Wednesday, May 6, 2015

SUNS, SUNS, SUNS - Claw of the Conciliator, 6-10


So how's that for a lacuna, my pups? A little over two years since I left Severian in the dark at the end of Chapter 5. I'm not going to waste time with excuses. Stuff. Reasons. Whatever. Anyway, this post is continuing a project I started a few years ago, originally as a read-along with friends, taking a very close look at Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle. To see the older posts, click here and start reading from the bottom.

But so, Severian has gone off on a wild Thecla chase and wound up blundering into Clark Ashton Smith territory, which he is just starting to realize as Chapter 6 opens. He's scaled a Mt. Rushmore-like cliff (as we'll learn later, whole mountain ranges on Urth have been sculpted into the likenesses of Autarchs past, and I like to imagine that by Severian's very late day, pretty much every mountain or rock that's still standing above water has been carved into a monument to some jerk or other. It's the way far future, yo. The continents aren't even the same. Etc. But really it's just me being a little gleeful about that image of water falling out of a high cave mouth "like saliva from the lips of a petrified titan". But he's going to see some petrified titan lips soon enough, anyway, so why not now.), entered a cave through which a stream is flowing, and is heading upstream into the dark. D'oh.

Just in case his adventure somehow actually does involve Thecla, he calls out her name a few times. She, uh, does not answer.

But instead, clouds of glowing mist "of an impure yellowish green" appear. First one, then a few, then many. He never encounters this mist, though, because it isn't there. There is some truly bravura scene and mood setting at work here that I don't want to spoil for first time readers, so I'm just going to jump ahead to the serious Klarkashtoniana -

ATTACK OF THE BIOLUMINESCENT MAN-APES who, Severian realizes, are still pretty much human and definitely as sentient and self-aware as he himself is... and they are fully aware of their condition: "As the old are imprisoned in rotting bodies, as women are locked in weak bodies that make them prey for the filthy desires of thousands*, so these men were wrapped in the guise of lurid apes, and knew it." But lest you think this is going to be some kind of compassionate reaching-across-the-species-gap kind of feel good moment, one of the man-apes comes at Severian with a mace made out of a thighbone, another comes up from behind him, and it is ON.

Of course Severian slices up all kinds of man-ape ass, and the carnage only stops when he falls over and the Claw of the Conciliator falls out of his boot-top (he's taken to storing it there since so many people seem to be so good at sneaking things out of his murse), and it's glowing like a freaking Silmaril. It reveals what Severian has been suspecting in the lead-up to and during the fight, namely that this mine he's touring contains a big buried city** full of stacked silver ingots, and that the man-apes are holding off their attack, not out of fear, but out of reverence for the Claw. Whether they are doctrinaire believers in the Conciliator/New Sun theology is never examined, but my guess is that they are, they recognize the Claw, and who knows, may even in some fashion recognize Severian.

Meanwhile, in the azure light of the claw, he kind of recognizes them, too:
...their faces were the faces of human beings. When I saw them thus, I knew of the eons of struggles in the dark from which their fangs and saucer eyes and flap ears had come to be. We, so the mages say, were apes once... Old men return to childish ways when at last the years becloud their minds. May it not be that mankind will return (as an old man does) to the decayed image of what he once was, if at last the old sun dies and we are left scuffling over bones in the dark? I saw our future -- one future at least.
The future if nobody succeeds in bringing the New Sun.

But so okay, here's as good a place as any to get into this a bit more. I remember the first time I read through these books, and I thought the Conciliator was a really odd and esoteric way to refer to a prophet or messiah, and then really just sort of filed it under stuff to maybe think about again someday. But of course after, I think, three re-reads (and this makes a fourth) I'm having a serious DUR moment about it, and maybe some of you guys missed it, too. If nothing else, it's good to be honest. I'm not a Gene Wolfe expert, just someone who really digs his stuff and likes to talk about it, so, yeah, it was only this time around that I realized why, not only the revered holy man of the past is specifically called the Conciliator, but why it makes perfect sense that Severian winds up being both the Conciliator*** and the bringer of the New Sun. Urth is in the situation it is, a Dying Earth way before its time, because its biped children made like they were in a T-Bone Burnett song and colonized already inhabited planets and worse, and so some of the other beings/civilizations wronged by those jerks fought back and punished the Urth by introducing a black hole or something that is prematurely killing off the good old sun that you and I and Gene Wolfe are living under. Except, because said beings/civilizations weren't quite the jerks that we were, they left Urth a way out, if we proved to have been misjudged: the New Sun.

And how might we prove ourselves misjudged? We're going to need a Conciliator (i.e. an arbitrator between parties in a dispute). And lo, though the one lived centuries before the other, the Conciliator and the New Sun are the same dude, because Tzadkiel is so wibbly wobbly timey wimey that he makes that other guy look like an apprentice watch repairman.

So yeah, dur. As you all are probably yelling at me right now. But hey.

So anyway, back to the Claw and the man-apes. While the latter are admiring the former, and Severian is trying to back away and escape, Severian realizes that they are not alone. Yes I'm totally thinking of the Balrog right now. But this is Gene Wolfe, so the Balrog is never onscreen (or at least not right now). All we get is a loud noise, "a step that might have been the walking of a tower on the Final Day**** when it is said all the cities of Urth will stride forth to meet the dawn of the New Sun."

And lo, just like the goblins in Moria, the man-apes want none of this ish and flee. Wisely, so does Severian, who, by the way, notes with interest that once the man-apes are gone, the Claw's light goes out. Now, some guys might interpret this as the light only shining when it's needed to scare away the baddies, but what Severian concludes is that "it had flamed for them and not for me." Perhaps because they believe sincerely, and at this stage of the story, Severian just thinks he's some schmoe trying to rescue his dead-but-maybe-not-but-actually-dead-but-living-on-in-his-head-no-really-she-totally-is-he-just-hasn't-gotten-to-that-bit-yet girlfriend? And here endeth Chapter Six. Phew!

And thus we come to very probably my least favorite bit in the novel, if not in BotNS overall. Chapter Seven starts off as a breathlessly exciting escape!.... but soon Severian, ever having to justify his actions and tell us he's not a Bad Guy, mediates a bit on cowardice and bravery, which leads him to recall a time when he witnessed one of his mentors being cowardly.

The reminiscence reads as banal-if-you-can-accept-professional-torturing banal, but then, but then... We find out that the cowardice on display is in the mentor's having been unwilling to directly sexually abuse a Client (prisoner) as ordered, and deciding to use a big iron dildo instead (this made all the more creepy and chilly by Severian's comparing the way the Master smacks the dildo against his palm to the way the man-apes smacked their clubs against their palms before combat). Yuck.

But anyway, escape! But he's no sooner or of the cave than someone is shooting fiery projectiles at him! Of course it's Agia!***** Of course he defeats her and her henchmen, but then wait! A man-ape shows up and I hate this part, too, because the man-ape in question is newly missing a hand ("I recognized the clean cut of Terminus Est"), and fixes Severian with a "beseeching look" that breaks my heart but just leaves our hero speculating about why the man-ape hasn't bled to death yet.

Ugh.

Anyway, the poor thing just wanted another look at the Claw, which Severian gives him. Agia gets all excited to see this thing again and who knows what would have happened had not good old Jonas showed up. Much talk ensues, chiefly of the Agia-shaking-her-fist-at-the-meddling-man-ape variety (she wrote the of-course fake Thecla letter), and Severian lets her assume he's going to kill her now she's at his mercy, but as she's telling at him to just do it already, he and Jonas sneak off into the night.

Within the context of the chapter, we are to understand, I think, that it's cowardice and not mercy that stayed our man's hand. Or at least that that's what he wants us to think.

At any rate, he's onto bigger, if not better things. Kind of literally. Telling Jonas all about his adventure in the mine, he starts pumping Jonas for information about what the not-Balrog might have been, because its presence and barely-glimpsed nature remind Severian both of a story Jonas told about the strange "soldiers" living inside the Wall of Nessus, and of the stories Severian and Thecla read together back in the Tower from a book called The Wonders of Urth and Sky. 

Yes, it's all about the megatherians. Jonas, who has admitted to being some kind of outsider, knows a bit about those, enough to conclude that whatever's in the mine it's not one, because "Their actual size is so great that... they can never leave the water -- their own weight would crush them." So it's at best a servant of theirs in the dark. Severian asks how mere puny humans could possibly defeat beings who are supposedly destined to devour the continents when the sun goes out, but Jonas doesn't really have an answer for that, or at least none that we get, because soon Severian is off on another of his extended journeys down memory lane, rhapsodizing about what it was like to have sex with Thecla, recalling in detail the dream of the undines he had the night he shared a bed with Baldanders (in which he maddeningly tells us that he now understands why Abaia and Erebus have decided to suck him into the battle over the New Sun, but doesn't bother to tell us anything of this revelation), and then BOOM! Kidnapped!

He and Jonas get bundled off, on the back of a baluchether (and don't get me started on this. I had a minor obsession with these creatures, or at least their prehistoric equilvalents, hornless rhinos 20 feet tall, the biggest land mammals that ever were, when I was a kid), past a huge field full of disturbed graves and strewn with perfectly preserved corpses so it all looks like a failed Rapture, to parts unknown. Furthering the post-apocalyptic feel of things (and, of course, indulging in a bit of foreshadowing), Severian, reminded by the baluchether's smooth, silent gait of travel by boat over calm water, tells Jonas "I feel now that I'm traveling through the Citadel in a flood, solemnly rowed." Not until Ushas, buddy.

But despite this moment of weird tranquility, Severian doesn't go quietly. He waits until one of his captors tries and fails to draw Terminus Est from its sheath (there's a trick to it; it involves both hands moving in opposite directions sideways, one holding the sheath and the other the sword hilt), screws up and hurts himself and another guard,  and lickety split starts effecting a slicing and dicing escape from the howdah on the back of the beast. He's just about completely free when they arrive at their destination, which means he has really just managed to make a spectacular entrance to the camp of his hero, Vodalus. Remember Vodalus? This is a song about Vodalus.******

Now, recall that Severian saved Vodalus' life way back at the beginning of Shadow of the Torturer, because Vodalus does. Being a hardened leader of men (and having grown up in the upper class), instead of saying thank you, he tells our boy in fuligin that he has a Seekrit Mission for him. Come have some dinner.

But first, a kind of pre-dinner, Vodalus and his consort, Thea (half-sister of Thecla), outline their philosophy of opposition to the Autarch in terms that even Severian (and we) can understand: The Autarch is complicit in keeping humanity backward and Urthbound, but humanity once ruled "the daughters of the sun" and other places, and should again. Never mind that the megatherians and all the other aliens disagree and will destroy our sun if we try to make that happen; Vodalus does not concern himself with such. For him, it's purely a political matter. And Severian is potentially important in this. But we'll talk more about that at dinner.

Later on, but still before this mysteriously important dinner, Severian gives Thea details about Thecla's last days, and in return, Thea gives Severian a clue about what's so special about the upcoming dinner. The "analeptic alzabo", derived from the gland of an alien carrion eater, is to be consumed. And alzabos, when they consume human flesh, know "for a time the speech and ways of human beings." She hints that thus is somehow going to help them know more about the past, which they must "if our allies and masters who wait in the countries beneath the waves are to triumph."*******

Something weird is going to happen.

*No, I'm not sure how I feel about this observation.

**Every time I get tempted to delve into what city this might be, I get tangled up in all the intricacies of the decades of discussion about this and ALL THE OTHER MINITUIAE at Urth.net and I sprout 17 new grey hairs. But it's probably a city from our era. A lot depends on what continent you think Severian is wandering on. The prevailing theory is that it's South America (and that his city of origin is either a Dying Earth Buenos Aires or a Dying Earth Santiago), but you can find unorthodox souls who think it's wild stuff like Africa but drifted up to where Europe was and the Mediterranean shrank down to a river and that river is Gyoll (where Severian almost drowned among the nenuphars and probably first met Juturna way at the beginning of Shadow of the Torturer). Hey, have at it. Me, I'm punting on the geography question.

***Yeah, yeah, spoiler for first time readers, but I'm pretty sure I lost the first-time readers a long time ago. I doubt much of any of these posts have made sense to first timers.

****I always want to think, despite Jonas' coming assertion, that this is maybe an unnamed non-aquatic megatherian. Nowhere is it stated that I can find that all of them are the same size, so why can't one be vastly huge but not so huge he/she/it is confined to water. The image of the walking tower presented here makes me think of Abaia, who, when he makes his appearance later on, making his way up the Gyoll, is mistaken for a really big ship. But that's just his head. Ship head, building head, hey, why not? But Robert Borski thinks this not-Balrog is a figure referred to as the Guardian of the Lost Archives (the Lost Archives being the subject of a story told elsewhere in BotNS in which various attempts to preserve all human knowledge have led to some autarch or other confiscating all of the handwritten documents that were created when the machines began to fail, and stashing them in an undisclosed place and setting some kind of big scary something to keep interlopers out (for their own good, of course. Don't need people rediscovering space travel, now, do we?). A something that Severian and the man-apes accidentally woke in their scuffle. OF COURSE the two need not be mutually exclusive, for who has a greater interest in confining humanity to earth than the megatherians? So perhaps one being posted like a cherubim with a flaming sword isn't terribly beneath them?

*****You didn't think she was just going to let Severian execute her brother without turning into a vengeful stalker, did you?

******Sorry not sorry, Arlo.

*******This remark of hers used to really bake my noodle. Vodalus is opposed to the Autarch. The Autarch is a failed New Sun candidate who now seems to be cooperating with the megatherians in confining humanity. The megatherians live in the ocean. So how can they be allies or masters of the likes of Vodalus and Thea? I can only conclude that Vodalus is somewhat in league with some alien rebels, i.e. whomever Juturna seems to be siding with? But of course that might be way too simplistic. Abaia et al are a punishment detail, our jailers. But does that mean they are totally inimical to us? Perhaps they are hoping that we can reform. Perhaps they don't want to destroy the Sun and devour the continents and they're simply under orders to do so if we prove irredeemable. Perhaps they (or some of them) want us to succeed, to reform, and helping Severian and Vodalus is just their thumb on the scales? I think I've just convinced myself of this. How about you?

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