GENE WOLFE AGAINST RELATIVISM: ontology, indeterminacy, pluralism, and tradition

This is my side of a discussion with Marc Arimini, who very kindly commented on my last post.

In my re-writing of Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction (“the literature of cognitive estrangement”) as the literature of noetic estrangement I referred to the incipit to Gene Wolfe’s THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER as an example, making use of indeterminacy as one mode of estrangement.

Estrangement is the more generic term, and indeterminacy, taken for example however metaphorically or literally in its quantum acceptation, is but one of the possible modes of estrangement.

Given the role of indeterminacy in THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, foreknowledge, like memory, cannot be associated with either certainty (epistemological) or immutability (ontological). From the moment that Wolfe includes quantum concepts into the tissue of his text, classical concepts such as theodicy take on a “strange” new aspect. There is no incompatibility between objectivity and indeterminacy, if the latter is taken ontologically rather than epistemologically.

I would not say that the “central mystery” (Mar Aramini’s term) in THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is ontological, but ontology (or, if you don’t like the use of that word in this way or in this context, speculative cosmology) is built into the framework of the story’s projected world.

Divergent possibilities can be ontologically real, irreducible to some epistemology. So I do not think that uncertainty and divergence can be attributed solely to the epistemological level. Thus an objective state of being can well be indeterminist but predictably so (as in the ontological interpretation of quantum theory, as opposed to the epistemological one).

In a nutshell: quantum gnosis ungrounds univocal meaning and multi-contextualises interpretations of being (not so concise, to be sure, but including the crisis of foundations and ontological pluralism in its purview).

Note: the first half of my last post was a very tentative reflection on SF, and I am quite open to discussion here, it is not meant dogmatically. The second half is an analysis of the opening image, and I was pleased to see what I could come up with.

On the question of whether Wolfe’s writing is in accord with a particular tradition my opinion is mitigated. One cannot combine tradition and quantum thinking without getting something strange. I am not arguing for relativism here, quite the opposite.

Multiple possibilities can be objective, pluralism can be a realism. I am not talking about Wolfe’s work in general, I defer to Marc Arimini’s expertise on that. However, I do talk about some aspects of THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN.

I also defer to Marc on the influence of Augustine and Aquinas in Gene Wolfe’s work, but I see THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN through categories and themes developed by thinkers that Wolfe never read, but whose conceptual paths can enrich our vision: Gilles Deleuze, François Laruelle, Alain Badiou. These philosophers are not my authorities, but they do provide useful resources I can draw on. They belong to the philosophical tradition, but to its self-subverting side.

My own idea of tradition is that of a shared evolving metaphysical research programme that can be characterised, and evaluated, by an open set of heuristic criteria such as openness, realism, historicity, pluralism, apophaticity, place and role of an absolute, etc.

In these terms, a tradition considered as a shared body of knowledge not fixed.  It is a shared research programme, containing an ongoing research process. In this context the word “creed” is ambiguous. It designates either the heuristic core of that tradition, or a static photo or dogma, so I am wary of the word. A tradition is self-adapting, in this sense self-subverting, or it has degenerated from a living tradition to dead dogma.

“Beliefs” are objective facts, that exist and have effects, and can “move” us even in very different contexts than that of their origin, irrespective of the question of whether they are true or not.

My general views of science fiction are presented indirectly, and very partially, in a series of eight blog posts commenting on TETRALOGOS a recent book by Laruelle, beginning here:

Or if you want the final, complete version:

For a overview of my ideas on ontology, realism, and pluralism, see my paper IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID?

Here (summary and link):


GENE WOLFE AND NOETIC ESTRANGEMENT: the incipit to The Shadow of the Torturer

I would like to talk you about The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. It is a science fiction novel in four volumes, of a genre difficult to determine unequivocally, which is part of his writerly intent. It is a speculative cosmo-theological planetary romance, a metaphysical and religious Bildungsroman, halfway between fantasy and science fiction.

This indeterminacy and this pluri-vocity constitute both the strangeness of the novel and its canonicity, as if we were touching on the essence of science fiction. From the start, SF produced works that went beyond simple scientific extrapolation to ask questions and propose visions built on ontological, theological and epistemological speculations.

From the Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon to Anathem by Neil Stephenson, via the Dune cycle or the latest novels by Robert Heinlein, SF has regularly produced unclassifiable works, real logics of the worlds (to borrow the title of one of the major books of the philosopher Alain Badiou).

The philosopher Jean-Clet Martin, who wrote a Logic of Science Fiction: From Hegel to Philip K. Dick (published in French in 2017, still untranslated), was able to highlight this deep logic at work in science fiction. He does not explicitly discuss the fiction of Gene Wolfe, but his book allows us to see that The Book of the New Sun is in logical dialogue not only with the canon of science fiction but with its essence.

For my part, I have explored aspects and examples of this speculative logic under the name of “noetic estrangement”. We know the definition of science fiction proposed by Darko Suvin:  SF is “the literature of cognitive estrangement”. This simple formula is both concise and paradoxical, which allows it to resonate on multiple planes while having the air of final precision. It ties together fiction, cognition and strangeness in an admirable, but incomplete attempt at generalization.

Suvin’s definition attempts to get at the generic core of science fiction by generalising its component terms. By replacing “science” with “cognition”, we gain in generality, which is necessary to characterize a genre deploying knowledge that goes far beyond the sciences alone.

On the other hand, even with this more general term of “cognition” we risk losing the openness introduced by the further choice of the generic term “estrangement” instead of the traditional “sense of wonder”. In fact, science fiction invokes far more affects than wonder, for example dread and horror, but also dysphoria and malaise, happiness and joyn doubt and uncertainty, worry and hope, and the numinous.

In the search for a generic definition of speculative fiction, that is, of science fiction and fantasy, I think that we should include other acts of the mind than cognition alone (be it extrapolated or alternative). This arbitrary limitation of strangeness to the “cognitive”, to the detriment of the perceptual and imaginative dimensions, could valorise the literal sense of the texts, and thus lead us to neglect considerations of style, conceptuality and  metaphoricity of the texts. It is for this reason that I prefer to replace “cognitive” with the more general term “noetic”.

With these prerequisites in mind, we can examine the incipit in THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, to try to grasp the specific type of noetic estrangement it produces. The text is written in the first person, the narrator is called “Severian”, an apprentice in the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, more colloquially called the Guild of Torturers.

Everything happens in a future so distant that our own era has the status of a myth. The first chapter, Resurrection and death , begins as follows:

It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned (4).

1) The first words are “It is possible”: we start with the modality of the uncertain, of the virtual, and not of the actual. This is a very paradoxical beginning coming from someone who presents himself as having the certainty of a perfect memory:

It is in my nature, my joy and my curse, to forget nothing. Every rattling chain and whistling wind, every sight, smell, and taste, remains changeless in my mind, and though I know it is so with everyone, I cannot imagine what it can mean to be otherwise, as if one had slept when in fact an experience is merely remote (7).


– There is a strange epistemo-temporal knot here as we begin with a present uncertainty about a past anticipation of a future destiny.

– Given the title of the book (The Shadow of the Torturer) , this gives enhanced meaning to the concept of foreshadowing.

2) Then we talk about the future, about the “presentiment” contained in the incident that Severian chose to open the book of his memories. These memoirs do not recount a story of suspense, since Severian reveals to us at the end of the short first chapter that he will survive his adventures and go on to become the monarch of his world (its “Autarch”):

 It was in this fashion that I began the long journey by which I have backed into the throne (11).


– We are talking about the memory of a possible foreknowledge of an exile to come, yet the tetralogy recounts both his exile and final return. The foreknowledge has its limits, it is “foggy” (see point 4).

– The “backing into the throne” suggests an involuntary destiny, an inexorable necessity, in contrast to the theme of possibility of the opening sentence.

3) Severian speaks about a swim where he “nearly” drowned. Death, at some point, was avoided. However, the title of this first chapter is Resurrection and death, not death and resurrection. It is suggested that the death given by Severan to a stranger is preceded by a “resurrection”, perhaps his own. Later in the tetralogy we will see several resurrections linked to Severian, his own as well as that of others. So it is possible that he actually did drown. The title, at first sight symbolic, could be literally true.


– With “nearly” we are once again in the realm of possibility, but this time of a possibility averted, a virtuality.

– A possible bifurcation was avoided. This foreshadows the theme of branching paths that is important in the rest of the story.

4) The closed gate and the wisps of fog “like mountain paths” are for him the “symbols” of his exile. Concrete objects kept in his memory, the portal and the fog are de-literalized in his imagination, become allegories of the path of his life. It is the reverse movement of (3), where a virtual fact has been, allusively, literalized.


– Severian’s analysis of this symbolic (yet real) seems incomplete. The closed gate seems to prefigure his “exile”, but the fog hints at the fuzzy, indeterminate nature of this future.

– The fog divides into wisps, “like the mountain paths”, indicating the forking paths or the possible bifurcations of the future. The image symbolises both necessity and multiple possibilities.

In this short paragraph Gene Wolfe establishes a play of intentionalities (retention and protention, or memory and anticipation), temporalities (past, present, future), epistemic (certainty, possibility) and ontological (virtual, actual) modalities and epistemological or noetic status (literal cognition, symbolic imagination).

We are warned at the outset that the narrative will consist of passages from one pole to another in each of these conceptual couples, and that Severian’s apprenticeship will be a voyage between all these semiotic categories.

THE DEATH OF DR ISLAND: A Structural Tableau of Hell

THE DEATH OF DR. ISLAND is an amazing novella by Gene Wolfe. You can find the audiobook on youtube, here. There is also a very good discussion on the Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast here. See also the four previous episodes for an extended analytical recap of the novella.

The discussion on the Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast is, as usual, is very interesting, and I think that it gives a very good treatment of the themes, possible interpretations, and the remaining questions. They give a very useful summary as well, so I can only provide a few footnotes to their discussion.

1) Structural Tableau

The title plays on four possible meanings, depending on whether “of” is construed as a subjective or an objective genitive, and whether the “death” is to be construed as literal or metaphorical.

2) Four Deaths

Three of the meanings can be found in the body of the story.

A) Nicholas tries to literally “kill” Dr. Island, the AI of the satellite.

B) Diane is allowed to die (literally) at the hands of Ignacio as wish-fulfilment therapy for both of them. This sense of “the death of Dr. Island is explicitly revendicated by the AI.

C) Nicholas is plunged into metaphorical (psychic, but not biological, not cerebral) death to allow the foregrounding of the Kenneth sub-personality.

This allows us to hypothesise a fourth possibility:

D) The metaphorical death of Dr. Island, who shows himself to be more a figure of Satan than an equivalent of God. This is foreshadowed in Nicholas’s vision of Lucifer as having “fallen up, into the fires and the coldness of space”.

3) Two Souls

One thinks of Goethe’s FAUST: “Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast, And each will wrestle for the mastery there.” Nicholas physically, like Diane psychically, houses two souls within his breast. Diane dies in a failed attempt to liberate her second soul (a bird), and thus foreshadows Nicholas’s death.

4) Infernal Trinity

If Dr. Island is an AI caricature of God the Father, and Ignacio is a psychopathic Christ, then Diane’s bird is a hallucinatory Holy Ghost. The bird foreshadows the coming of Kenneth, who is now to function as a physical Holy Ghost, “helping” others.

5) Hatching

Diane is an egg, she hatches a non-existent bird. The satellite is an egg, it hatches Ignacio, who leaves presumably by the hatch. Nicholas is an egg, he hatches Kenneth, who will de devoted to hatching new “important” patients.

6) Diane and Actaeon

One should bear in mind the classical references contained in the name “Diane”. The goddess Diana is the Roman equivalent of Artemis) is the daughter of Jupiter, and the mental hospital that is the habitat of the three characters (or inmates) is in orbit around Jupiter. Nicholas can be seen as a version of Actaeon figure, the huntsman that observed Diana naked bathing in a spring. In punishment he was transformed by Diane into a stag, incapable of speech, and was hunted down and torn apart by his own hounds. Nicholas is reduced to a mute “beast” at the end, his brain torn apart by a pack of monkeys under the orders of Dr. Island.

MÉMOIRES D’HADRIEN: xénocide et héliophage (L’empire du silence)

L’empire du silence, le premier tome d’une vaste épopée de science-fiction écrite par Christopher Ruocchio, est une œuvre très ambitieuse, et assez bien réussi pour un premier roman.

J’ai eu des sentiments mitigés en le lisant. Contrairement à certains lecteurs très élogieux, je ne trouve pas que le roman soit un chef d’œuvre, mais c’est d’une lecture très prenante (malgré certaines longueurs) et je lirais avec plaisir les suites.

S’il fallait chiffrer mon propos, je lui donnerais une note de 3,5 / 5 étoiles, portée à 4 / 5 grâce à sa gestion intelligente de la problématique de “l’estrangement” linguistique et culturelle ouverte par la description de civilisations et de subjectivités très différentes des nôtres.

Je suis d’accord avec de nombreux lecteurs que le roman est très intertextuel, contenant maintes éléments qui rappellent (pour ne pas dire qui imitent) des traits structurels et narratifs importants présents dans les œuvres de ses influences (avouées ou non) et de ses prédécesseurs. S’ il s’agit d’un roman dérivé, au moins il est ambitieusement dérivé, voire multi-dérivé, combinant des éléments tirés de grands modèles tels que L’OMBRE DU BOURREAU (et LE LIVRE DU NOUVEAU SOLEIL en général), LA STRATÉGIE D’ENDER, DUNE, et LES CANTOS D’HYPÉRION).

Certaines caractéristiques structurelles du “world-building” peuvent sembler difficiles à avaler pour certains lecteurs, comme la possibilité réelle d’un empire galactique capable de cohérer malgré les décennies nécessaires pour voyager entre les étoiles. Néanmoins, le concept de dette temporelle qui s’impose pour décrire les “déficits de temps” subis par les voyageurs inter-stellaires fait également partie intégrante de la saga Hypérion de Dan Simmons, sans plonger la structure politique dans l’incohérence. Christopher Ruocchio tente de compenser ces pertes de temps en posant la très grande longévité de la caste dirigeante palatine.

La première partie de L’empire du silence peut sembler longue et et verbeuse, et notre narrateur Hadrien Marlowe est complaisant envers lui-même. Cependant, il n’y a pas de “syndrome de Chekov” à déplorer, car tout ce qui est présenté dans cette première partie est repris efficacement dans le dernier tiers du livre. et tout contribue intégralement au déroulement de l’histoire.

De même, le fait de commencer par la fin, avec la représentation mélodramatique faite par Hadrien de lui-même comme Xénocide et Dévoreur du soleil, ne gâche pas l’intrigue, mais éveille notre intérêt pour une histoire qui commence assez banalement comme le récit d’une intrigue familiale formulaïque et terne. Grâce à ce début “divulgacheur” nous voulons suivre le Bildungsroman jusqu’au bout pour voir comment Hadrien passe du pathétisme œdipien au pathos cosmique.

La tentative de nous faire ressentir de l’empathie pour les Cielcin tout en soulignant leur caractère d’alien est originale et bien gérée, tout comme les présentations des différentes “cages” existentielles et politiques dans lesquelles le narrateur était confiné.

Le mystère autour des “Quiet” (des aliens dont les mystérieux habitats noirs constituent un rappel de plus d’HYPÉRION) et le désir de voir plus d’interactions d’Hadrien avec les inquiétants Cielcin suffisent à me donner envie de lire les suites, malgré mes sentiments mitigés concernant le cadre stéréoptypique sous-jacent rempli de tropes familiers. Quant au seul protagoniste, Hadrien, il n’est qu’à moitié sympathique.

Il s’agit d’une fiction spéculative de “fusion”, l’accent étant parfois davantage mis plus sur la fusion que sur la spéculation. Néanmoins, assez souvent pour éveiller notre sentiment d’émerveillement et maintenir notre intérêt, c’est l’élément spéculatif qui domine.

Pour aller plus loin:

Empire of silence – Christopher Ruocchio

L’empire du silence – Christopher Ruocchio