Upon beginning to re-read Gene Wolfe’s New Sun books, they’re significantly better even than I remembered. I first read them about ten years ago before I was Catholic and clearly I wasn’t prepared for them, because although I remember enjoying them, I missed how full of enchantment they are. The trick that Wolfe pulls off is to place the novels some millions of years into the future on a planet Earth that is ruinous and rotting under the weak red light of a dying sun. Technology has waxed and waned presumably countless times between that future time and ours, and the beauty of science-fiction is that what might seem magic to us is actually the result of technology. Further, what seems at first blush to be secular science is revealed to be theology, or sacred science.
Last week, I referenced Wolfe’s opinion that Dante’s Divine Comedy is actually sci-fi. He says, “Humanists would say the Divine Comedy is fantasy, but they are wrong. It is SF, based on the soft science of theology. Theology has just as much right to that word science as sociology and the rest do.”
Here’s an example of how this works in New Sun. This shouldn’t spoil the book if you haven’t read it yet, but I hope it inspires everyone to read it because these books are an absolute gem. In New Sun, Father Inire, the mysterious sage of the House Absolute, displays and reveals his room of octagonal mirrors to a young noble named Domnina. Wolfe writes,
She realized when she saw them that the wall of the octagonal enclosure through which she passed faced another mirror. In fact, all the others were mirrors. The light of the blue-white lamp was caught by them all and reflected from one to another as boys might pass silver balls, interlacing and intertwining in an interminable dance. In the center, the fish flickered to and fro, a thing formed, it seemed, by the convergence of the light.
“Here you see him,” Father Inire said. “The ancients, who knew this process at least as well as we and perhaps better, considered the Fish the least important and the most common of the inhabitants of specula. With their false belief that the creatures they summoned were ever present in the depths of the glass, we need not concern ourselves. In time, they turned to a more serious question: By what means may travel be effected when the point of departure is at an astronomical distance from the place of arrival?”
In explaining the science of faster-than-light travel, Father Inire says that when the energy source is coherent and the mirrors are optically perfect, “the orientation of the wave fronts is the same because the image is the same. Since nothing can exceed the speed of light in our universe, the accelerated light leaves it and enters another. When it slows down, it reenters ours – naturally at another place.” It sounds like mystical nonsense, but remember, Father Inire is drawing on a half-forgotten piece of technology that developed sometime between our eras. It may seem magic to us, but it is, in fact, science. It’s the key to faster-than-light travel. The hologram (the fish), with the correct equipment, is in actuality a real creature piercing through from another dimension. In the distant future, humanity at some point figured out how to leap into these dimensions and back into ours as a way to quickly travel vast distances.
Father Inire references, “the ancients.” This is where Wolfe can be so very fascinating. The reference is to the ancient practice of catopromancy, the use of divining mirrors in ancient Greece and Rome by seers called specularii. Wolfe has linked what was considered magic with a future technological advancement. Science and magic are indistinguishable. Wolfe doesn’t want to stop there, though, because theology is science. The natural explanation is developed by and completed by the supernatural.
Here’s what I think is going on. All through the novel, Severian is being pulled along by forces that seem out of his control, and he encounters variations on the same theme. Events occur that seem vaguely familiar. I would call them echoes, or waves of light. Much like Father Inire’s mirrors, the echoes build up through the narrative and finally birth a solid reality.
Severian himself lives his life in a sort of metaphysical mirror-room in which sacramentality is coming to fruition, finally bursting into full bloom. This is the meaning of the journey he’s on, the echoes pierce through into another reality and return to ours with newfound solidity. He is finding himself, drawing newfound powers and virtues that draw on a higher dimension and taking on a more and more firm reality. It’s a picture of grace completing nature, of sacramentality, the Word become Flesh.
The genius of Wolfe is to write it in such a way that the concept is deeply spiritual but the miracle is mediated through the language of technology and magic. In fact, it’s theology the whole time.