Critical Mass

Some strange reference books have come from the science fiction world. Lately I've been fascinated by a series, still in progress, of rough guides to the difficult terrain of Gene Wolfe's obscure words and allusions in those remarkable multi-volumed novels The Book of the New Sun and The Book of the Long Sun. A Wolfean glossary was something I'd been tempted to start compiling myself, and it's a huge relief to find someone else doing the hard work....

Our hero is the industrious Michael Andre-Driussi, so far responsible for Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle, a hefty hardback, and the chapbooks Lexicon Urthus: Additions, Errata &cetera volumes I and II, The Quick and Dirty Guide to the Long Sun Whorl and Characters of the Long Sun Whorl. In preparation are three more Long Sun booklets covering Languages, Religion, and Maps & Miscellaneous, the whole series of Long Sun guides being the groundwork for an encyclopedia to be titled Gate of Horn, Book of Silk.

Why all this? Well, The Book of the New Sun has established itself as a great and magical work of science fiction whose magic comes in part from an extraordinary vocabulary that conveys the flavour of a distant future – when our Earth or "Urth" is very ancient – by means of real words and names from the past. The resulting deftly handled language is simultaneously strange and familiar-sounding, new and old.

Jack Vance used this technique in books like The Dying Earth, where "deodand" (in old English law, a chattel which is forfeit to the Crown for having been the instrument of someone's death) wittily becomes the name of a devouring wilderness monster. Wolfe borrows the same word to denote people exiled to the wilderness for monstrous but unspecified crimes.

In the Commonwealth of The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe delights in giving old-fashioned names to futuristic weaponry. Clumsy "pyrotechnic" beam weapons, the best that Urth can build for its soldiers, have names like contus (Roman spear) or korseke (medieval Italian pole-arm). More powerful and compact energy-guns based on interstellar technology are named for bygone firearms, like the arquebus, fusil and jezail. Students of Sherlock Holmes will remember that Dr Watson's wound, the one that migrated randomly between leg and shoulder, was from an Afghan "jezail bullet". Specially for the publishers of Odyssey, an advanced "restraint gun" which fires sticky, entangling webs goes under the name of a long, heavy 16th/17th-century firearm, the caliver.

No, readers needn't know the exact meanings of all these tasty words – Wolfe is adept at making it clear from context what's going on – but it's fun to see how assiduously Michael Andre-Driussi has tracked the obscurities down. He scores some coups, too. I hadn't twigged that all ordinary citizens of the Commonwealth (a geologically transformed South America, where the action of The Book of the New Sun takes place), with a few debatable exceptions, are named after saints. Even the hero Severian? Yes, Andre-Driussi has found five St Severians. The master torturers of Severian's guild, his doomed lover Thecla, his murderous female nemesis Agia, the villainous Vodalus ... they're all secretly saints.

Likewise Wolfe's cosmic villains – interstellar tyrants and monsters under the sea – are named for dark mythological beings like fire-breathing Typhon or Erebus the son of Chaos and Night; the extraterrestrial Hierodules ("holy slaves") who watch over the action are named for minor Greek gods; the sole representative of the Heirodules' masters has the name of a Kabbalistic archangel; and, a little joke, robot shiphands in the fifth book have names meaning "iron" in different languages: Sidero (Greek), Zelezo (Czech).

Lexicon Urthus digs out more, much more, most of it hard to find in ordinary dictionaries: history of weaponry, Biblical allusions, nautical lore, references to the Kabbala, a roster of extinct and exotic animals in the text (diatrymae are of course killer ostriches bred for the arena), ranks and titles and offices drawn from many languages, and echoes of many countries' myths. Wolfe knows a lot and has researched much more, and he seems to have inhabited his distant future in the same way that Patrick O'Brian seems to be reporting directly from the ships of the Napoleonic wars.

Fortunately for both the self-esteem of us onlookers and their own considerable modesty, neither Andre-Driussi nor Wolfe are perfect in their erudition. Wolfe's own elusive and tangential nonfiction book about The Book of the New Sun is The Castle of the Otter (the title under which the sf newsletter Locus mistakenly announced book four, The Citadel of the Autarch – and too good a title to waste). Here, talking about his lovingly culled word-hoard, he gracefully confesses that the baffling onegar is merely a misspelling of onager or wild ass (it also means a kind of siege engine). Later, near the end of book four of the Long Sun, the characters Marble and Mint mysteriously and disconcertingly seem to exchange places – a simple error which Wolfe and the copy-editor missed.

Meanwhile, Andre-Druissi's very first Lexicon Urthus errata sheet begins with the worry that even the title is "somewhat suspect. I don't know Latin but have reason to believe that the correct form would be Urthis." "And so I should jolly well think," said my wife the classical scholar.

I've had some fun of my own, nitpicking at the Lexicon ... though of course, if Andre-Driussi hadn't put in such a monumental amount of work, there'd be nothing to nitpick. He correctly identifies amaranthine as referring to that legendarily unfading and immortal flower the amaranth; but Wolfe's context involves giant women, "each finger tipped with an amaranthine talon", and undying fingernails sound a bit implausible. Amaranthine is also a colour-word indicating a dark reddish-purple, and I opined that the albino giantesses are wearing nail varnish.

We also had a merry argument about whether one of the Book's torture machines, "the apparatus ... supposed to letter whatever slogan is demanded into the client's flesh, but it is seldom in working order", is (as seemed blindingly obvious to me) a direct homage to Kafka's grisly story "In the Penal Colony". I won that debate, I think, but lost others where Michael Andre-Driussi's understanding of the text was deeper than mine.

If you have a taste for obscure allusions and unusual words, I recommend re-reading The Book of the New Sun with Lexicon Urthus to hand, looking up unfamiliar words and finding whether you agree with the relevant Andre-Driussi exegesis. (I've always wanted to write "exegesis" in a magazine column. This stuff is catching.) But let me also stress that the Book is a marvellous read even if you take all those unusual terms as sf coinages, invented by Wolfe and defined where necessary by surrounding context. He really is that good.

Wolfe's more recent and distantly linked tetralogy The Book of the Long Sun hasn't had as much time to settle in our minds and be clarified by re-reading. His joy in playing games with names continues, though. Readers of book one were slightly puzzled by childishly simple-seeming character names like Silk, Pike, Blood, Auk, Mint, Marble and Rose. Book two includes a cast list which demurely reveals what attentive readers had begun to suspect: that all males in the Long Sun's city of Viron are named for animals and animal parts or products, all women similarly for plants, and all "chems" or robots for minerals.

What about people whose names don't fit? There are spies and invaders from another city, Trivigaunte, where they have Arabic-sounding names; and there are the mysterious Fliers who float above the action, whose names are Gaelic. This leaves oddities who are initially hard to fit in to the naming rules of Viron, people called – for example – Trematode, Scleroderma, Simuliid and Oosik. Andre-Driussi, with help from his e-mail discussion team, has tracked them down as plants or animals: Trematode is a parasitic worm, Scleroderma a puffball fungus, Simuliid comes from the Simuliidae or black-gnat family of flies, and Oosik is an Inuit word meaning (here Wolfe must have been grinning uncontrollably) the penis bone of the walrus.

Mysteries remain. Is the briefly mentioned pawnshop-owner Sard a robot (because sard is a gemstone) or a human male (shortened form of sardine)? Meanwhile, one of the things you eventually notice about the corrupt city council of Viron is that they're all from the same nepotistic family, named for roughly similar small primates: Galago (bush-baby), Lemur, Loris, Potto, and Tarsier. Among non-animal names, the electronic god of the Long Sun shows his megalomania by calling himself Pas, masculine form of the Greek word for "all". It's better known in the neuter: Pan.

Again, all this fascinating onomastics – the study of names, another word much loved by Wolfe – can be ignored while being gripped by the slam-bang action plot and narrative complications of The Book of the Long Sun. But even when not consciously noticed, such attention to detail adds an extra layer of polish and conviction.

I look forward to more books by Gene Wolfe (who is following up the Long Sun tetralogy with a trilogy titled The Book of the Short Sun) and more erudite commentary on them by Michael Andre-Driussi. The latter's useful guidebooks are all published by Sirius Press, PO Box 460430, San Francisco, CA 94146-0430, USA; prices from this address or by e-mail from

It's more fun than Trivial Pursuit, honest.