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.

2 thoughts on “GENE WOLFE AND NOETIC ESTRANGEMENT: the incipit to The Shadow of the Torturer

  1. Pingback: GENE WOLFE AGAINST RELATIVISM: ontology, indeterminacy, pluralism, and tradition | Xeno Swarm

  2. Pingback: NOETIC ESTRANGEMENT: on some commonalities between science fiction and philosophy | AGENT SWARM

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