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From: Michael Andre-Driussi <mantis@sirius.com>
Subject: Re: (urth) Fairy Tale logic
Date: Mon, 1 Nov 1999 15:24:21 

Nick Gevers wrote:
>To illustrate this: many Lupines feel that, as a work
>of SF, NEW SUN must be subject to scientific
>explanation at every stage. This can be a very
>productive approach, as when calculations of the size
>and effect of solar sails help explain the crucial
>eclipse in THE URTH OF THE NEW SUN. But elsewhere,
>Wolfe's conceptual logic is implicitly magical, as in
>the intuitive symbolic construction of a fairy tale.
>One may see the grafting of Typhon's head to Piaton's
>body as scientifically plausible; but viewed closely,
>the two-headed Typhon must be an uncomfortable
>arrangement for the Typhon head, which is presumably
>situated on one of Piaton's shoulders. When the Piaton
>head is removed, as Typhon's surgeons plan, the
>monocephalic being left over will be lopsided on top,
>whether he wears a shirt to cover the scar or not...
>So Typhon is a mythic construct rather than a
>plausibly scientific one. Sev's encounter with him is
>the tale of the bearding of an ogre in its den.

Now, as one reader who is obviously guilty of at least some of this
"scientism," folks might think that I would be in disagreement with Nick's
post--but I'm not, and I suspect that Nick knew that beforehand.  I agree
with nearly all of it, and the Typhon/Piaton example is an excellent
example, as I'll further comment upon in a bit.

Then again, not to be reflexively jerking my leg here, but I really think
TBOTNS was initially received/perceived/awarded as a =fantasy= work; to
read it as "science fantasy" is the first step of evolution (which seems
validated by comparisons to THE DYING EARTH as an icon of science fantasy);
to read it as "pure" sf is a further step (or perhaps misstep) of evolution.

It might seem far-fetched right now, but honestly, in my experience it has
been a great deal of =work= over a decade to convince people that there
really was some sort of sfnal element to TBOTNS that makes it categorically
different from, say, THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  One small example: all the
misdirections given in the text with regard to the age of the solar system
(and thus the historical setting), especially the issue of a "dying sun,"
leads many sf readers to raise arguments regarding stellar evolution ("it
will eat up the inner planets as it swells"; "it will be in billions of
years, not millions"; etc.).

(Those who grasped on their own reading that there is a black hole eating
at the Old Sun seem to have been a special minority of bright, careful
readers, who quietly kept it to themselves.  But everybody here already
knew that about themselves! <g>)

So it may be the case that some have gone "too far" in using a science
fictional reading of Severian's Narrative, but it is within a context of
earlier readings that were completely blind to sf elements.  It is a valid
tool, but it does not have universal application throughout the text--yet
often the only way to tell if a sf rationale works for a given detail is to
actually try it out.

>Another example: Inire's recounting (through Domnina,
>through Thecla, through Sev) of the mechanics of
>Inire's mirrors. How accountable to physics is his
>explanation? It sounds like magic under a veneer of
>pseudo-scientific doubletalk. Again, the logic of a
>fairy tale holds, with a wizard preserving the secrecy
>of his craft through misdirection.

Not to give Nick a hard time, but this is not a good example: since the
vast majority of even diamond hard sf uses some form of ftl, and all that
is explained with "pseudo-scientific doubletalk" of one kind or another.
Within the sf genre, transportation devices are traditionally immune to
such scrutiny (and weapons are, too); this by itself does not cause all
genre sf--with--ftl to crumble into genre "fantasy."

Ah, but the Typhon/Piaton case!  I find it excellent because 1) I've never
been overjoyed with any of the sfnal interpretations, and 2) I've always
been strongly aware of its magical iconography.

"Magical," yes, but most specifically it is "alchemical."

If you pick up a modern book on alchemy, chances are it will have some of
those great old woodcuts regarding the stages of The Great Work: which is
"turning lead into gold" for the laity.  Red Lion, Green Dragon, Black
Raven, Virgin Milk--all sorts of wild stuff.  Anyway, in the midst of all
this Chemical Wedding, there appears a potent symbol: a two-headed being,
usually a big muscular creature with a king's head and a queen's head (both
crowned, iirc).  Mind you, this is an =allegorical= representation of some
funky chemical process --it isn't meant to be some sort of Frankenstein's
monster that literally appears.

But this double-header is =not= the end-product: it is not the
philosopher's stone.  It is only a stage along the way.  So, true to form,
it must be "killed" so that the next mode can emerge--this woodcut shows
the critter being put to bed in a tomb.

THUS, in addition to the Satan's Temptation of Christ elements in the
scenes with Typhon and Severian, I have reason to believe that there is an
even stronger thread of alchemical thought and tradition represented: one
that links up with other keystones of the text to form an adamantine chain.

I strongly suspect that Damien Broderick knows exactly what I'm talking
about. (I also know that alga is rolling her eyes at all this!)


P.S. I could've sworn that Jim Jordan wrote something about "The Seraph
from Its Sepulcher," at sometime or another, on this list.  But I've
searched using the Incredible Search Engine and have found no such thing.
I recently re-read this story and was wondering what Nutria and/or anybody
else had to say on it--that's why I was searching.


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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