Fantasy Terrain and the Book of the New Sun

I’m wandering off on a tangent from this post. That post was mainly considering geographic elements as plot elements in Tolkien and Tolkienesque works. Having reached lakes and oceans my head went to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. Now I haven’t read it in a long time, therefore beware of errors and misunderstandings on my part. Also, if you haven’t the books then there are sort of spoilers (in so far as it can have spoilers – arguably the specific events don’t matter). [Also: the auto-correct keeps changing “Urth” to “Ruth”. I think I got them all but if you see a reference to Ruth, I didn’t add a new character – it should say “Urth”.]

Arguably, the novels in The Book of the New Sun aren’t fantasy at all but science fiction. The setting is the far future and the story concerns alien intervention in the long-term future of Earth (or rather Urth). But let us not stand on ceremony or taxonomy today. For most intents and purposes this is a fantasy story about one man (with a very big sword) on a journey of discovery which involves some freaky monsters and technology that may as well be magic. It is also late enough in the evolution of sub-genres that Wolfe knew what he was doing when he deployed tropes and themes from both science fiction and heroic fantasy.

The story is also another good example of the deployment of terrain and geography to shape the plot and atmosphere of the story while being geographically plausible. Wolfe doesn’t invent a terrain though, instead, he borrows one wholesale.

It isn’t hard to recognise a chunk of South America in the books. Various clues point to the setting being in the Southern Hemisphere (warm jungles to the north for example). With only a little more thought the geography more-or-less matches a cross-section running from (plausibly) Buenos Aires* to Bolivia and Peru. Starting a huge sprawling city and that mouth of a great river, the story takes in grasslands, jungle, and huge mountains. There is a city that like La Paz clings to the sides of a steep valley, there are Incan like ruins and enormous mountains.

Late in his journey, Severian finds himself at a huge inland lake high on a plateau that is indistinguishable from lake Titicaca down to communities on floating reed islands. Although oddly it is possibly the body of water in the novels that is the most straightforwardly a body of water. Elsewhere, the novel treats rivers and lakes as boundaries between earth and the heavens. ‘Heavens’ here working both in the sense of an afterlife but also in the sense of the realm of stars. The metaphor is taken literally by Severian who does not clearly distinguish between space travel and ocean voyages and further unlined by spaceships apparently resembling sailing ships (made clearer in the quasi-sequel Urth of the New Sun).

In the story, life/death is marked by an early event in which Severian nearly drowns in the river as a child (or maybe does drown). Later, in the story when he falls into an ornamental lake he rescues a young woman (Dorcas) who, from context and based on later events, is probably a revived corpse (and possibly his grandmother).

The cosmic aspects of bodies of water appear in encounters between Severian and being connected with the Undines – enormous cosmic beings whose role in events is unclear. They appear to be antagonists but on occasions appear to be helping Severian.

Looking at my last post on fantasy geography there are differences and similarities.

Mountains are not obstacles as such. This also fits with a different cultural perspective on mountains. Whereas Tolkien treats mountains as wilderness, the mountains in the Book of the New Sun contain aspects of civilisation. In a memorable section, Severian discovers the mausoleum/sanctuary of Typhon – a figure from a more assertive and aggressive period of Urth’s history. The location is deep in the mountains and is a literal pinnacle and a metaphorical pinnacle of technology.

Mountains could be just mountains but plot geography also means that mountains echo multiple tropes based on cultural preconceptions about different mountain ranges. Tolkien’s mountains are a British perspective on the European Alps – barriers that separate one country from the next. Wolfe draws on the Andes which were the home to an extensive civilisation that used the varying vertical climate to create an empire that could span north-to-south. The Himalayas have their own set of tropes and myths and cultural stereotypes based on everything from actual history to Orientalism and colonial distortions.

On the other hand, forests play a similar role to Tolkien’s forests in that they are a place of both danger and transformation. In particular, Severian changes in nature in forest/jungle encounters but forests are also used to indicate a change in other ways.

The life/death aspect of journey’s underground is less distinct and overshadowed by the more overt life/death aspect of rivers and lakes in the books. There are two (that I can recall) cases of a journey underground. The clearest one is in The Claw of Conciliator when Severian is tricked into entering a cave. Inside the cave are strange man-apes creatures, ruins and some other huge thing which we never see. Although there are revelations about the possible powers Severian has gained, there is an odd subversion here. Rather than being changed, the journey in the cave returns Severian back to the story and the events which sent him to the cave. In the same book, Severian later finds himself imprisoned in the royal palace The House Absolute, which exists mainly underground. Here, the life/death/rebirth elements play out in some ways more conventionally (in so far as the book can be said to do anything conventionally other than its sexism).

The books do not come with a map and despite being a story that layers puzzles on metaphors on lies on top of time paradoxes and theology, the geography and the physical journey are uncomplex and plausible. The setting has a city on a river near an ocean and inland there are more settlements and eventually mountains. To the north is a jungle and a war. The terrain changes with the story and with the journey. The journey itself is a huge loop physically (ignoring metaphorical and time-travelling loops of other kinds).

*[Although one notable map places the city of Nessus on the Pacific side of the Andes]


6 responses to “Fantasy Terrain and the Book of the New Sun”

  1. Ugh, this post made me pine for a re-read, something I did maybe three years ago. I don’t have time! I’m not sure if I read it somewhere or not, but I also had the impression that the events likely take place in South America. I wasn’t sure if the story took place too far in the future for that to be possible, though.


    • In a sense it doesn’t matter whether it is literally South America or whether it is South America-like place.

      The book is flavored with other elements that echo South America: references to Borges for example but also the syncretic Catholicism elements in Severian’s world.


  2. I once came up with a theory that some of the geographical puzzles in BOTNS could be solved by supposing that the direction of the world’s rotation had changed, so that while people still used ‘east’ for the point where the sun rose (sorry, the point where the horizon sunk below the sun), that wasn’t the same as what we call east today. (We’d have to suppose they didn’t similarly change the reference of ‘north’ and ‘south’.)

    The date of the events is very hard to work out: I believe Wolfe claimed at one point it was only twenty thousand years in the future, but there are some indications that suggest a lot more than that. (It’s also possible that it’s not our future, but the future of a world like ours in another cycle.)


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