WITH The Citadel of the Autarch, we have the fourth and and final volume of Gene Wolfe's superb long science fiction novel, The Book of the New Sun. Maybe now we can forget The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator and The Sword of the Lictor (all separately reviewed in Book World over the past three years), and forget this title, which is confusingly interchangeable with those that misrepresent its three predecessors, and from now on think only of the novel as a whole, under the continuing subtitle which defines it as such. For The Book of the New Sun, all 400,000 grave and polished words of it, is far greater than the sum of its parts. So let us call it The Book for short, and spend some time in praise of the new Dante.

Well, not quite, perhaps. The Book isn't quite The Divine Comedy in four bumper parts instead of only three. It doesn't quite have the stature, though Wolfe does have something of Dante's appalling assurance; nor does The Book quite manage to shape reality so that an entire culture can apprehend something of the intricate passages and turnings of the Word of God as He writes It out, layer after layer. But if Gene Wolfe is to be taken seriously--and however thrilling or pleasing The Book may seem, there is simply no point at all in thinking of its author as a creator of mere speculative entertainment--then he must be taken as attempting something analogous to Dante's supreme effort. With great urgency, layer after layer, he has created a world radiant with meaning, a novel that makes sense in the end only if it is read as an attempt to represent the Word of God. How intimate--how dizzyingly remote--how comforting or alienating that Word can be, each reader will of course discover.

We are on Urth, millenia upon millenia hence. So densely impacted with millions of years of human life is this world that even commercial mines, dug however deep into the ransacked planet, produce only bone and brick and artifact and icon, layer upon layer of human meaning, most of it indecipherable at first or second glance (just like certain passages of The Book). So the very earth radiates significance, as do its inhabitants, who live awash in ancientness, but who seem to glow with the fabulousness of their environment, strangely youthful, strangely assured. They have the deep polish of the citizens of the legends of childhood. But Urth is dying. The sun is red; stars are visible in the dark sky of midday. The starships of earlier epochs have become the dwelling places and headquarters of guilds themselves ancient. The mountains of Urth have been carved into giant sculptures of Autarchs, themselves fossils unearthed from deep mines.

Through this world--for three volumes--we have followed the adventures of young Severian, journeyman Torturer in exile for allowing a "client" to kill herself. It may be the case that for some readers Severian's earlier experiences may have seemed picaresque, somewhat random in nature, though colorful enough. But inexorably it becomes more and more clear that nothing in Severian's narrative--he tells the whole tale himself some time after he has become Autarch of the land of his birth--is accidental. Everything in his life becomes substance, and the reader can feel at times a kind of sweet cold terror as the true shape of that life begins to come clear. Much that happens to Severian has been lived before (in a manner which the fourth volume reveals) and is therefore twice-told, a code reverently to be broken. But much has not happened before, and represents something new on Urth. New on Urth is the Severian who will redeem humanity by becoming the New Sun/Apollo, or the New Son/Christ.

A miracle is required. The miracle (as T.H. White, quoting Malory, once said of Lancelot) is that Severian is allowed to perform a miracle. Early in volume one, he has--it seems inadvertently--acquired from a passel of traveling nuns their most treasured relic, the Claw of the Conciliator. The Conciliator is a Redeemer of a past age who may come again. At first the Claw seems to be a kind of weapon, but slowly we come to realize that--in direct contradiction of all the habits of science fantasy-- it does nothing but heal. And the land blossoms where Severian sleeps. Only in the fourth volume do we see that the Claw is not the miracle, that it merely releases in Severian his true nature. He returns the Claw to its keepers. He becomes Autarch, in a scene terrible with desire and hints of the burdens to come. Animate projections from his childhood tell him something of what he must face--it is one of the hoariest of all science fiction clich,es that he will soon be pitting his wits against, but Wolfe somehow manages to transform it (as he transforms so much else) into something moving, and rich and strange. And Severian goes to the Ocean, and stands upon the beach, where he realizes that:

"The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground."

He then ascends the Throne.

Like Funes the Memorious in Borges' story, Severian cannot forget anything, so that The Book which tells his life is like a Theater of Memory, where everything stands for something else, where everything is a relic. Severian's life is a performance which he cannot help but memorize for any future occasion. He needs no prompting; he writes The Book of the New Sun to prompt us.

Volume four of this gift is harrowing, but is full of pleasures as well. There are four new-minted fables set into the text. There is Master Ash, who roots Yggdrasil-like back through time to observe Severian's Urth. There is time travel, space travel, teleportation; there are laser duels and gentle Mammoths; and delirium and dreams and the tying-up of loose threads. The Book is a feast and a eucharist; layer after layer, we have just begun to know it.