Sunday, October 23, 2016

SUNS SUNS SUNS: The Claw of the Conciliator, 16 - 20

We rejoin Severian, Jonas and the resident/visitors in the Antechamber as they are recovering from the strange attack of blue "lightning" (how Severian interprets electricity throughout these books), green flashes, giant saucer-eyed faces, and laughing women. As we learn going into Chapter 16, this is rather a common occurrence, more or less, in the Antechamber, because like privileged young jerks throughout time and space, there's a bunch of young Exultants who think it's fun to go into the Antechamber late at night and whack away at its denizens with electrical whips. Head-Thecla reveals that she was once part of such parties, and doesn't seem particularly remorseful about it.

But more importantly, Jonas. This section of the novel is mostly concerned with Jonas, who was already having a rough time of it once he realized that it's very likely that lots of the people in the Antechamber are descended from a shipmate of his, if not of Jonas himself -- and that they're up to about nine generations removed from said shipmate. Timey wimey, yo. I'd wig, too.

So Jonas is now in full-on fugue state, and his dialogue makes much more sense to us than it does to Severian. "We must get power to the compressors before the air goes bad." "I feel weight!" "It must be only the lights." He's flashing back to his time as the crew of a spaceship, most likely from way, way, way back in Urth's past, at the beginning of the Great and Bountiful Human Empire, as it were, but maybe somewhat also on Tzadkiel's ship (which we'll get to when we get to Urth of the New Sun, of course, but it's the main reason for all the timey-wimey-ness of this here story).

Severian, meanwhile, is taking this opportunity to discover a thing or two about how Jonas is put together, as he tries, surreptitiously, to heal him with the Claw, which only helps a little bit because, well, because Jonas. Severian has long realized that Jonas has metal parts, most notably an entire hand of metal, and I've been referring to Jonas as a cyborg, but here we finally see that Jonas is mostly metal, and, once he's calmed down a bit, he tells Severian about the spaceship crash that landed him on Urth, in which at least one Urthbound human died, and Jonas was badly damaged. There weren't any spare parts to fix him, so he, uh, had to use the biological parts at hand. There's a great bit later in this section when Severian, watching Jonas working with one "regular" and one "prosthetic" hand, realizes that the flesh and blood hand is the prosthetic hand. That always just makes me chuckle.

Jonas more or less seen to for now, Severian starts looking around, and finds a peach-colored scarf with a very lovely scent, and is stashing it away to keep when a little girl (we learn three novels later that her name is most likely Oringa*) tells him that not only is it bad luck to keep what one finds (says who?), but that probably the Exultant jerk force is going to come back for it at some point and it wouldn't be much fun for the guy who has it. In the way of little girls, she quickly changes the subject and wants to know about Severian's own clothes, and he is very frank with her about who he is and why he wears black. She then describes to him an old-fashioned funeral scene that is a story told and retold in the Antechamber, and that Robert Borski et al have decided must be a description of John F. Kennedy's funeral, because Baby Boomer narratives are the most important ever, as well we know, and so of course they'd still be told millennia later.**

Anyway, then Jonas wakes up and finally figures out where and when he actually is, and, furthermore, that he may have pieced together more about the where than anyone has for a long time. This big room used to be lots of little rooms, and has a dropped ceiling, and ok, this is as good a time as any for me to play around with an idea I've had about what Nessus, or at least the Citadel, actually is.

It's elementary Wolfeiana to notice that the Matachin Tower that houses the Guild of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence was originally a spaceship. But perhaps the entire Citadel is, too? The way it's partly underground, the way it seems to be so many spaces at the same time (kind of like China Mieville's two conurbations in the same space in The City & The City), the Archives that melt into the House Absolute (as we discover a bit later in this section, when Severian is blundering around looking for his sword and meets the curator/painting cleaner Rudesind again) that connect to the Matachin Tower and might at least be partially beneath the city of Nessus... Being the Alastair Reynolds fan I am, I always love the idea of a giant spaceship crashing onto a planet and being repurposed into a human habitat. What if the Citadel is a repurposed future/past/whatever version of Tzadkiel's ship? Or, if not Tzadkiel's, then whatever ship Jonas crashed in, and/or whatever vessel brought the enormous aliens, Abaia and Erebus and Scylla, to Urth?


Jonas is quickly on to other topics, like feudal politics as he learned about them from a book on one of the ships he's traveled on. At first the reader might think it was some kind of dry history, but then he more or less directly quotes a line from very early on in Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll's second Alice book. "The White Knight is sliding down the poker. He balances very badly, as the king's notebook told him." In Through the Looking Glass, Alice wrote this, counterfeiting the White King's handwriting, in his little memorandum book, just for fun, her way of maybe imposing her will, for a moment, on the narrative? Recall, too, that the White Knight is depicted as having a big and bushy white mustache, kind of, maybe, like Gene Wolfe's own... is this maybe a reference to the storyteller maybe not always being who we think it is? Possibly as a way of reminding us that some of the narrative we're getting is from Thecla's point of view, buried in Severian's? But meanwhile, Jonas has moved on to babbling about the founding of the Hapsburg dynasty and then we're interrupted for mealtime!

As the Antechamber residents are gobbling their pastries and coffee (that's the kind of fare they get, because this isn't a prison, but a waiting room, Nicarete reminds us), the guards shove in a new "guest" and it's Hethor. The Antechamberians soon carry him off to get his life story out of him, and Severian and Jonas sit down to eat... and Jonas starts wigging out again. This time, to calm him, Severian pulls out the Brown Book (I think this is Tales of Urth and Sky), which he kept from the collection he'd fetched for Thecla back when she was a living prisoner, and picks a story from it "at random" to read from.

This, "The Tale of the Student and His Son" is a mash-up of Jorge Luis Borges' "The Circular Ruins" and the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. The monster is a narrative stand-in for Abaia, and triples the roles of King Minos, Daedalus and the Minotaur. A princess, his rebelling daughter, plays the Ariadne role and probably is meant to point us to Juturna and the rebel undines.*** Anyway, the story does the job of calming everybody down, and everybody decides to get some shut eye, except for Severian, who starts thinking about insomnia in various ways and eventually Thecla's thoughts on the subject surface but then "she" realizes where they are and next thing we know, hey, Severian knows where the Exultant Jerk Squad's secret door is and "soon" Severian and Jonas are off to explore other bits of the House Absolute.

After lots of wandering and discussion of Jonas' nature, which I've already talked about above, they find a strange room, which proves to be Father Inire's chamber of "mirrors" (though, as Severian observes, they reflect and bend, not just light, but reality) and Jonas uses it to disappear, perhaps never to return, though I'm going to be looking for him among the chems on the Long Sun Whorl, and a sort of amalgamated version of him is going to rejoin Severian later on in the form of the resurrected solider, Miles. But that's later.

Severian then wanders around some more, alone, hoping to find Dr. Talos et al (whom he saw in passing just as he and Jonas were being captured, so he knows there here at the House Absolute somewhere!) encountering the khabit version of Thea (last seen in the brothel "The House Azure" where prostitutes "resembling" (or maybe sometimes "being") famous exultant women are there for paying customers' entertainment, spends quite a lot of time (with the "help" of Odilo the Steward) searching for the disused closet where the praetorians stashed Terminus Est when he was captured, and then blunders into Rudesind, still cleaning paintings and insisting he's doing so in the same place where Severian first met him long, long ago. Severian protests it was in the archives, this is the House Absolute. To-may-to, to-mah-to, Rudesind basically says, and while he goes back to work, Severian blunders into a painting! Sort of!

See, it turns out that when the House Absolute was built, Father Inire had the walls cunningly fashioned to hold and hide very shallow, dimensionally weird extra rooms, amounting to a whole "Second House," as a strange, androgynous and weirdly familiar person he encounters in the shallow side-room explains to him. Who is this person? Why, it's the pimp from the House Azure! And thus, Severian has met Autarch Appian for a third time.

And Appian has a doozy of a segue. When Severian asks the way back to the garden where he is pretty sure Dr. Talos et al are, "Even supposing that I knew the way, why would I reveal it to you? Many will seek to flee by that road if the pelagic argosy sights land."


*The saint she's named for was a traveling miracle worker in 14th century Italy. She doesn't work any miracles here, unless you consider getting Severian to explain himself a little to be a miracle, or somehow seeing Thecla in his place for a moment to be a miracle, so this is one of those characters that I'm always wondering maybe turns up "in disguise" somewhere else later on? Or that we've already met? Kind of like the dark haired woman in the pale gown whom Vodalus and Thea were harvesting from the graveyard the night Severian saved them. Too early to be Thecla, who at that point was still at large and not even a prisoner of the Torturers, but... are they just pulling random bodies out to have for their alzabo-feasts, or is that someone important? No one seems to have any good suggestions for who that is, either. This kind of stuff just drives me nuts.

**Though as these people are likely descended from the survivors of a timey-wimey spaceship crash, this funeral cortege might not be quite so old a story for them; those original survivors might have been members of my own generation, say, or Millennials -- kids who grew up with Boomer parents who imposed these narratives on them first hand.

***Which, speaking of the rebel undines, I've developed a new theory about them, too. They aren't necessarily interested in the larger issues of the New Sun and the redemption of humanity or any of that nonsense; what if instead they are simply sick of Abaia's shit, don't want their babies to be warlords, and just want to go do their own thing? That's right: Undines: Fury Road, bitches.

Hey, Abaia, looking for this?

But of course, oh shit, that means that...

Max is Severian -- he starts off his adventure in a big ugly mask! -- and Furiosa is Jonas the cyborg. I just blew my own mind.

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