“Do you know of the key to the universe?”

The Shadow of the Torturer - Gene Wolfe

Very dark chocolate. Blatantly part one of a quadrilogy (my copy is the SF Masterworks imprint which bundles ‘Shadow’ with ‘The Claw Of The Conciliator’) what we have here is low on action, high on characterisation, a through-the-roof central idea and much subtlety, particularly of prose. Probably a candidate for a re-read at some stage. I’m not yet running into the street shouting about its status as a genre-defining masterpiece – I need to progress on and chew it over a bit more – but, hey, Alastair Reynolds provides the intro so consider me on-board.

Dictionary Corner: Eschatology, n. The part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. Awareness of Wolfe’s Catholicism puts a lot of ‘Shadow’ in context and gives it real heft. Daytime in this world is blood red thanks to the meagre light of the dying sun bleeding into everything, lending a terrible “end of days” feel to proceedings while – hello, ‘Star Wars’ fans – the ruins of a previous space-faring civilisation are all around. This is the delicious central premise (after Jack Vance) of the ‘Book Of The New Sun’ sequence: the events are all taking place after every other science fiction novel. Man has been and done the whole interstellar exploration thing and very believably he’s stuffed it up. Like Rome and the British empire it has all collapsed and contracted back down to this singularity, this dying Earth and the ruins are everywhere. So in amongst all the cod-medievalism we have fliers, genetically engineered creatures, apes with dog heads, rats that can talk, “animal species resulting from biogenetic manipulation”, “extrasolar breeding stock”, bamboo huts that appear to hold 3D snapshots of the past, a woman who can see the past, present and future…. Wolfe isn’t implying any of this, it is wholly explicit and the secret sauce of the novel is wondering what on (or off) Earth happened. If ever humanity needed the ability to decamp elsewhere it’s when the Sun is dying. Now is not the time to have bollocksed up your intergalactic empire and lost the ability to travel faster than light. Humanity is in deep trouble.

With all that merriness as background, we have Severian the trainee torturer; a job title that is an immediate barrier to entry, cleanly separating him both from our initial sympathies and from the rest of humanity. However, it’s complicated. Young Severian is a kindly soul, inclined to compassion (Dorcas specifically mentions his kindness), helping the rebel Vodalus, then tending to the put-upon pooch Triskele (a swift short-cut back into the sympathies of the reader) and then to his beloved prisoner Thecla (Wolfe is great on names). Then again Severian isn’t above half-strangling another apprentice or coldly fulfilling his role as executioner. We never actually see Severian a-torturin’ in ‘Shadow’ but he can be cold as well as kind. As narrator of his passage from star apprentice to reviled outcast he throws forward a lot (notably to his position as Autarch, going to be interesting to see how that comes about), cites events he previously omitted and has characters referencing moments he skipped over (Dorcas states he was very sick after executing Agilus). He also abruptly severs the narrative at the end of ‘Shadow’ and warns us “It is no easy road” ahead. We leave him passing through a gigantic wall of black metal in the company of mysterious actor Dr Talos (Christoph Waltz), the giant Baldanders (Bernard Bresslaw), the voluptous actress Jolenta, Severian’s own new love Dorcas and Hethor, the requisite holy fool babbling cosmic gobbledegook. In Severian’s items list is his executioner’s sword Terminus Est and ‘the Claw of the Conciliator’, a cosmic gem that provides the title for novel two and much mystery.

‘The Expanse’ this is not. It takes a certain amount of work at the outset but it’s worth it for the way it takes up residence in your thoughts; I put the novel aside for a while then returned after finding I was mulling it over. If you don’t start getting goose bumps when the mysterious Father Inire starts talking of the lost secrets of faster than light travel then it’s probably not your bag. I feel ‘The Shadow Of The Torturer’ is one of those works of prose art that is wholly in and of itself. You have to approach it aware it’s not going to make many friendly concessions to you. It just is, and entirely successfully so. It’s an operatic cosmic vision set against the misery of human existence. “If you're killed this evening, I'll feel badly for a fortnight.”