A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Book of the Long Sun’


The Book of the Long Sun was always my least favourite part of the Solar Cycle. This is not meant to denigrate the series, nor to suggest that I disliked it, previously, but rather to reflect the way in which it is so different from the other two sequences. Both New and Short Suns are first person narratives, whereas Long Sun is third person and thus does not present a single narrative timeline, however convoluted. Instead, the longer the story extends, the wider the group of people involved becomes. As a result, the series becomes increasingly fragmented, both in itself and in Wolfe’s deliberate elision of events and happenings.
When Nightside was first announced, it was as a series set in the universe of The Book of the New Sun. I bought it in hardback, through my Book Club, eventually replaced it with the NEL paperback, that forms a matching edition with the rest of the series.
The connection between the two series was not apparent on my first reading of Nightside. It’s there, but I did not pick up the link between ‘two-headed Pas, chief of the Gods’, and Typhon the former Autarch of Urth. Wolfe makes this explicit in Lake, naming Typhon, but the atmospheres of the two books remain completely different.
Long Sun is a much more conventional SF set-up. The Whorl is eventually recognisable as a gigantic generation starship, illuminated by the Long Sun, the equivalent of a fluorescent light the length of the ship, with night and day artificially created by a shade rotating about its length. The inhabitants live on the inside surface, unaware of the reality of their existence. Mainframe is the ship’s control room, and its ‘Gods’ are digital beings, created by personality scans on Urth of Typhon, his family and, amongst others, his mistress Kypris.
Though the story itself is about Silk, and about events in Viron, and they take up the vast majority of the account, they are actually nothing more than minor incidents of no more than local concern. What is of far greater importance are the events that Silk and those around him are very slow to understand: that the Whorl has been travelling 300 years from Urth to reach the Sun system of which the planets Blue and Green are inhabitable, that the heatwave is the product of the technology of the Whorl gradually breaking down, to the detriment of everyone, and of the power struggle within Pas’s family for control of the mission. Pas has arranged all of this to give humanity a new home far from Urth, and wants the Cargo to evacuate the Whorl for the planets. But his family seek to keep them as worshippers within the ship, leading to the struggle for dominance that underlies the tale.
Wolfe is notorious for his use of unreliable narrators. Despite the use of the third person in this series, that’s still the case. The narrator is not the omniscient figure of mainstream fiction, but in a surprise revelation at the end (as in Severian’s disclosure at the end of New Sun), he is revealed to be a minor character (who has on a couple of widely separated instances given himself away by the word ‘I’), someone barely present at any of the scenes described.
Despite Horn describing how he has built up the story he wanted to call ‘The Book of Silk’, massive doubts must remain as to how accurate this account is.
Blogging this series has taken a long time because of the increasingly fragmentary nature of the account. Nightside is related solely from Silk’s viewpoint: his actions, his thoughts, his experiences. But increasingly, from Lake though to Exodus, the persons involved increase. Auk and Chenille become viewpoint characters, and then others are added, and added, and added until by the end of Exodus we are looking at a kaleidoscope.
This diffuses the story, and indeed Wolfe, the further he goes along, leaves out certain events, until by the end, the first lander evacuates the Whorl taking two major characters with it having left entirely from offstage, and the unresolved situation in Viron is simply left in the air. Trying to draw so many disparate points and viewpoints into a coherent account was extremely difficult and to do so I have left out much of what happens.
Then there are the accents. Most commentators praise Wolfe’s technique, highly deservedly so. There are up to fifty different voices represented at different times here, each of them distinct, to the point that characters need not be introduced when they reappear but are obvious from how they speak. Oreb speaks in two-syllable bursts, Patera Remora’s um, speech, is ah, incredibly prolonged and prone to, I hesitate to mention this, constant digression, whilst Patera Incus emphasises random words, over and again. Auk talks in a complex thieves’ argot, Master Xiphias in breathless bursts, lad!
And so on and so on and so on, until for one reader at least the technical ability becomes nothing but an irritation, especially with voices like Remora and the whining, self-important, vindictive Incus, who are annoying to begin with. The longer the book goes on, the more voices there are, competing for attention and distinction, the more this begins to feel like showing off.
I know that’s unfair on Wolfe, but this re-reading, focussed upon the reactions I would be expressing, only exacerbated the effect.
This is made worse by what still appears like an unusual structural flaw in the series as a whole. Unlike New Sun, where there are unquantified interludes between each volume, the first three books of Long Sun are a continuous story, taking place over a space of no more than a couple of days. At the end of Caldé, there is an epilogue. Although the story is incomplete in many respects at that time, it gives the feeling of an overall ending. After all, that is the function of an Epilogue: to follow on from the conclusion of a story and comment on its events retrospectively.
And even though there were outstanding issues, it would still have functioned as a satisfying ending, like episode 13 of the first series of 24 would have been an ending if the show had not proved itself with the audience and the option for the full 24 episodes been taken up.
So Exodus came as a surprise, and it still feels like an unintended appendage. It starts two weeks after the previous book finished, it’s the most fragmented of the four books, it has far more gaps in the narrative than all the others added together, and I have always had the subconscious impression that it is both a rushed volume, and one in which Wolfe has ended up with more story than could be properly compressed.
This last volume begins with the resurrection of Councillor Potto, whose continual giggling is equally as annoying as Incus or Remora, and it ends with what feels like several essential scenes relating to the beginning of the evacuation of the Whorl being omitted entirely. And even after that, it leaves the situation back on the Whorl in a very confused and incomplete state: Viron and Trivigaunte at war, yet another retreat into the tunnels, Silk hunting for Hyacinth again, no real political settlement as to Viron’s government: Exodus leaves so many balls in the air that it ultimately is less of a complete ending than Caldé, which is supposedly only three-quarters of the way through the series!
Wolfe followed The Book of the Long Sun immediately with The Book of the Short Sun. As we’ll see next, twenty years separate the two series, though they share a common narrator, and though part of the story once again takes place on the Whorl, the situation there is of little direct concern to Short Sun. Patera Quetzal’s status as non-human is a link between the two series, and that alone indicates that Wolfe had some ideas for his sequel in mind at a relatively early stage when writing Long Sun: Quetzal is implanted at the halfway point, his non-human status revealed almost immediately, though it is of no relevance to this series and is deployed only in the sense that Quetzal has more than human abilities.
Quetzal’s status as link is most effective in a perfunctory manner, at the very end, after the story itself has ended. Horn reveals that, after acting throughout as a positive force, Quetzal turns against the humans, trying to take them to his home planet, Green, to be slaves and food, only to be killed (implicitly) and revealed to be an inhumi.
It’s an awkward transition, made the more so by the distant fashion in which Horns outlines it, and it adds to my impression of the final book as being rushed and incomplete, and not incomplete in the deliberate way by which Wolfe usually works.
These are harsh criticisms to make, and most improbable ones from what we have already seen in Wolfe, and will continue seeing. Ultimately, this re-reading has led me to lose a lot of my previous regard for the series. I found it difficult to read and comprehend, in a way that Short Sun, despite being even more complex in narrative structure, is not. Others have far higher opinions, and it will be useful, I think, to link to two such, for the other side of the coin.
https://ansible.uk/writing/longsun.html
http://ultan.org.uk/five-steps-towards-briah/
I think it is likely to be some time before I return to this set of books, unlike The Book of the New Sun. I already feel like re-reading that but I still have several more novels by the lupine master to go through before I can afford myself that pleasure again.

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