Gene Wolfe – The Books of the Long & Short Sun (review)

Four books in two parts.

Four books in two parts.

Comprising:

The Book of the Long Sun:

  • Nightside of the Long Sun (1993)
  • Lake of the Long Sun (1994)
  • Calde of the Long Sun (1994)
  • Exodus from the Long Sun (1996)

The Book of the Short Sun:

  • On Blue’s Waters (1999)
  • In Green’s Jungles (2000)
  • Return to the Whorl (2001)

As Patera Remora would say: “Saints, eh? Visions, rockets.. uh, stirring tales.”

Some thoughts about the Books of the Long and Short Sun. I’ve been trying forever to wrap my head around these books. Only now, halfway through the final book, I sort of start to understand what Gene Wolfe has set out to do with these series. Or, more precisely, I understand that Gene Wolfe set out to do a couple of things with them.

First of all, it is the continuation and conclusion of his Solar Cycle of course. The three book series that comprise Wolfe’s Solar Cycle have a religious theme running all the way through them about messiahs, promised lands and deliverance. Severian in The Book of the New Sun (1980-83) sets out as a messiah to save the Earth, and in the process reinvigorates the sun, but causes a great flood on the planet that cleanses everything. In The Book of the Long Sun, we meet Patera Silk who sets out as a messiah to lead humanity from the Ark that is the Long Sun Whorl (to escape the great flood) to the promised lands of Blue and Green, and in The Book of the Short Sun, Horn is on Blue but searches for Silk to deliver the new lands from trouble.

These themes slowly become visible as you read what you think is simply a fantasy story. Then it turns into science fiction with suns and planets, and then the whole story becomes a religious allegory retold through a 12 book cycle. The old myths of Noah, Moses and Jesus are in a sense repeated in a far future world and a science fiction environment without Gene Wolfe spelling it out for you.

What Wolfe tried to do with the Long Sun and Short Sun series especially, I think, was to show the spread of humanity from a promised land into a broader universe. As humans descend to Blue and Green, they are separated from their homeland and from their gods and encounter other species or barbarians (Inhumi) who are attracted to and somehow released from sin through Horn and Silk. It is akin to Judaism giving birth to Christianity and spreading out into new lands, while the polytheistic religion changes to a monotheistic reference for the invisible Outsider god.

Secondly, looking at the text and characters themselves, Gene Wolfe tried to create a supremely “good” character, named Silk. Throughout the Long and Short sun books, we see Silk changing from boy to a Saint about which myths are told. I don’t think a character like Silk/Horn exists anywhere in literature. Wolfe shows us how this character, through the force of his faith, confidence and love and care for others, naturally leads humanity and becomes a savior, without this ever being pushed by a vague prophecy or whatever. Textually, this is a literary and artistic accomplishment of the highest order.

However… (review continued below)

Also, the covers are exceededly goofy.

Also, the covers are exceedingly goofy.

It was so hard for me to get through these books. Silk and Horn’s incessant humility and presumptions about the thoughts of others left me frustrated to say the least. To make things worse, most of the seven books (both Long and Short Sun) consist of dialogue that managed to frustrate me in many different ways. Almost all characters and peoples from different villages were given their own dialects, and most of that was annoying. There is a village in Return to the Whorl in which people only talk in the way Yoda from Star Wars talks. It’s a disaster. And since most of the books were about dialogues, it took me forever to get through.

And the action happens mostly off-screen, or is obscured by Wolfe deliberately being vague to create a tension of uncertainty about the text. This is a usual trick of his to push you to think about interpretations of the story and about deeper layers of meaning. It also makes for a boring story. Compared to the Book of the New Sun, The Short Sun didn’t really interest me that much. Not much happened that created a sense of wonder or fascination in me.

In the end, I am glad to have read the whole cycle, but for me the first series of the New Sun stands head and shoulders above anything else regarding creative brilliance, and both Long Sun and Short Sun disappointed me. I failed to engage with them. If the story and the characters aren’t that interesting, and the dialogue that is the main focus of the books is annoying, then no amount of visionary brilliance about myth and religion is going to make me like it.

But I can’t close the review without saying that these books are also often touching, and beautiful. I may not like some of the characterization and dialogue, but Wolfe does this on purpose, not in incompetence, and his writing skill shines through in heartfelt moments between characters. There is a beautiful romanticism about the books, about destinies, and youth and time slipping away, and sympathy and compassion. Reading the books was for me a bit like following a lecture by a really annoying professor, but you walk away with new insights and as a changed person, and you’re happy that you stayed to listen.

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2 Responses to Gene Wolfe – The Books of the Long & Short Sun (review)

  1. firestoneiv says:

    I had the opposite reaction from you. While I still think The Book of the New Sun is an amazing achievement, I connected with Long Sun much more. Silk is just so…human.

    Like

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