Sovereignty in The Book of the New Sun


A dissertation submitted in part fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Bachelor of Arts, with Honours in History.

The copyright of this work belongs to the author.

Discipline of History
The University of Western Australia
October 2007
Word count: 14,428




Chapter One: Gene Wolfe and The Book of the New Sun

Chapter Two: Carl Schmitt, Political Theology and The Concept of the Political

Chapter Three: The ‘friend-enemy’ relationship and the definition of Sovereignty in The Book of the New Sun

Chapter Four: The problem of Sovereignty as the problem of the Legal Form and the Decision in The Book of the New Sun




To Mum and Dad, for your material and emotional support during my Honours year, in truth this year would not have happened without you.

To Dad, your own writing and interest in History, in explication through all you do, guide the arc of my own passions.

To Mum, science tells us that I got my intelligence from you, for which I am eternally grateful.

To Jerome, for asking me over and over again what I was saying, I wouldn’t have arrived at what I said without your exhortations to clarify.

To Dad, Jerome, Jen, Daphne, Jodie and Kieu, for editing after work and late at night, all errors are my own now.

To Nathan and Kristen, for bugging me until I enrolled in Honours.

To Andrew and Jane, for allowing me the time last year to start this year.

To Louise, Jen, Jodie, Daphne, Trisha, Jacinta, Kathryn, Nan and the long suffering family and friends who endured my Honours-centric conversations this year.

To Rob, for his influence during my undergraduate degree, for his unhesitating support in entering and completing my Honours year, and for his endless patience and allowances, all historical shortcomings in this thesis are mine.

To the Crown Prince, Emanuel, who is the student of history I wish to be, and whose final comments were utterly invaluable.

To my class, who made every moment of this year worthwhile, but in particular; the Amazon, Ariel, my likeness written taller and tougher, and Rebekah, who always has my measure.

And finally, a wry salute to the irony of my own urges towards sovereignty, namely my ambition at the age of five to become Prime Minister of Australia, get all the goodies, kill all the baddies, and turn the whole world into Australia.


It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.


Clearly, our own distinctions between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches do not apply – no doubt administrators like Abdiesus would laugh at our notion that laws should be made by one set of people, put into effect by a second and judged by a third. They would consider such a system unworkable, as indeed it is proving to be.(1)

It is a truth seldom addressed that history is essential to the composition of Fantasy and Science Fiction literature. As an example of a Fantasy and Science Fiction text actively engaging with the historical record in both inspiration and composition, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe provides ample material for analysis of the history surrounding and constituted in the text. In a genre text much admired for its literary content and form, Gene Wolfe’s personal preoccupations with history are clear in the political ideologies encapsulated in The Book of the New Sun, more specifically in a discussion of the concepts of sovereignty. The historical import of the political in Wolfe’s text can be explicated using the political theory of the controversial but influential theorist Carl Schmitt. The challenging philosophy common to both is a robust critique of liberal democratic ideology.

How Fantasy and Science Fiction utilise history is the starting point of this thesis. To make a gross generalisation, Fantasy literature makes use of history in anachronism while Science Fiction literature uses history speculatively. Fantasy genre literature generally seeks to recreate the historical past, to live and breathe the cultures and societies that resulted in our own.(2) In re-imagining the past in light of present or the present in light of the past, Fantasy must engage with the historical record to create authentic and plausible alternative worlds. On the other hand Science Fiction genre literature generally uses the present to extrapolate the future, taking the possibilities of today and creating new societies from the permutations presented.(3) Again the historical record is essential to provide the precedents from which Science Fiction extrapolates the possible triumphs or failures of future worlds.

History does not remain unchanged within Fantasy and Science Fiction genre literature; the ‘real world’ must be altered in order to create the alternative world of a genre text. To claim that there is an historical record that documents reality is a little simplistic; the study of historiography concludes that historians writing within ideological frameworks create the historical record. This may prove problematic in proposing that there is a constant historical reality, but at any point in time there will be a consensus of some kind on the historical record.(4) It is this consensus historical reality that Fantasy and Science Fiction engage with, whether it is the sure knowledge that English knights in the 13th Century rode horses or the general speculation that genetic modifications to humans is possible within the scope of present technology. Genre texts change these elements of the consensus reality, as defined in ‘real world’ history, to create their speculative fictions. Observing the methods and outcomes of these changes is interesting to the historian.

The mass appeal of Fantasy and Science Fiction increases the relevance of the presence of history in genre literature. The authors and readers of speculative fiction are growing in numbers and sophistication; Fantasy and Science Fiction texts generate critical literature and journals, fills bookshelves and convention centres and become major motion pictures. With the genre holding a prominent place in our culture, the created history within genre texts present a challenge to historians - what is being communicated to a mass audience by the incorporation and distortion of the historical record in Fantasy and Science Fiction?

The Book of the New Sun is a historical text within the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction; incorporating both literary traditions in a text considered one of the foremost examples of both genres, and of literature beyond the genre conventions. Wolfe created a complex text with an overwhelming sense of history within the text and a discoverable position for the text within history. The imagined history within the text is complex and considered: it is a constant presence in the characters and narrative; it encompasses both our history and the history of our possible future; and it subtly references historical theory as well as the real historical record.

The Book of the New Sun is a tetralogy set millions of years, if not billions of years, in the future of our Earth, chronicling the summer of a young man called Severian. Severian has been recently expelled from the Guild of Torturers in which he was brought up and sent to fill an external position in a distant town. In the course of his travels to his new home, and beyond to the great frontier war of his State, he becomes aware of and fulfils his extraordinary destiny to become the next Sovereign of the State. While the futurity of The Book of the New Sun is on a Science Fiction timescale, the Fantasy element is provided by the characteristics of the world through which this narrative moves. Severian has been brought up as a Torturer for the Commonwealth, he is expelled and given the job of Lictor, or Headsman, for Thrax, and he travels beyond Thrax to the frontlines of a vast battle between the Commonwealth and their neighbour, Ascia, to finally become the Autarch of the Commonwealth. Wolfe melds Science Fiction and Fantasy genre traditions with his use of ancient languages and medieval social arrangements projected far into the future of Earth, supplemented with interstellar travel and extraterrestrial life forms.

The text has an explicit historical imagination and many layers of history are conceptualised within the structure of the narrative. The geological history of the Urth is described as Severian descends a vast cliff that exposes a fraction of the hundreds of millions of years of the fossil and cultural record of the Earth.
In Severian’s words,
The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenceless as all dead things … fossil bones protruded from the surface … the forest had set its own dead there as well. Deeper there lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity.
At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it.
The Earth has gone through many cycles of history to become the Urth of Severian’s travels, illustrated by what mining in Severian's time actually entails.
Recalling his travel through the town of Saltus Severian tells us,
In Saltus … the miners rape the soil of metals, building stones, and even artefacts laid down by civilisations forgotten.(6)
Severian tell us that the soil of Urth itself is made up entirely of historical artefacts,
I have heard those who dig for their livelihood say there is no land anywhere in which they can trench without turning up shards of the past. No matter where the spade turns the soil, it uncovers broken pavements and corroding metals.(7)
Wolfe also engages with the progression of history into myth, placing pieces of our own history as legends into the text. One such example is the ramblings of a sick man that include, many millions of years after they happened, some garbled sentences on medieval European practices.
In a fever Jonas tells Severian,
“Severian, the king was elected at the Marchfield. Counts were appointed by the kings. That was what they called the dark ages. A baron was only a freeman of Lombardy.”(8)
Other elements of the historical record lie in The Brown Book, a volume Severian carries with him during all his travels. Wolfe mentions this use of myth in an interview with Elliott Swanson; ‘if you mean the various stories from the brown book, they are tales from our own period or much earlier, mixed and blurred in the fashion that stories are by the passage of time.’(9) Michael Andre-Druissi finds within The Book of the New Sun subtle distortions of stories as diverse as the duel between the iron-clads Merrimack and Monitor of the American Civil War and Gilgamesh alongside Greek, Roman and Arthurian mythology, and the traditional tales of the settlement of America by the Europeans.(10)


Beyond the scale of the internal history created in the text, The Book of the New Sun creates a presence within the history of the reader due to Wolfe’s inclusion in the text of a striking political philosophy that strongly opposes liberal democratic political thought. Wolfe’s political philosophy is conveyed to the reader in the concept of sovereignty embodied in the narrator, Severian. Severian is an apprentice from birth to the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, known to the rest of the Commonwealth as the almost mythological Guild of the Torturers.(11) The Guild is the ‘legal repository’(12) for state prisoners and Severian is taught the art of excruciation upon them under the guidance of the journeymen and Masters of the Guild. The Guild carries out the judicial orders of the Autarch of the Commonwealth, a ruler with whom Severian has a very problematic relationship. Severian serves the Autarch by accident of birth,(13) but as a young man Severian holds an ideological loyalty to those in opposition to his rule.(14)

Severian personally meets and aids the Autarch’s opponent, Vodalus in chapter one, and in chapter nine comes unknowingly under the direct gaze of the Autarch himself.(15) Throughout the rest of the text Severian never truly strays far from the presence of either man, both of whom he is destined to replace.(16) Severian’s change in position within the hierarchy of the political power structure is both larger and smaller than it appears. Physically he is always in the presence of ultimate sovereignty - in the person of the Autarch himself and Severian’s own potential as the next Autarch. Severian is not conscious of the changes in his position except through gradual contemplation and experience, sovereignty being obtained at the end of an intellectual journey more than a physical one.

This intellectual journey starts almost the moment Severian contravenes the rules of his Guild and as punishment is sent to become the Lictor of Thrax. Brought up as he is in the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, Severian is taught that as a torturer he is the necessary and final administrator of the sovereign’s will, the ‘powerful, the active principles of an inimical and nearly perfect machine.’(17) For Severian sovereignty is a concrete fact: he spends his days administering sovereignty through brute force,(18) spends hours at his lessons mastering the principles of government(19) and dwells on his direct experience of sovereignty during his time in the Guild(20) and during his own punishment and expulsion.(21) For allowing a prisoner with whom he had fallen in love to commit suicide, Severian is exiled from the Guild that fostered him and sent to take up the position of the Lictor of Thrax, under the guidance of the Archon of Thrax.

The exercise of sovereignty becomes a more challenging reality for Severian as he becomes a solitary representative of the justice of the Autarch on his journey to Thrax and during his residency there, practising his skills as a Headsman to earn money on his journey.(22) Severian experiences more of the world outside of the legal and ideological structures of his Guild:(23) in ceasing to be a gaoler, with his life frequently in the power of others, he comes to understand the individual’s consent to sovereignty. As he comes in contact with those who live their lives bounded by laws and moral codes different to his own, Severian must increasingly rely on his own morals and political judgement to protect his person and carry out his duties as an executioner. In the role of a journeyman Severian is deprived of the direct gaze of the rule of law and the Autarch and he becomes aware of his own limited autonomy within the law.

It is during the transition from rule of law as dictated by the Autarch to the rule of his own conscience as the next Autarch that Severian’s experience of sovereignty becomes immediate. Severian abandons his position as the Lictor of Thrax and travels towards the frontlines of the battle with the Ascians. As he nears the conflict Severian comes into contact with those in direct authority over him, the powerful bodies he will start to interact with as Autarch. As the next Autarch his allies reveal that he will be the protector of the populace. The Autarch protects the powerless in the Commonwealth from the earthly aristocrats, the exultants, from which Vodalus rose to become the leader of the Rebellion, and he is also the ambassador of the myriad citizens of Urth to interstellar powers. When, in the midst of battle Severian becomes the next Autarch, Severian is quick to understand that his political views, formed as they were far from his consciousness of sovereignty, are no longer relevant in the light of this newly revealed political environment.(24)

Severian is the focal point of the sovereign political power of the text as the lowest and the highest personification of rule. His own growing consciousness of his true position within the political system accompanies his gradual move up the political power structure in his thoughts and understanding, not just his perceived position. Severian personifies the move from the final execution of sovereignty to the theoretical embodiment of sovereignty through the active engagement with the theories that uphold sovereignty. The first chapter of this thesis surveys the reception of The Book of the New Sun and the biographical background of Gene Wolfe. It considers the place of The Book of the New Sun in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genre traditions as well as examining the critical literature surrounding the text. Finally, it addresses the background to Wolfe’s philosophical influences as deduced from the themes of the text and in interviews with the author. It is these philosophical influences that lead the historian to propose a specific political theorist to illuminate the discussion of sovereignty within The Book of the New Sun.


The journey from low rank to high rank through a landscape of extraordinary historical invention is a popular Fantasy buildungsroman,(25) and Wolfe harnesses this convention to embody incremental stages of political sovereignty between citizen and ruler in Severian’s summer rise to absolute power. As the sole protagonist, Severian is the constant connection between Wolfe’s concepts of history within the text, allowing each to inform and contextualise Severian’s political journey from subject to the sovereign to sovereign to his subjects. Instead of simply moving the plot along so as to create a king from a shepherd, Wolfe creates for Severian experiences that ensure he becomes explicitly aware of his right of sovereignty over those in his power, and the rights of those in power over him as he moves through the roles of torturer, jailor, executioner and mercenary to ruler.

The sovereignty personified by Severian in The Book of the New Sun is of Wolfe’s own creation, but it can be placed in direct comparison to political theory in the world outside of the text, particularly aspects of Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy. The historical record influences and is influenced by political theory, and Schmitt is acknowledged in the western political tradition as the twentieth century’s foremost critic of liberal democratic thought, despite a high-profile collaboration with the Third Reich that resulted in long repudiation of his writing in political circles. This lack of engagement with Schmitt was only overcome in the last three decades with growing numbers of authors translating and discussing his work. One of the most prevalent justifications for rehabilitating Schmitt is best summed up by David Dyzenhaus who asserts that 'echoes of the main themes of Schmitt's work, and in particular of his critiques of liberalism, can be found today in political philosophy and, to an increasing extent, in popular thought.’(26) This thesis proposes that one such example of Schmittian presence in popular thought is the critique of liberal democracy embedded deep within The Book of the New Sun. The second chapter of this thesis surveys the reception of The Concept of the Political and Political Theology, presents the biographical background of Carl Schmitt and considers the place of Schmitt’s political theories in political thought.

The third and fourth chapters of this thesis contain a comparison of Carl Schmitt’s concepts of ‘friend-enemy’ relations, absolute sovereignty and the norm and the exception to the political ideas contained in The Book of the New Sun. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines sovereignty as ‘the claim to be the ultimate political authority, subject to no higher power as regards the making and enforcing of political decisions.’(27) Schmitt and Wolfe place an absolute sovereign, he who wields the ultimate political authority, above the rule of law, defined as ‘the existence of positive law … the body of rules enforced by any sovereign state.’(28) This body of law is defined against ‘the norm’, or the set of circumstances in which the law was created, but inherent in any political system is change, and change creates ‘the exception’. The exception does not exist without the norm, but the exception is inevitable, especially within a liberal democratic political system, and destabilises the judicial system enforcing the law. It is at this point of instability that Schmitt and Wolf argue for an absolute sovereign that decides in the exception.

The aim of this thesis is to explicate Wolfe’s political philosophy in The Book of the New Sun in comparison to the Schmittian concepts of absolute sovereignty and the ‘friend-enemy’ relationship explored in more detail in the final two chapters. Gene Wolfe is one of the more accomplished genre authors realigning historical elements to create a speculative text. The Book of the New Sun affords the historian a sophisticated historical presence with which to engage, and his confident grasp and complex re-imagining of the historical record allows this thesis to use a historically situated political theory to identify the historical in the fictional. The parallels between the concept of sovereignty in Wolfe’s work and Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty highlight the common influences of ideology and contemporary history on political discussion across time and genres. The Book of the New Sun provides an example of the internal history of a text shaped by the political influences on and inclination of its author, an internal history that challenges the contemporaneous history of the reader.



(1) G. Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: Sword and Citadel, London, Millennium, 2000, p. 299.
(2) M. Moorcock, Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy, London, Gollancz, 1987.
(3) M. Rose, Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction, Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, 1981.
(4) In speculative fiction particularly the literature of ‘imaginary journeys’ that made up the antecedents of the ‘modern’ genre of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the works of Swift and Verne to name two more famous authors, allow us to discover a consensus history of the time: ‘the focal point that has captured the imagination of the explorer and public alike at any given time.’ T. Clareson, 'Science Fiction, Literary Tradition, and Intellectual History', in J. Williamson (ed.), Teaching Science Fiction Education for Tomorrow, Philadelphia, Owlswick Press, 1980, p. 47.
(5) G. Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: Sword and Citadel, London, Millennium, 2000, p. 107.
(6) Wolfe, Sword and Citadel, p. 106.
(7) G. Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun: Shadow and Claw, London, Millennium, 2000, p. 148.
(8) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, p. 439.
(9) E. Swanson, 'Gene Wolfe', Interzone, No 17, 1986, p. 38.
(10) M. Andre-Driussi, 'A Closer Look at the Brown Book: Gene Wolfe's Five-Faceted Myth', New York Review of Science Fiction, Vol 54, Feb 1993, pp. 14-17; and M. Andre-Driussi, 'Gene Wolfe at the Lake of Birds', Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, Vol 66, Spring 1996, pp. 5-12.
(11) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, p. 133; Wolfe, Sword and Citadel, p. 361.
(12) Wolfe, Sword and Citadel, p. 261.
(13) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, pp. 20-21.
(14) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, p. 17.
(15) Wolfe, Sword and Citadel, pp. 490-491.
(16) Wolfe, Sword and Citadel, pp. 538-539.
(17) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, p. 120.
(18) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, p. 116.
(19) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, p. 283.
(20) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, p. 101.
(21) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, p. 122.
(22) Wolfe, Shadow and Claw, p. 341.
(23) Wolfe, Sword and Citadel, p. 79.
(24) Wolfe, Sword and Citadel, p. 534.
(25) See D. Palumbo, ‘The Monomyth in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun’, Extrapolation, Summer 2005, 46:2, Academic Research Library, pp. 189-234.
(26) D. Dyzenhaus, Legality and Legitimacy: Carl Schmitt, Hans Kelsen and Hermann Heller in Weimar, London, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 38.
(27) B. Buzan, ‘Sovereignty’, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, I. Mclean, A. McMillan, (eds), Oxford University Press, 2003, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press,
subview=Main&entry=t86.e1286, (accessed 24 October 2007).
(28) A. Lincoln, ‘Law’, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, I. Mclean, A. McMillan, (eds), Oxford University Press, 2003, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press,
subview=Main&entry=t86.e728 (accessed 24 October 2007).

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