This article originally appeared in Pyramid #4
Sorcerers and adventurers battle over "magical" artifacts that are remnants of super-science, worshipping or killing ancient "gods" who are actually tyrannical extraterrestrials, while the dying sun glitters above them all, threatening to bring eternal night to a tired world... these are all familiar elements of that brand of science fantasy pioneered by Clark Ashton Smith with his "Zothique" stories (1932-1948) and Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (1950). These works inspired hordes of imitations, but Gene Wolfe's "Urth Cycle," while firmly based in the traditions of science fantasy, is so rich, powerful and original as to tower above all others. The Urth Cycle includes the four-volume Book of the New Sun, an additional novel The Urth of the New Sun, the novella Empires of Foliage and Flower, as well as the short stories "The Boy Who Hooked the Sun," "The Cat," "The Map," and "The Old Woman Whose Rolling Pin Is the Sun."
Book of the New Sun
By Michael Andre-Driussi
Set perhaps a million years in the future, the scenario, in a nutshell, is this: the sun is dying of unnatural causes, a black hole that eats away at it. Galactic empires have risen and fallen, leaving behind ruins of super-science. The galaxy (if not the universe, which is known as Briah) is currently ruled by hideous aliens known as cacogens who possess truly magical technology and are from Yesod, another universe altogether. And Urth, the cradle of mankind, is a forgotten backwater. The Autarch of Urth theoretically rules the entire planet, but in reality controls only a small portion (a nation known as the Commonwealth). He is besieged by the Other Lords, local monsters of Cthulhu scale who are bent on enslaving the world, using their minions the Ascians as shock troops. Everything hinges on the dying sun. If Autarch Severian the Great is successful, the New Sun will arrive and sweep his enemies away, rejuvenating the sun and ushering in a new world; if the Other Lords are successful in blocking the Autarch, the old sun and Urth along with it will finally die.
In Terms of GURPS Space...The background is a blend of the "Long Night" and the "Conquered/ Insignificant Terrans" types of universe. The overall technology levels are Yesod (16), Briah (12) and Urth (5).
Urth is incredibly resource-poor. Most mineral resources have been stripped away by the conquest of space and never returned; other metals have become "unsmeltable" as the technology level has fallen.
Contragravity fliers are the coveted heirlooms of both the Autarch and the exultant aristocracy.
Reactionless drives are used for space boats that are more like ancient Greek biremes than rockets, and starships use vast arrays of solar sails as their primary mode of propulsion. As a result, space travel requires skills closer to those of sailing than Piloting (Space Shuttle)/ TL8.
Space-going vessels are largely crewed by mechanical beings technically known as "androids" but commonly referred to as "sailors." This race considers itself to be descended from the earliest vacc suits and powered exoskeletons.
There is no FTL travel. At light-speed, ships enter Yesod, the higher universe. Or in another way of looking at it, Yesod is hyperspace, but one must crawl up to it using relativistic speeds. In any event, all travel at just under light-speed means that a lot of time dilation goes on as a matter of course, making the crew members sailors of time as well as space.
FTL communication is possible, but it might be another phenomena of either the Corridors of Time or the magic mirrors of Yesod.
Teleportation is possible, but only to and from Yesod, and it is usually accomplished through specula, the magic mirrors.
Time travel is possible in a variety of ways, using magic mirrors or powerful psionic "magic."
Urth is nearly unrecognizable to 20th-century visitors. Stars are faintly visible during the day, and the moon (called Lune) is covered with green forests. The Commonwealth is located in a South America enlarged by either small-scale terraforming projects or the lowering of sea levels as more water is locked into glaciers - or a combination of the two. The River Gyoll defines most of what we know about the Commonwealth, stretching from its high mountain springs in war-torn Orithyia to the edge of the sea at the town of Liti, south of Nessus. The mountains of the Commonwealth are all carved in the likenesses of past Autarchs, and strange creatures roam the wilderness. These include formerly extinct animals like sabertooth tigers, arsinoithers, and even tyrannosaurs; extraterrestrial creatures like the dreaded alzabo, which absorbs the memories of its prey and can mimic their voices; and mythological beings like the watery undines, the troglodyte man-apes, and the angelic anpiels. To the north lies the dying belt of tropical vegetation at the equator, and beyond that the home continent of Ascia. Far out in the sea to the west lie the Xanthic Isles, mountaintops of sunken lands.
The northernmost territory of the Commonwealth is Lake Diuturna. About 60 miles across at its widest point, the lake is used by four different groups. There are villas maintained on the southwestern shore by the exultants for their sport and pleasure; there is a village called Murene on the eastern shore; and there is a mysterious tower on the north shore (whose lord commands and receives fealty from Murene). On the lake itself are numerous floating islands, inhabited by a tribe of people who are constantly being attacked and enslaved by the villagers of Murene. The Lake People rig sails among the trees of their islands and pilot them like ships.
Thrax is the provincial capital of this northern territory and an important stronghold, located at the first cataract of the Gyoll. The archon of Thrax has several squadrons of dimarchi dragoons at his command. The city also has a Vincula or prison which is run by the lictor and his clavigers, who serve as detective police as well as jailers.
Somewhere between Thrax and the House Absolute, in a place where the pampas gives way to desert, are the mysterious ruins of the Stone Town. Many adventurers go into these ruins seeking treasure. Other travelers, wishing to avoid the eerie place, try to steer clear only to find themselves walking into it no matter which way they turn.
Farther south is the House Absolute, the labyrinthian palace of the Autarch. On the surface it looks like a forest or a garden, but hidden doorways open into the subterranean system of passages and chambers. Within the walls of the House Absolute lies the Second House, a hidden palace within a hidden palace where lovers and schemers carry out their secret meetings, ever mindful of the terrible white wolves that infest the innermost palace like rats. The grounds of the House Absolute are fiercely guarded by the Praetorian Guards, who wear imported catoptric armor which makes them virtually invisible.
The sprawling megalopolis of Nessus is the capital of the Commonwealth, situated on the River Gyoll. It is home to millions, from the grassy suburbs of the Sanguinary Fields (where the well-to-do armigers live) in the north, through the ruinous Algedonic Quarter (where ancient rocket ships have fossilized into towers at the Citadel of the Autarch), to the dead city of the south (inhabited by omophagists, desperate people who eat raw meat so as not to draw attention to their location with a fire).
Far to the south lie the Southern Isles, home to a blond-haired people who hunt walruses in the Antarctic Sea. They live in constant dread of the mists, not only as navigational hazards but also because the raiding ships of Erebus often come in behind them to enslave and plunder.
In addition to Lune, other worlds in the solar system have been terraformed and renamed. Mars is now Verthandi, and even the hellish Venus has been transformed into a pleasant world called Skuld. If there is a high point to the backwater of the solar system, it is probably on Skuld.
Posthistory, or the History of Urth
Urth is so overwhelmed with history that time no longer has much meaning. While they do have the term chiliad (KIE-lee-add) for a period of 1,000 years, months and even the days of the week have become nameless. Years are counted by the reign of the current Autarch, so there is no historical context beyond the sentiment that every year is more or less the same. The watches or hours of the day are named and vague (in contrast to ours, which are numbered and precise).
For those visitors who study it, posthistory is divided into four major ages: the Age of Myth, the Age of the Monarch, the Age of the Autarch and the future age. Each age has its own distinctive flavor and avatar. Nearly all of the action in The Book of the New Sun takes place in the Age of the Autarch, but there are glimpses of the other ages scattered throughout the Urth Cycle. (The dates given are rough approximations, based upon research and guesswork.)
The Age of Myth
Our Earth is hopelessly lost at the dawn of this age, beginning perhaps as early as 97,500 years P.S. (Pre-Severian). Apu-Punchau is the avatar who appears to a group of primitive people and leads them onto the road of a high civilization which seems very much like that of the Inca Empire (a link to GURPS Aztecs). The toothed club is typical of the weapons during this early period, and it seems likely that the empire of Apu-Punchau falls to invaders like that of the Inca did (they could very well be the same empire).
Later in this age the "dawn-men" set about terraforming Mars, Venus and the Moon in a way perhaps akin to the scenario laid out in GURPS Terradyne. The sun burns brightly and technology is still in its infancy, with humanity poised to voyage beyond the solar system.
The Age of the Monarch
This period begins when an Asiatic race (an excellent tie-in with GURPS China) makes that tremendous leap to the stars and founds the First Empire of 1,000 Stars around 72,000 P.S. These starfarers create fabulous "thinking engines" (computer AIs) and "android" (mechanical men) sailors. The thinking engines are capable of reading minds and projecting aquastors, phantom-like beings that can only be seen by those whom the engine has targeted.
The struggle between cold logic and wild emotion eventually brings down the First Empire by 2,000 P.S., and the magical technology, already in decline, continues to fall. Typhon, Monarch of several worlds in the Urth system, has dreams of a Second Empire, so he moves his capital to Urth and tries to make his dreams a reality from the House Absolute, a subterranean palace complex. Monarch Typhon achieves a limited form of immortality by having his head surgically grafted onto the body of a strong slave, and he acquires terrible psionic powers allowing him to possess people. Reaching for other forms of immortality, he is the first to carve a mountain in his own likeness, and he also launches a generation starship called the Whorl, ruled over by virtual-reality versions of himself and his court cast as gods. (This is the genesis of Wolfe's new series, The Book of the Long Sun.)
Ultimately, however, his plans go awry and his dreams of empire are shattered by rebels from within his own ranks. It is at this time (roughly 1,100 P.S.) that the avatar appears in the form of the Conciliator, a powerful thaumaturge or wonder-worker who tells all he meets that the sun has begun to falter. (It may very well be that the introduction of a black hole into the sun was the work of Typhon's blind son in an attempt to make everyone "blind.") Typhon has the Conciliator arrested and jailed at the Old Port (which will one day evolve into the Citadel of the Autarch), but the holy man vanishes after telling his followers about the next avatar, whom he calls the New Sun. Typhon is the last of the Monarchs, and with his death, the age comes to a close.
The Age of the AutarchThe first Autarch, Ymar the Almost Just, creates the Commonwealth after the death of Typhon and rules until his death circa 1,000 P.S. Ymar's vizier, a cacogen known as Father Inire, creates many marvels for the Autarch, including the Second House (a secret palace inside the very walls of the House Absolute) and the Botanical Gardens of Nessus, where time and space are twisted for each garden (an excellent entry point for adventurers from other worlds).
The rebels who unseated Typhon have become the Other Lords, taking on the names and powers of gods. Icy Erebus (named after a god of darkness) has his base of power in Antarctica; Abaia (named after a sea-serpent god) is the size of a mountain and broods in the depths of the sea. The Other Lords manipulate the Ascians into invading the Commonwealth and, at one point in the centuries-long war, Nessus is razed.
The mysterious cacogens are present in the halls of power, coming and going in their star-sailing vessels, zooming up and down the timelines in flying saucer-like ships. Sometimes they help the Autarch, but at other times they help the Ascians and their sympathizers.
The avatar for this age is to be the New Sun, a man whom legend says will somehow bring new life to the dying star. His enemies are the Other Lords and their minions.
The Fourth Age: Golden Age or Frozen Death?
If the New Sun is successful in bringing the White Fountain to the Old Sun, the tired Urth will be reborn as the vibrant Ushas, a truly Golden Age for humanity. The Green Man is a time traveler from this possible future Age of Ushas: his skin is green due to a bioengineered form of pond scum that lives inside his body, providing nourishment from sunlight. All the famines and labor of growing food are nonexistent for him and his kind. The Green Man is able to walk the Corridors of Time freely.
But if the Other Lords are able to block the arrival of the White Fountain, then Ragnarok, the Last Winter, will turn the planet into an icy waste. Master Ash is a time traveler from this potential future, the last observer left on Urth after all the others have been evacuated. His mode of time- travel is a building known as the Last House which uses time-warping architecture akin to that of the Botanical Gardens of Nessus.
The uppermost floors look out on the icy future and the lowest floor reaches into the later part of the Age of the Autarch. To travel forward in time, Master Ash goes upstairs, and to travel backward in time, he goes downstairs.
Until the central conflict of the Age of the Autarch is resolved, both futures exist.
Gateways to Urth
The Botanical Gardens offer an obvious entry point for visitors to Urth. The Garden of Endless Sleep seems to reach back to the time/space coordinates of Cumae during the Roman Republic (not far from GURPS Imperial Rome); the Garden of Sand is linked to the deserts of ancient Judea; the Jungle Garden leads to a spot in the Amazon Jungle during the mid-20th century; the Garden of Antiquities appears to plunge deep into prehistoric times, filled with plants not seen for tens of millions of years. It is anybody's guess as to where the gardens of Delectation, Sleep, and Pantomime lead.
There are also a number of other forms of time travel, from buildings like the Last House and the Atrium of Time, to the UFO-like time machines used by the cacogens, to the time-warping psionics used by others. There is also the time travel that is a side effect of space travel, and most sailors returning to Urth have great difficulty in recognizing their home world.
Magic in the Urth Cycle is a rubric for several different things. There is a kind of alchemy descended from the super-science of the early Age of the Monarch, which in its mechanical form allows practitioners to construct such gadgets and gizmos as the Natrium-slug sling (fires spheres of sodium which explode on contact with water), the belt of weightlessness (a contragravity harness), the energy mace (which also projects an aura of fear), and the mist machine (a hologram projector). The anthroposophic or biological form of this alchemy enables thaumaturges (wonder-workers) to enhance others. Their skills run from the mundane cosmetic surgery that will turn a drab waitress into a dazzlingly beautiful actress, to the bioengineering skill of forming khaibits (clones) and homunculi (artificial men) or even modifying their own DNA, giving themselves the ability to grow to gigantic size or the ability to breathe water.Then there is the mirror magic of Yesod, which can be used for time travel and teleportation as well as for the summoning of terrible creatures. There is also a lot of chicanery such as sleight of hand and ventriloquism, as well as skills like hypnotism; but the truly powerful (like the avatars, Monarch Typhon, and the Other Lords) have profound psionic abilities.
Most magic-users encountered on Urth either serve or seek to serve the Other Lords. For instance, hidden in the forest near Mount Typhon is an arboreal village of sorcerers who wear metal claws in imitation of the Conciliator, yet practice psionic magic and want to hold back the New Sun. Another example is Dr. Talos. He seems a charlatan traveling across the countryside performing plays, yet is an accomplished thaumaturge, as is his single patient, the giant Baldanders, who is growing too big to be on land much longer. And Ceryx the Necromancer uses psionic power to reanimate the dead, in gruesome parody of the Conciliator.
But there are also some magic-users whose allegiance remains obscure, like the Cumaean (a cacogen) and the witches' guild of the Citadel. And there are a few who seem firmly allied to the New Sun, cacogens like Father Inire, sages like Father Thyme, time travelers like the Green Man, and the avatars.
The Commonwealth TechnologyThe technology level of the Commonwealth is generally around TL4 in Nessus and lower elsewhere. The most advanced weaponry in the solar system is pyrotechnic in nature, using a substance that is like napalm but burns much hotter: "pole-arms" that shoot gouts of flame up to 50 yards; repeater crossbows that shoot bolts tipped with the stuff; and slings that send "shooting stars" whizzing. The armor is medieval in design but made of a Kevlar-like material. While mechanical technology has been in decline for chiliads, the biogenetic creations have taken on a life of their own, as witnessed by the destrier, a common war mount with clawed feet, tusks, and an omnivorous diet. This creature is capable of carrying a mounted soldier along at up to 100 mph.
Although the people of Nessus live with the relics of such magical technology, even the fairly learned among them would be absolutely amazed to see a "horseless carriage" or a powered "boat-without-sails," and they simply would not comprehend a radio at all, assuming that disembodied voices belong to ghosts, or that a talking box must have some intelligence inside it.
The Control Rating for the Commonwealth is 5/1, generally repressive but very open with regard to weapon legality. Melee weapons are unrestricted to free citizens, pyrotechnic polearms and arrows are not too difficult to obtain (expense being the main barrier), and even something as magical and concealable as a laser pistol (a badge of rank, worn by military officers) is not illegal for ordinary folk to own. Most pyrotechnic weapons are issued to soldiers just before battle and collected afterwards, so people seen with military hardware like repeating arbalests will be suspected of being deserters and questioned for that reason.
Otherwise the laws are harsh. Traveling from town to town by the autarch's roads (the highway system of the Commonwealth, rated as an Average Road) is forbidden to all but military personnel and punishable by immediate death (a law dating to Autarch Maruthas, circa 70 P.S.). The uhlans are a sort of mounted highway patrol with permission to kill and loot the bodies of those who break this law. Corporal and capital punishment are common, but most are carried out by relative amateurs. Outside of the Citadel the torturers' guild is thought to be only a legend.
Only special prisoners of the Autarch are sent to the Matachin Tower of the torturers. For the most part they are people who intrigued against the Phoenix Throne, other political prisoners, and those guilty of heinous crimes (serial killers and the like). The torturers themselves are forbidden to judge prisoners or to improvise in their excruciations and executions; they must follow the sentencing instructions that they receive, doing no more and no less. For a torturer to deviate from strict obedience to the law would be for him to betray his guild, a very serious crime.
Thus a torturer would be expected to have competence in First Aid, Surgery, Physiology and Torture. But Interrogation would be forbidden to him, a detail that causes confusion to those visitors who are stuck on the idea of torture as a means (to gain information or confession) rather than an end (to punish criminals for their crimes).
A torturer would be proficient with Literacy and have a smattering of Psychology, Diagnosis, Electronics and Mechanic (for torture devices), and by the time he reaches journeyman status he would know a few special Grips (for example, there is one that causes temporary paralysis of an arm, and another that induces convulsions). Needless to say, the torturer has a strong Duty to his guild and to the Phoenix Throne.
The Commonwealth is made up of several social classes. At the apex of the power pyramid is the Autarch, a dictator who by ancient rule rises from the commonality. The autarch rules the Commonwealth from the House Absolute and in the Well of Orchids maintains a large court of concubines drawn from the most powerful of the exultant houses.
Below the autarch is the aristocracy of the exultants, a closed caste that one must be born into. The exultants are more recent arrivals to Urth (they probably came with Typhon from Skuld or Verthandi) and are much taller than members of the other classes. They hate the Autarchy, and are barely kept in check by the system of concubines whom the autarch keeps in his court as hostages. The exultants yearn for a return to a Typhon-style monarchy, and some of them (like Vodalus) go so far as to become rebels against the autarch in pursuit of such a goal.
Below the exultants are the armigers, the class of petty nobility. A warrior caste, like that of the samurai of feudal Japan, it is open to social climbers of a military bent. Their lifestyle is similar to that of the French musketeers; elevation through the ranks is of keen importance, but honor is paramount. Military action is their dream, but most of their time is spent toadying, gambling, carousing and dueling with one another. Sometimes armigers are allowed to visit the House Absolute. Such a visit would typically be the high point of an armiger's life.
The optimates are the class of wealthy traders, below the armigers and above the commonality, open to successful merchants. To become an optimate requires a great amount of skill and not a little luck, discovering and exploiting trade routes throughout the Commonwealth as well as to far-off lands like the Xanthic Isles.
The commonality is the mass of free citizenry that constitutes the bulk of the population, and below them is the class of slaves. In addition to these social levels there are a vast number of guilds, each with at least three rankings: apprentice, journeyman and master. Each guild has its own patron saint, feast day, and guild lore. Most citizens are members of one guild or another and guild affiliation is a strong element of personal identity.
Slavery does exist on Urth, both in the Commonwealth and in Ascia. In the Commonwealth, a person may be brought as a slave from foreign lands, and can be sold.
Prisoners of war are slaves of the autarch, and he can sell them (many Ascians have become rowers on the upper rivers in this manner). A person can sell himself into slavery.
Autochthons are the dark, squat race of original inhabitants, analogous to South American Indian tribes. Some tribes on the pampas live in pit-villages that are nearly invisible to the untrained eye.
The offspring of colonists from the Commonwealth and autochthons are known as eclectics (similar to the mestizos of Latin America).
There are all sorts of outcasts. Zoanthrops are those who have had their forebrains surgically removed so that they can roam the wilderness as animals. They wear no clothing and are quite deadly with their ironwood bludgeons. Remontados are less extreme, being those who renounce civilization by fleeing into the mountains, and deodands are those exiled to the wilderness for their abominable crimes.
Externs are foreigners native to Urth but from outside the Commonwealth. They are regarded with suspicion or curiosity, depending on the circumstances, unless they become Antrustiones (voluntarily serving the Autarch).
The Xanthoderms are the yellow-skinned race of the Xanthic Isles.
The cacogens are non-human offworlders, objects of fear, dread and even hatred. Some have starfish heads, others a dozen eyes, and still others are covered with oozing pustules. A Fright Check is usually required when citizens come into contact with cacogens.
The people of the Commonwealth are monotheists, but many visitors have come away believing them to be polytheistic since their one enigmatic god (the Increate) has a number of other titles (the poor call him "God") or aspects (Aperion, Caitanya, Demiurge, Panjudicator, and Paraclete). There is a bewildering number of intermediary beings between the Increate and mankind. The Increate is fundamentally a non-Apollonian solar god.
The people of the Commonwealth believe in reincarnation, a detail that, when combined with the illusion of polytheism, gives a Hinduistic feel to the religion.
The church itself has a large number of orders, but there is no uniting authority — that is, no Pope or High Lama. In this respect it is more like the Eastern Orthodox Church. There are anchorites (hermit monks) and cenobites (monks who live in groups), hieromonachs (monks who are also ordained priests) and eremites (wandering monks), just to name a few.
If one were to watch Nessus over the centuries, as perhaps those who walk the Corridors of Time do, one would see the city crawling like a slug along the River Gyoll, leaving a trail of waste and ruin behind it. Nessus is surrounded by a cyclopean shield called the Wall of Nessus, created for unknown purposes long before the city had moved so far up the river. This barrier is honeycombed with passages and chambers filled with the Autarch's pandours, special troops including man- beasts like the mastiff-men.
The Sanguinary Fields district, the northernmost extent of the living city, is named for its famous dueling ground where manomachists (duelists) from around the city come to defend their honor under the watchful eye of the ephors (judges). One of the most deadly weapons to be seen in use on this grassy arena is the avern, an extraterrestrial flower; its petals are thrown like darts by the duelists, and even a scratch means instant death. The district is inhabited almost exclusively by armigers and optimates. The Blue Dimarchi maintain law and order from a fortress complex nearby. This is like having a division of mechanized infantry acting as police and law court in your suburban community center. The military justice meted out by the Blue Dimarchi is swift and final.
Visitors to the area are recommended to the Inn of Lost Loves, a tree-house restaurant located very close to the dueling grounds. Excellent rates are offered for monomachists about to engage in the sport.
Places like Cobblers Common, the Adamnian Steps, and the Botanic Gardens lie within the living city, but as one travels farther south, the socio-economic level continues to drop. At the point when one crosses over a bridge guarded by peltasts with transparent shields and pyrotechnic weapons, one enters the slums of the Algedonic Quarter.
The Citadel of the Autarch stands on a hill brooding over the Algedonic Quarter, a complex of ancient derelict rocket ships converted into towers. One such tower (the Matachin) houses the torturers, another especially rickety one shelters the witches, and a third is home to the beast-handlers who raise the exotic animals used for deathsports in fighting pits around the country. Those who live within the Citadel are servants of the Phoenix Throne, even though no autarch has visited the complex in living memory.
The Citadel also has the Library of Nessus, an extensive collection dating from the era of Typhon and maintained by the curators (the same guild that washes the pictures of the pinakotheken art gallery and supervises the Botanic Gardens).
Beneath the towers lies a vast network of ancient tunnels, one of which leads to the enigmatic Atrium of Time, another architectural wonder that seems to somehow stand outside of time itself.
South of the Algedonic Quarter the slums give way to the dead city, mile upon dusty mile of ruins, home to outlaws, thieves, runaway slaves and cannibals. Adventurers often sally in, searching for hidden caches of family treasures or following sketchy maps found in ancient books, and while there are tales of odd findings in out-of-theway places, it rarely seems worth going into such a dangerous and barren place.
Nessus is rife with intrigue. Smugglers run the river, sometimes simply trying to avoid taxes, at other times breaking more serious laws. There are murderous cults who strangle innocent victims in a manner not unlike that of the thuggee cult of India. Then there are the "resurrectionists," grave-robbing corpse-eaters who ingest the gland of the alzabo in order to experience the lives of the dead.
The Village Saltus
Located 30 miles north of the Wall of Nessus, Saltus is a typical village of the Commonwealth. It is ruled by an alcalde and has a market fair on a regular basis. Its main source of industry is a nearby mine, begun about a chiliad before Severian's reign. The buildings are all squarish, with walls of broken mine stone and flat slab roofs. What they call "mining" we would call "archeological plunder," since their mining shafts lead to the long-buried ruins of an ancient city. The mine tailings consist of items deemed unusable, things like obscene statues, human bones and mounds of perfectly-preserved corpses of antiquity. Deep within the stygian depths of the mine toil the mysterious man-apes, servants of the Phoenix Throne.
Thrax, City of Crooked Knives
Thrax (pronounced "tracks") is located in the heavily fortified Acis ("UH-kiss") Valley, shaped something like a crooked dagger pointing into the heart of the mountains. This dagger imagery is reflected in the local names: the castle, which sits on the first cataract, is called Acies ("uh-KEY-is") Castle (acies is Latin for sword point); the wall that closes off the valley and forms the southern boundary is called Capulus (Latin for sword haft); and between these two points the river flows like the spine of the dagger. Thrax is located at the crossroad of traffic between Nessus and the rural north.
In contrast to Nessus, where the wealthy live to the north and the poor to the south, in Thrax the separation is by elevation. The wealthiest live on the river, the middle class lives further up, and the destitute live in hovels just below the fortified cliffs. Thrax has a harena (arena), a pantheon (but mono-theistic; see Religion, p. 28), a public bath, numerous market squares, and two bazaars, one on either side of the river. There is a noteworthy inn called the Duck's Nest on the east bank near the Acies Castle.
Court is in session at Acies Castle every two weeks, from the first appearance of the new moon to the full. (The archon himself lives in a separate palace on the river.) The Vincula is located halfway up the cliffside on the west bank, about a mile and a half from the Capulus, fronted by a square bartizan four stories high. Legend has it that the Vincula was originally a tomb that was only enlarged into a prison a few hundred years ago. There are 1,000 prisoners lodged in a slanted shaft bored into the rock, and around 600 more in the twisting galleries that sprout from it.
This is the first of the mountain-idols, carved by giant androids at Typhon's command, and apparently intended to be his mausoleum. It depicts a (one-headed) ruler, facing west. Climbers crossing over the southern arm may dally on the gigantic hand (the thumb of which is 250 feet long) but are warned against attempting to molest the golden ring of the ring finger as it is protected by powerful magic. In the lap is a small ghost town of construction machines and supply sheds, where the giant androids are in a dormant state, still moving but only very slowly. The hollow head chamber is as big as a ballroom, and the eye-windows are 250 feet apart. The glassless pupils are 15 feet wide.
In the jungle of Mount Typhon's left foothills is a hidden village of sorcerers, made up of multi-storied tree houses, hollowed trunks and subterranean chambers. These men steal children, but whether they initiate such victims into their own society or sacrifice them to dark gods is unknown.
Ascia, the Land Without Shadows
TechnologyAscia appears to be at TL5 or TL6. The Ascian Army uses radio and includes strange mechanical vehicles (for instance, a six-legged walker) among its beasts of burden. They also have something of an air force, the starfish-shaped pentadactyls, but perhaps the most bizarre is their cavalry: tall blind men, capable of running at incredible speeds and armed with a wand and a shotel (the sickle-sword), ridden by dwarves armed with bows and pyrotechnic arrows. Otherwise the Ascian Army is roughly comparable to that of the Commonwealth, where exotic energy rifles (the fusils, jezails and arquebuses) are reserved for special forces.
The Control Rating of Ascia is extremely high. All weapons are illegal. Even soldiers are not issued their weapons until immediately before battle. Supposedly this keeps them from suicide, but a percentage of Ascian soldiers kill themselves with their own weapons before battle begins anyway.
Ascia is ruled by an oligarchy known as the Group of Seventeen. In theory, the Group of Seventeen rules in the name of the populace, but in fact the entire culture revolves around a personality cult worshipping the leaders, and the Group of Seventeen owes allegiance to the Other Lords. In true Orwellian style, original concepts been abolished; all adult Ascians must communicate by quoting from the "Authorized Texts" handed down by the Group of Seventeen, a practice known as "Correct Thought." Here's a quick sample:
- "All endeavors are conducted well or ill precisely in so far as they conform to Correct Thought."
- "The roots of the tree are the populace. The leaves fall, but the tree remains."
- "Correct Thought is the thought of the populace. The populace cannot betray the populace or the Group of Seventeen."
Ascia is dedicated to stopping the New Sun. Their cult of Correct Thought can be seen as a kind of religion that utterly suppresses the individual in favor of the State.
The Other Lords
There are at least four of these terrible godlings lurking about on Urth: Erebus, Abaia, Scylla and Arioch.
Erebus rules from Mount Erebus in Antarctica. He is an ice demon, and his minions (known as perischii since their shadows rotate around them on a summer's day) are the ones that raid the Southern Isles in his name. As a god of darkness, his victory will come only when the sun is finally extinguished.
Abaia is a mountain-sized being living in the depths of the ocean, a "friendly" monster with a host of gigantic undines as concubines. To those whom he wishes to recruit, Abaia sends forth dreams promising wealth, power and erotic delight among the undines.
Scylla would appear to be another aquatic monster, and judging from hints in Nightside the Long Sun, she is the firstborn child of Monarch Typhon.
Arioch seems to rule an underground realm.
The Urth Campaign
Against this rich tapestry a wide variety of campaigns is possible. An entire campaign could take place within the confines of the Citadel of the Autarch, or deal with the Byzantine court intrigue inside the House Absolute. At the cosmic scale, a campaign could encompass the universes of Briah and Yesod.
An obvious setting is that of the Commonwealth during the ten-year reign of Severian the Great and the forty-year regency of Valeria. One adventure seed might involve the year that Severian served as a slave in Ascia, a period which is very briefly alluded to in Urth. How did he come to be a slave and how did he regain his freedom? Presumably he was captured (again) by the Ascians at the frontlines and it is possible that he was not recognized as the autarch. What adventures must he have had in a land as alien and strange as Ascia? There might well be parallels to the adventures of Heracles during his year of slavery under Queen Omphale.
So until the coming of the White Fountain, Urth is a fantastic planet where sorcerers and adventurers battle over magical artifacts, worshipping or defying ancient alien gods, while the dying sun gutters above them all, threatening to bring eternal darkness...
The Urth Cycle
- Wolfe, Gene. The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, volume 1). New York: Timescape Books, 1980.
- --. The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun, volume 2). New York: Timescape Books, 1981.
- --. The Sword of the Lictor (The Book of the New Sun, volume 3). New York: Timescape Books, 1981.
- --. The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun, volume 4). New York: Timescape Books, 1982.
- --. The Urth of the New Sun. New York: Tor Books, 1987.
- --. Empires of Foliage and Flower. Cheap Street, 1987.
- --. "The Boy Who Hooked the Sun." Weird Tales Number 290, Spring 1988.
- --. "The Cat" in Endangered Species. New York: Tor Books, 1989.
- --. "The Map" in Endangered Species. New York: Tor Books, 1989.
- --. The Old Woman Whose Rolling Pin Is the Sun. Cheap Street, 1991.
Books about The Book of the New Sun
- --. The Castle of the Otter. Willimantic, Connecticut: Ziesing Brothers, 1982.
- --. Plan[e]t Engineering. Cambridge, Massachusetts: NESFA, 1984.
The Book of the Long Sun
- --. Nightside the Long Sun. New York: Tor Books, 1993.
- --. Lake of the Long Sun. (Scheduled for January 1994.)
- --. Calde of the Long Sun. (Planned for summer 1994.)
- --. Exodus from the Long Sun. (January 1995?)
Other Works Mentioned
- Smith, Clark Ashton. Zothique. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970.
- Vance, Jack. The Dying Earth. New York: Pocket Books, 1977.
Fragmentary Timeline of Posthistory
THE AGE OF MYTH 97,500 P.S. Apu-Punchao lives for 100+ years. THE AGE OF THE MONARCH 72,000 P.S. The First Empire of 1000 Stars. —?— Sinking lands form Xanthic Isles. 2,000 The Fall of the First Empire. 1,100 Era of Typhon and the Conciliator.
Launching of the Whorl.
THE AGE OF THE AUTARCH 1000 P.S. Autarch Ymar dies. 1000-700 Yellow and Green Empires end their war.
First appearance of the cacogens?
(800) (Beginning of Nightside the Long Sun.) 350 The Book of Wonders of Urth and Sky is published. 300 Autarch Sulpicious sets aside books in Library. 70 Autarch Maruthas closes roads. 66 Scandal in reign of Autarch Appian.
Lomer sent to the antechamber.
62 Chateline Sancha leaves the House Absolute. 50 Paeon the honey steward dies. 40 Dorcas dies in childbirth. 30 Journeyman Palaemon exiled from guild. ~20 Thecla born, Severian born, "Old Autarch" becomes criminal, Catherine in Tower. 19 Silent man visits the Stone Town? 15 Odillo II begins work at the House Absolute. 12 Chateline Sancha returns to the House Absolute. 10 Thecla (10 years old) sees Sancha alive. 6 Sancha dies aged 75. 1 P.S. Most events of The Book. 1 S.R. The Battle of Orithyia. Severian becomes autarch. —?— The Third Battle of Orithyia.
Severian lives among Ascians for a year as a slave.
5 Odillo II tells tale of "The Cat." 8 Eata convicted of smuggling, escapes in the Xanthic Isles. 10 Severian embarks on journey to Yesod, Eata returns to the Commonwealth. Valeria as regent. 49 Dux Caesidus dies, as does an assassin in the Second House. 50 Severian returns from Yesod.
In terms of GURPS Time Travel:
- The Linearity Principle is applicable (time moves forward at the same speed for time travelers in the past and the folks living in Absolute Now).
- The Urth timeline is one of Plastic Time with High Resistance.
- "Talking to Yourself" is possible under certain circumstances (for example, see Burgundofara and Gunnie on board the star-sailing ship in chapter 26 of The Urth of the New Sun).
- The Observer Effect seems to have some control over the future (beyond Absolute Now) as well as the past.
- People can fade out or implode as their timelines are erased (see Master Ash in chapters 17 and 18 in The Citadel of the Autarch).
- "Absolute Now" begins with the Age of the Autarch and is marching lock step towards the key event: the arrival of the White Fountain (or lack thereof). Travel into the future beyond Absolute Now is impossible.
- There are travelers from both potential futures zipping around the landscape, some more active than others in trying to shape history.
- The Atrium of Time (in the heart of the Citadel of the Autarch) is perhaps an abandoned "Time Corps"-style mission control.
- Time Walking (in the Corridors) is similar to the Time-Jumper skill, but more a psionic power that is developed in distinct stages. It differs from the Time Travel spell in that Teleportation is not a prerequisite.
- Time flows differently in Yesod, so sailors returning to Briah might find themselves chiliads in the past.
Article publication date: December 1, 1993
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