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.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Nightside the Long Sun’


Within the Whorl – whose lands are on the inside and which is lit by the Long Sun, running down its centre, around which a shade revolves, artificially creating night and day – in the ballpark of a run-down manteion on Sun Street, in a poor quarter of Viron, a young augur, Patera Silk, yellow-haired, devout, receives Enlightment in the middle of a game that resembles basketball.
This does not come from any of the nine Gods of Mainframe – two-headed Pas, his wife, Echidna, their five daughters and two sons – but from The Outsider. Silk is transformed by his experience. And he is tasked with saving the Sun Street manteion, which is under threat of being sold for unpaid taxes.
Silk, aged 23, tall with yellow hair and a habit of drawing small circles on his cheek with his forefinger when thinking, shares the manteion with three sibyls, Mayteras Rose – much of whose human body has been replaced by artificial parts, strict and censorious – Marble – a chem, or wholly artificial person – and Mint – a shy, unassuming, wholly human woman. He has been at Sun Street for only a year since ordination, first as assistant to, then as replacement for old Patera Pike.
It is a time of great heat and prolonged dryness, from which the city is steadily suffering.
His first thought is to make a sacrifice to The Outsider, for which he will need a suitable subject. Different animals are birds are sacred to each to the Nine Gods, but Silk has never before sacrificed to The Outsider. Nor has he any cards or cardbits with which to buy a sacrifice. Nevertheless, he sets off for the Marketplace.
En route, he encounters a rich man being driven in a floater, and persuades him to give up three cards, or face the peril of refusing a God’s requirement. Silk is not aware that he is speaking to Blood, a successful criminal, nor that Blood has already bought the manteion by paying its overdue taxes, and who is on the way to inspect it. Blood, however, knows who Silk is.
After much haggling, Silk buys a black night chough to sacrifice. The bird can talk, in brief, two-syllable bursts and understands what Silk intends. Back at the manteion, unknowing as yet that Blood had made himself known to the sybils as the new owner, Silk prepares for the sacrifice. Like all such manteions, Sun Street has a Sacred Window whose leads and connections need checking and tightening. Silk’s voided cross doubles as a screwdriver and a spanner.
Once upon a time, Gods would appear at Sacred Windows in response to a suitable sacrifice, but this has not happened in Viron for twenty years or so. But Silk’s sacrifice fails. Before he can slit the bird’s throat, it suffers a seizure and goes limp, appearing to have died.
Disturbed by his failure, and now aware of Blood’s purchase, Silk determines on a dangerous and morally dubious course. He proposes to find Blood’s home, invade it, and make Blood, by persuasion if possible but by force if necessary, to assign the manteion back to the Chapter, so that it can continue to be of benefit to the people of that Quarter. In short, he plans to steal the manteion back.
Silk justifies his intentions, to first himself and then to those who would dissuade him, by reference his having been commanded by a God, an by pleading a kind of greater morality based on the needs of the poor people, a greater number. Nevertheless, he continues to doubt his self-assigned mission even as he pursues it determinedly.
Being a complete novice at thievery, Silk seeks out a professional to advise and assist. Maytera Mint, the shyest of the sybils, directs him to Auk, a former student at the manteion, who she had favoured. Auk, now a burly, highly competent man, is found at his usual haunt at the tavern, the Flying Cock, at shadelow, when the light of the Long Sun is hidden from Viron and instead illuminates the cities of the skylands on the opposite side of the Whorl.
Auk agrees to advise Silk, but refuses to get involved on any practical basis. He knows the whereabouts of Blood’s villa and will lead Silk there, but no further. Silk shrives Auk of his recent sins, then has the thief shrive him, placing both in a state of grace. He also obtains a promise from Auk to change his life, giving up thievery.
Silk succeeds in scaling the walls that surround Blood’s grounds and, beyond that, gains access to the roofs of the villa, To get this far he has had to evade vicious genetically-modified horned cats and an armoured talus.
Inside the villa, Blood is hosting a substantial party, his guests including Councillors from Viron’s ruling body, the Ayuntamiento. Strictly, they act illicitly: they are supposed to co-exist with a Caldé, but no new Caldé has been appointed since the death of the last one, twenty years before, nor have any new elections been held.
Whilst on the roof, seeking access, Silk undergoes attack again, this time from a genetically-modified bird. He is seriously wounded by the bird’s beak, but manages to kill the bird.
Entering through a skylight, Silk encounters two young women. The first is the unnaturally thin Mucor, with skull-like features. She claims to be Blood’s daughter and it is quickly apparent that she can possess people. The other is Hyacinth, a beautiful woman who is plainly addicted to drink and drugs: it is equally plain that Hyancinth is a prostitute,there to entertain guests, but Silk is struck by her beauty.
There is a monitor glass in Hyacinth’s room. Silk summons up the Artificial Intelligence that mans it, and attempts to get a warning sent to Auk. Hyacinth makes advances to him. Silk removes a small needler from her possession, but when he refuses to have sex with her, she produces an azoth, whose beam disintegrates anything in its path. To escape, Silk is forced to jump out of the window, fracturing his left ankle, and being captured.
Silk’s ankle is attended by Docftor Crane, Blood’s physician. To speed up the knitting of the bone, Crane applies a leather-like, self-sealing bandage that generates heat. To maintain the heat, Silk must periodically unwrap the bandage and thrash it against a flat surface to restore its kinetic potential. He is then taken before Blood and his main henchman (and lover) Musk, a mostly silent but entirely vicious young man whose sole enthusiasm in life is in hunting birds. Musk holds a deep-lying grudge against Silk, for his having killed Musk’s bird on the roof.
Silk is now wholly at Blood’s mercy, but despite his weak position, indeed with nothing to offer, he succeeds in drawing a bargain that will enable him to buy back the mainteion, albeit for twice what Blood has paid for it: 26,000 cards. He has a month in which to raise a substantial sum towards that total, as a demonstration to Blood that he is not merely a time-waster.
Silk is sent home in Blood’s flier. Crane will come to check Silk’s health that coming afternoon but Blood also requires an exorcism at one of his properties, on Lamp Street, a brothel under the Madameship of Orchid. En route to Sun Street, and passing this house, Silk hears a scream from within, but the driver refuses his pleas to halt.
When Crane arrives, he finds Silk trying to identify a hidden intruder. This turns out to be the night chough, which did not die but merely suffered some form of fit. Having threatened to cut its throat, not to mention damaging its wing poking about with Crane’s stick, Silk finds it hard to gain the trust of Oreb, as he names the bird. Once it does emerge, Crane bandages its wing before taking Silk to Lamp Street for his one o’clock meeting with Blood.
Blood is late, and Silk begins to discuss the exorcism with the Madame, Orchid, a barely awake overweight woman. They are interrupted by a scream: Orpine, one of the girls, is dead, stabbed under the left breast. Silk administers the last rites over the hysterical and blasphemous shouting of the red-headed Chenille.
When he arrives, Blood wants Silk to testify that Orpine’s death was suicide, to conclude the matter without question. Silk refuses, and combines his preparations for the exorcism with questions to establish the truth behind this. Orchid is persuaded to admit that Orpine was her daughter, which enables her to grieve properly. Thus relieved, she asks for a lavish funeral at Sun Street, and gives Silk thousands of cards to pay for this.
Silk identifies Chenille as the killer and elicits her confession. However, Chenille was not in possession of herself, being taken over by Mucus, who is also responsible for all the strange happenings that have prompted the exorcism. As part of the exorcism, he reconnects and retunes a long-disused Sacred Window from when the house was itself a manteion. Before the conclusion of the ceremony the Window is visited by the Goddess Kypris.
She is a beautiful, dark-haired woman and it takes Silk time to identify her. She is not one of the Nine but rather a minor Goddess, of Love, lover of Pas. She twits Silk over his twenty-three years of abstinence and about how Hyacinth, who she possessed the previous night, liked him. She commands the obedient Silk to keep their conversation secret.
The exorcism complete, Silk returns to Sun Street, to find Auk waiting for him. On a wall is chalked the words ‘Silk for Caldé’. Auk wants to know what happened, to advise Silk on the nightside world he has gotten himself mixed up with, and to protect him: these wall-scrawlings could put him in danger.
Indeed, Doctor Crane is currently filing a report to unknown masters outside of Viron on such a subject, and the possibilities of a popular movement in Silk’s favour, based on the ‘miracles’ he is reputed to have wrought.
Silk is still in debate with himself about the comparative moralities of his various courses. In order that he may be taught to defend himself, Auk takes him to meet the elderly one-legged fencing teacher, Master Xiphias, who hops around energetically and speaks in short bursts of excited sentences.
Silk returns to the manteion, tired, his ankle hurting. For a moment, he waits outside, listening to a conversation. He feels himself divided between Patera Silk and nightside Silk, convinced that the latter despises the former. Little more than twenty-four hours have passed since his moment of enlightenment. One of the voices inside sounds familiar: it is his own. Needler in hand, Silk enters.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: The Solar Cycle resumed


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!