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As I Please: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters Volume III by George Orwell (1968) 435 p.

The third volume in Orwell’s collected non-fiction, As I Please covers the period from 1943 to 1945. At this time Orwell was working as literary editor at a magazine called Tribune, and wrote a regular column called “As I Please” in which he wrote, naturally, about whatever he pleased. This volume takes not only its title but the bulk of its material from that column, and as a result, it’s probably the best in the compendium so far. While the previous volume was heavily political, Orwell’s regular editorial columns wander over all sorts of subjects and never go for longer than a few pages. Orwell discusses the progress of the war, political feeling of all kinds in England, anti-American sentiment amongst the British, the use of language in newspapers, Burma, the drinking of tea, nationalism, and all kinds of things. One of my favourite essays occurs near the beginning, in which Orwell describes his favourite pub, “The Moon Under Water,” only to reveal that it is wholly fictional, checking the ten aspects he thinks the ideal pub should have. (A restaurant in Melbourne has named itself after the essay, and its decor cheerfully violates the “modern miseries” Orwell was against.)

I mentioned in my last review that I was keeping an eye out for the first mention of the Holocaust, but I’m still unsure whether I’ve found it. Orwell mentions that beastly things were going on in the German concentration camps, but it’s unclear whether the scope of the crimes were well-known to the rest of the world – indeed, Orwell mentions it in an essay describing how, because most people didn’t want to hear about it, the knowledge “slid off” them. It’s important to bear in mind throughout this compendium that Orwell was writing for his own time, not for history, and takes for granted the reader’s pre-existing knowledge. (For example, I imagine Hiroshima would have been a day that shocked the world, but Orwell mentions it only in passing, in letters and essays on other topics, written weeks or months after it happened.)

Overall, this volume was good stuff as usual. It’s a shame Orwell didn’t keep a diary during the latter part of the war, since that was one of the most enjoyable parts of the last volume, but I suppose that’s up to him.

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe (1981) 301 p.

This is going to be the kind of series that’s difficult to review, because the books are much the same as each other – indeed, I’m not sure why Wolfe even bothered to split one very large books into four smaller ones. The Claw of the Conciliator picks up shortly after The Shadow of the Torturer, with Severian having left the city of Nessus but been separated from his travelling companions.

The tone of the series continues to be used to enhance the sense of memoir, and grant a sense of arcane wonder to Severian’s mysterious world, but it comes at a price to plot and character. As with the first book, things seem to merely happen, with very little indication of a developing narrative – or, on Severian’s part, any form of motive or free will. It reminds me in that sense of a classic play, or some other form of high literature, in which the events of the story are somewhat less than clear. Nonetheless, Wolfe’s future Earth is intriguing enough to keep me reading, and I was consistently impressed at the way futuristic technology – ranging from teleportation to robots to the terraforming of the moon – is reinterpreted by Severian’s people as something bordering on magic. Much of the context is hidden below baroque language, allusion and implications, and although the story can be difficult to follow, these are books that reward careful reading. Next up is The Sword of the Lichtor.

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe (1980) 303 p.

When I was researching acclaimed fantasy series towards the end of 2011, trying to get back into the genre, two names came up more than anything else: A Song of Ice And Fire, and The Book of the New Sun. With the TV series spurring its popularity, last year was clearly the time to read A Song of Ice And Fire, and I’m glad I devoted much of my reading time in 2012 to digesting George R.R. Martin’s five-book epic. Now, though, I look forward to reading Gene Wolfe’s much more manageable four-book series. (Actually, having just finished The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book of the series, I must warn that it doesn’t even attempt to reach any kind of conclusion, and I’m glad that I have The Claw of the Conciliator on hand so I can continue immediately).

Wolfe’s series is very different from Martin’s. A Game of Thrones is set in a largely traditional fantasy world, and achieved prominence through Martin’s inversion of genre tropes. The Shadow of the Torturer is set in the real world, in the far future, after who knows how many civilisations have risen and fallen. (It’s not really relevant, given that apparently no remnants of modern civilisation remain, but from the vague details dropped here and there I suspect it takes place somewhere in Argentina.) It’s therefore technically science fiction, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call it fantasy, given its diction and tone. Unusually for a fantasy novel, it’s narrated in first person, by Severian, a young apprentice at the guild of torturers in the city of Nessus.

The first half of the novel plays out extremely well, detailing Severian’s life in the guild and the circumstances leading up to his departure. The second half of the novel, covering what happens to him after he leaves, is unfortunately not as enjoyable. Severian has a destination and a purpose in mind, but is led about at the whim of strangers and keeps encountering people and places which have a bizarre episodic nature to them. There’s a lot of apparently irrelevant scenes and deus ex machina, only some of which are resolved by the end of the novel. The Shadow of the Torturer is, however, clearly the first book in a larger work, and hopefully the future books will improve on this.

Wolfe’s writing style – or Severian’s writing style, rather – is very different from the bog standard fantasy prose one finds elsewhere. This is clearly “literary” fantasy, which means that it’s often bogged down with philosphical meandering and dream sequences that probably have a deep symbolic meaning I couldn’t be bothered ferreting out. On the plus side, however, it also makes Severian’s future one of the more interesting fictional worlds I’ve read about, purely because of the way Wolfe uses his first-person narrator to carefully drop intriguing details. Early in the novel, for example, Severian is describing the Citadel at the centre of the city, a massive and ancient structure where he and many other guild members reside, and casually mentions that “the examination room was the propulsion chamber of the original structure.” Equally fascinating are the references to “the pale cacogens who sometimes visit Urth from the farther stars.” Then there is the concept within the series’ title itself, The Book of the New Sun – it becomes apparent, again not through explicit statements but rather mentioned in passing, that the sun is dimming and dying; Severian mentions a structure reaching up into the visible stars during a scene that takes place at midday, and characters seem to hold some prophesised, possibly religious belief that a “New Sun” will one day come (to the best of my recollection, this is only mentioned twice).

Heightening this technique is Wolfe’s brilliant use of language, which he discusses in a brief afterword, saying that he could have “saved [myself] a great deal of labour by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so.” The Shadow of the Torturer is full of terms like peltast and fiacre and chatelaine, which have the effect of lending a foreign air, as the made-up words of a fantasy novel would, but which are perfectly real words (at least, most of them are – googling a few of them only turns up sites referencing the novel, whatever Wolfe claims, though perhaps they’re from another language.) And despite taking place in the real world, there’s still plenty of exotic fantasy, as the genetic engineering of some past civilisation has resulted in strange beasts and altered humans, and – as any science fiction reader knows – “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The Shadow of the Torturer presents a fascinating fantasy/sci-fi world in an excellent style. Whether it tells a good story or not is a matter of taste. Personally, I found the second half a little too rambling, a little too aimless, a little too strange, and the authorial voice which works so well at creating a world often stumbled when it came to imparting a sense of urgency and presence in the narrative. Severian is writing about the events from some point in the future; although it wasn’t so much this narrative method as it was the sense that the plot was unfolding not in a natural manner, but rather by the iron fist of the author. (I’m actually quite interested to see how Wolfe employs Severian’s future vantage point in the future; at one point in this book, not even very far into it, he casually mentions that he is now “on the throne.”) I can’t say I found The Shadow of the Torturer easy to read, or that it was always enthralling, but I did find it refreshingly original and I definitely look forward to reading the rest of the series.

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February 2013