. Little Severian says, "Is that why you go without a shirt? Because you are like the beast men?" "No, I haven't undergone the procedure, but yeah, perhaps I do go without reflection like them." Of course, in the story context, he's saved the kid with his name, vows to be his papa, and proceeds to watch him die, moving on to the next quest without much reflection. Right. (Btw, I'm not checking my review for precise quotations, I'm paraphrasing from memory.)
This isn't even the biggest bit of crazy. There's resurrected love interests, either pure memory from an alien juice and another from a time-reversal trick, both of which he loses, aliens with masks as many roles, with the real one being as smooth as unworked clay, as like unformed from conception or story, a mirror for everything else that goes on, and giants who resemble the witches whom Perseus steals the eye and the tooth.
Don't get me wrong. It's pretty cool. But when the fiction turns metafiction, when plots get thrown right into some heavy meta-soup and we're left wondering what the hell we just stepped into, we still have the sense that we *ought* to be knowing what the hell is going on. It doesn't let us drop, exactly. It just tries to entice us into rereading the books 5-10 times to try to figure out just what the hell is going on. I have to question myself: Do I care enough to become a devoted scholar of Wolfe and write at least a dissertation on his work? Do I care at least enough to finish through the 4th book?
The answer is No, and Yes. It's frustrating to see all those little fishes in the dark water below my feet, see them scurrying away, but I'm not quite hungry enough to get down on my hands and knees and beg Poseidon to make them jump right into my mouth.
Maybe someday, when I've burned all my other books and am exiled to a desert island where I have nothing else to read than these four admittedly interesting books will I sit down and devote the rest of life to figuring out just what the hell is going on here. :) I don't quite think I'm alone in this feeling, either.
Shouldn't there be a whole cottage industry devoted to figuring this thing out? Where are the scores of scholars? Is this going to go down into history as "The series everyone wants to say is genius but no one has the guts to say they have no idea what's going on"? I'll at least say it. I don't know what's going on. Surface? Sure. Pretty damn straightforward. It's everything else. Gahh!
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