Though The Urth of the New Sun had appeared as a single-volume sequel to The Book of the New Sun tetraology, the very completeness of the sweeping story appeared to preclude any further visits to that overwhelmingly distant future of decay and rebirth. So it was both a surprise and a delight too learn that Gene Wolfe was writing ‘another multi-volume series’ set in the same Universe.
As is always the case with Wolfe, beware of assumptions for they will invariably fail to materialise.
The Book of the Long Sun is massively different in all but one aspect, and that is that at its centre it has a Christ-like figure acting, though he doesn’t know it, to save his people and his world. And even then there are very few correspondences between Severian the Lame, and Patera Silk, whether he be what he is at the outset, a young augur at a run-down manteion in a poor part of a dying town or, what he becomes, the Caldé of Viron and the centre of a massive popular revolt. One saves by destroying everything, one saves by expelling his people outwards.
The biggest contrast between the New Sun and the Long Sun, apart from practically everything, is that the first was a first person narrative, by an unreliable narrator, and the second is a third person story, something that is comparatively rare in Wolfe’s work, yet in exactly the same way that Severian’s revelation of his own insight into his true nature at the end of ‘The Citadel of the Autarch’, there is a revelation at the end of ‘Exodus from the Long Sun’ that throws everything the reader has faithfully absorbed into doubt, when the writer of the Long Sun makes himself known.
Don’t mistake an authoritative impersonal narrative voice for authority.
Another major difference is that whereas the entirety of the New Sun is seen through the single, unaware viewpoint of Severian, in the Long Sun Wolfe sustains the viewpoints of dozens of characters, each with their own distinct modes of speech, whether it be a wholly invented and equally convincing Thieves Cant, the drawn out prolocution of a senior religious figure, the repeated emphasis on certain words of another such. Modes of speech, accents, voices, each clear and unmistakable.
It’s difficult, indeed almost impossible, to accept the Long Sun as taking place in the same Universe as the New Sun. There isn’t a moment in which the feel of either series corresponds to the other, in which the sense of what we are reading is in anyway comparable. But there is a link, detectable even in the opening volume, ‘Nightside the Long Sun’, that the perceptive reader can seize upon to draw the two into a single continuity, though I admit I had to have it pointed out to me.
Of the three series that go to make up ‘The Solar Cycle’ – which, let us remember, is a title put forward by Wolfe’s fans, not the lupine master himself – The Book of the Long Sun has always been the least to me. Previously, I promised to summarise as best as I could the four books of the tetraology as with the New Sun. It is trying to hold to that promise that has meant so long a delay in picking up this series of posts. The increasing profusion of characters, the increasing profusion of separate strands, the increasing variation from not only a single, coherent narrative but also a single, coherent narrative plot has not only made that promise untenable for me, but also made the re-reading of each volume a very tedious and unenjoyable process.
I’ve done just as I said, but the result is an unintelligible mess. What will follow will be shorter précis of each volume, and a longer analysis of the series as a whole at the end.
I was introduced to The Book of the Long Sun via a hardback copy of ‘Nightside the Long Sun’, bought in the last phase of my short-lived Book Club commitment. I bought the rest of the story in paperback, lovely themed covers of predominately yellow colouring reflecting the conditions of heat affecting the inhabitants of the Whorl. Completist that I am, I sold my hardback to buy the paperback.
The books came out one a year between 1991 and 1994 and, to the best of my knowledge, were the last of Gene Wolfe’s books to be published in Britain for many years: the only other Wolfe book I am aware of having a UK edition since was the 2009 retrospective, The Best of Gene Wolfe. Thankfully, Waterstones in Manchester had adopted a vigorous policy of importing American SF editions, which kept me going until the era of Amazon and eBay.
On with the show!