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


The Book of the Short Sun has probably the most convoluted and complex of structures of any I have read in my life, so much so that once I had purchased the last of its three books, I had to work out a comprehensive timeline of the trilogy’s events in order to fully understand – for a given value of understand – what happens. I have never had to do that with any other book.
Essentially the story is told inside out, with Horn beginning at what he thinks is the end, his failure in his mission to bring back Silk and his practical imprisonment in Gaon, where he has been established as Rajan. But as Horn’s account progresses, he first drifts off into what is happening to him as Rajan, and then, when war begins with the upriver community of Han, and he seems the opportunity to engineer an escape, his contemporary account becomes more detailed and extensive.
Once Horn has reached his departure from Blue, his past account dwindles, and becomes more eliptic, and more like a summary the further he gets until he stops at the point of his ‘death’ on Green, and he carries on with only his contemporary account.
And then the rest of his past account is filled in in a third party account, compiled by Horn’s two sons and daughters-in-law, and supplemented by later accounts by different narrators, making the story complete once Horn stops writing.
If you think of the structure as an ongoing story divided into six parts, the three books are written as alternating accounts of parts 1 and 4, 2 and 5 and 3 and 6 respectively.
To make matters worse, whilst The Book of the Long Sun was at least clear, mostly chronological and comparatively precise, written by Horn and edited by Nettle, the extent of her influence is obvious in how Horn rambles, digresses and is easily self-diverted from his point. On multiple occasions in his past account, Horn will refer to things he has not yet reached, whilst in his present account he will refer back to things the past account still hasn’t reached, and far too often this turns out to be the only account given of such incidents.
And too many other sections of the story are left out completely, as there are a number of gaps in Horn’s account, when he is either unable to write at all or at least for enough time to record everything he wants to relate.
In short, this is a typical Gene Wolfe series, except with all the usual twists and turns amplified beyond the level we would usually expect.
Though I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the Short Sun, second only to Severian’s epic, I must admit to having found additional difficulties with it on this occasion, coming to it in the wake of the fatigue induced by Long Sun, not to mention the repeated insistence, even in reduced numbers, on accents. Remora and Incus repeat their already tiresome oral tics, whilst Pig’s speech is heavily accented Scottish (and in one line is literally incomprehensible: seriously, in more than fifteen years I have never been able to work out what he says.)
As for the inhabitants of Dorp, a long time whom amongst we spend, until their inside out syntax – think Yoda but with longer sentences – becomes seriously irritating. The technical ability is nothing short of astounding, but the effect on at least one reader is ultimately wearing.
When commentating upon The Fifth Head of Cerberus, I suggested that its three linked novellas represented the three volumes of the ‘Solar Cycle’. ‘Cerberus’ itself is a dense, complex first person narrative, like New Sun. ‘A Story, by John B. Marish’ a third person story told by one of its participants echoes Long Sun and ‘V.R.T.’, which its achronological, multi-viewpoint structure is Short Sun.
Wolfe spent a lot of time with Silk and Horn, the two series written without interruption, making seven consecutive novels in the same or closely related environment.
At the end, the fractured nature of the second and third parts of the ‘Solar Cycle’: in the Long Sun the profusions of voices, in the Short Sun the diffusion of actions, do not match up to the concentration of story and tone in the New Sun, and I am suspicious of the fact that ultimately we have no explanation for how Horn/Silk is able to transport himself and others to initially Green and latterly Urth itself, to bring us to the young Severian in the earliest pages of The Shadow of the Torturer (requiring the future Autarch to state that he will not include Horn/Silk in any book he will write, because he is too unbelievable).
This at least establishes an overall timescale for the ‘Cycle’: Typhon and the age of the Imperial Autarchs is some three hundred years before the Commonwealth of which we are familiar, and the establishment of humanity on the planets Blue and Green are mere decades before Urth’s drowning in its transformation into Ushas when the New Sun is kindled.
No Gene Wolfe story is ever complete, with all the answers specified and easily discernible. The Book of the Short Sun is merely the most extreme example of this, with dozens of crucial elements left not so much unanswered as unanswerable save by your own invention. More of the story exists not between its lines but instead outside its pages than in any other of his works, and I am growing old and stiff-minded in trying to fathom the imagination of a writer far cleverer than I have ever been.
In the end, I look on at the last part of the ‘Solar Cycle’ and accept what I am able to know and what I am not. And turn to Severian, alongside whom I have walked more often than any other, as the figure I can know best, not the almost unendurably good Silk.

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