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Five Steps towards Briah: Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun

By Nick Gevers

The title is a multiplex pun, so typical of Gene Wolfe. The Book of the Long Sun (1993-6) can only closely follow, or mirror The Book of the New Sun (1980-3). And just as Severian, the narrator of the first Book, is the New Son of God, a man becoming Christlike if not Christ himself returned, so Patera Silk, Wolfe’s new protagonist, is the Long Son, the product of a virgin birth, long (tall) in physical and moral stature. And the renovation of the Sun is again implied; and the story, in four volumes, is very long, and is not over yet. Thus Wolfe in six words summarises his second tetralogy; and the critic can add that The Book of the Long Sun is, very likely, the most significant work of SF to be published in the 1990s – the most precise, the most sustained, and the most profound. It is a tale of physical, religious, and philosophical exodus; and, as such, it interrogates, and dismisses, the material world. The result is devious, eccentric, and charismatic, an old story rendered utterly, weirdly new.

The old story revivified here is, of course, that of the obscure youth rising to the positions of king and messiah. This was the path of Severian; Patera Silk repeats it. But it is a mark of Wolfe’s achievement that, while the biography or Book of Silk (as the narrator thought of terming it) consistently echoes Severian’s autobiography, the differences between the two texts are as striking as the similarities, so that they are always in complex, probing dialogue. Parallels are also contrasts: Severian’s Urth is the natural, God-created world facing the extinguishing death of its Sun; Silk’s generation starship, the Whorl, is an artificial, blasphemously constructed world whose demise will occur through the failure of its life-support systems, including its huge central light shaft, the ‘Long Sun’. For salvation, Severian and his people can look directly outward to the stars, dwelling as they do on their world’s outer surface, and thus they expect a New Sun to come to them; as inhabitants of the inner shell of a cylindrical craft, Silk and his followers must escape outward even to see the stars, and they can only attain a New (or Short) Sun by travelling to one. This generates a further decisive difference: the coming of the New Sun to Urth is a natural catastrophe, in which almost all of Urth’s people must die by flood or earthquake; the folk of the Whorl reach their Sun and its planets by their own efforts, in commonplace spacecraft, so that many, if not most, of them will survive. Severian outlives his people, having betrayed them to extinction; Silk is left behind to his own likely death on the Whorl, having ensured his congregation’s escape. Severian lives, to complete his solitudinous, irony-choked first-person narrative on the new, depopulated Urth, Ushas; the story of the lost Silk is related by another, who allows many viewpoints and voices to be heard, in a teeming, multifarious, democratic third-person polyphony. The Book of the New Sun is grand but bleakly closed; The Book of the Long Sun is humbler, more accessible, more hopeful, more open. It leads the many into wider vistas.

Long Sun is, one might say, the tale of the inmates trying to get out of prison. The entire long tetralogy, made up of Nightside the Long Sun (1993), Lake of the Long Sun (1994), Calde of the Long Sun (1994), and Exodus From the Long Sun (1996), is an account of how the pressure to depart mounts inside the vast container that is the Whorl, although its inhabitants initially mistake aspects of this pressure for more mundane indicators, of the need to rescue a church from developers, or overthrow a corrupt junta. The Whorl was dispatched 330 years previously by Typhon, the two-headed tyrant of Urth twice encountered by Severian, to colonise a distant (?) solar system (which may turn out, in the forthcoming The Book of the Short Sun, to be a version of Urth’s own system; we know that ‘the world of Severian’s childhood’ is somehow involved). The Whorl is governed by a great Mainframe computer, within which, as directing ghosts in the machine, Typhon and his monstrous family live on in digitised form. They have assumed the identities of a pantheon of gods, worshipped by the millions inhabiting the Whorl‘s many city states; they behave like standard pagan deities, yet have the demonic names, and many of the demonic attributes, of the family of Typhon in Hellenic myth: Echidna, Typhon’s mate, his daughters, including Scylla and Sphigx, and his sons, Hierax and Tartaros. Typhon has attempted to cloak his horrid nature by naming himself Pas, the god of everything, and assuming some benignity; his Plan entails the departure of the Whorl‘s people when its destination is reached. But Pas has, after three centuries, been wiped out of Mainframe’s core by his family, who, led by Echidna and Scylla, maintain the status quo even while new worlds await outside. The Whorl remains a hopeless prison for its multitudinous Cargo; but a backup program for the Plan of Pas is being initiated by rebellious elements, to ensure that evacuation occurs before life support breaks down…

The above is simply the Secret History behind the primary story of Long Sun, implied by Wolfe, and only dimly apprehended by his characters, in the same way that the truly explanatory activities of the ‘powers above the stage’ are merely guessed at in the New Sun cycle. Wolfe’s foreground narrative, the complex tapestry that shrouds and is shaped by the drama of the gods, is located almost entirely in one of the Whorl‘s many city states, Viron; the events described are the concentrated, transforming ones of a few weeks (in the first three volumes, a few days). The climax of a centuries-long process, these events build like a crescendo, escalating steadily from level to level and from scale to scale, implications mounting exponentially, an outward explosion of pressure contained for too long. The temporal and spatial intimacy of most of Long Sun is compressive, a preparation for the sudden expansion of vision that the final exodus brings; the flight to the outside is a sort of Big Bang, in which the false, blasphemous universe of the Whorl gives way to the true, God-inspired cosmos of Briah. With such momentous stakes in ultimate view, how is Silk’s story constructed in detail?

Like Severian, Silk is a torturer; but his victims are sacrificial animals, ritually offered to Pas and the other gods in fulfilment of Silk’s priestly function. He is a good and pious man, an authentic saint in an evil setting, predisposed by these qualities to excesses of moral and religious earnestness; in this he is a triumph of characterisation, exemplifying the flaws as well as the strengths of virtue. As an augur of the Chapter, working in a poor district, he seems obscurely ordinary; but circumstances in Viron and the wider Whorl will, in escalating fashion, call forth his extraordinary qualities. Viron is governed by a corrupt Council, the Ayuntamiento, which twenty years ago removed from power by assassination the city’s legitimate ruler, the Calde. This breach of constitutional law engendered a more general lawlessness, with the Councillors imposing their coercive and arbitrary will on Viron’s citizens and allowing all manner of abuses by their allies in organised crime. The Outsider, who presumably is an aspect of God Himself intervening from his truer realm Outside the Whorl, enlightens Silk, directing him to save his manteion (church) and perhaps other things as well. The clergy must step in when secular authority is found wanting; for a while, Silk must become a temporal leader, respected for his personal charisma as much as for his spiritual qualifications. This interaction of the religious and the worldly is the major concern of Long Sun, as will be seen.

Thus Silk, enacting a vague divine mandate often at odds with the pagan convictions an augur should profess, undertakes an involuntary rise to power. He schemes to prevent the take-over of his manteion by the crime lord, Blood, who has purchased the property. Confronting Blood and then having to reach an accommodation with him, he consequently encounters a foreign agent, Crane, who draws him into espionage, and the goddess of love, Kypris (a fugitive from the gods who have eliminated Pas), who begins to involve him in the Plan of Pas, the imperative to flee the Whorl. Becoming ever more entangled in the complexities of the secular world, which he faces with a naïve but firm resolve, Silk meets the dominant Councillor, Lemur, who before Crane kills him is shown to be a monster of hubris; Silk, whose popular standing is ever on the rise, is clearly the only candidate to become the restored Calde and return Viron to her proper order (he is in any case, secretly, the old Calde’s nominated successor). He is acclaimed Calde; the populace rises against the Ayuntamiento, and civil war ravages the city; Silk, who in his humility would rather remain a humble augur, is confirmed in office with the help of the head of the Chapter, Patera Quetzal, as well as of a strong faction of the Vironese military and the advanced guard of the armies of the neighbouring city of Trivigaunte. By the beginning of volume four, Exodus From the Long Sun, a just political revolution appears to be triumphing in Viron.

But matters rapidly go awry. Victory starts to slip through Silk’s fingers, and Wolfe’s plotting demands, ever more peremptorily, whether such a victory is desirable in any case. A mysteriously revived Pas, in alliance with Kypris and Tartaros, commands from within Mainframe that his Plan of evacuation be activated; Quetzal seconds this; and Fliers, the winged human agents of Mainframe, bring to Viron the urgent tidings that natural disasters will follow if an exodus from the Whorl does not at once begin. Silk’s forces find themselves at war with Trivigaunte as well as with the Ayuntamiento; Silk himself is temporarily held captive by the Trivigauntis; when he returns to Viron, it is being ruined by war, and flight to the Short Sun beyond the Whorl is the only option remaining. Many Vironese depart for the worlds known only as Blue and Green, whose nature is glancingly revealed as the tetralogy ends. Silk, of course, has been left behind.

This bare outline of an extraordinarily rich and complex novel, indicating only Silk’s particular perspective on events, may begin to hint at Wolfe’s deeper agenda in Long Sun. The entire 1400 page text, with its hundreds of characters, scores of voices, and countless veering twists of plot, is an exhaustive proof by Wolfe of the need to obey a simple injunction: transcend the material world. As a very subtle but also very emphatic Roman Catholic propagandist, Wolfe is commanding us to perceive our bodies and our physical surroundings for the pale mortal envelopes that they are, and rise into the divine light. Any godless secular world, he declares, is Hell, a place where any solutions are temporary, partial, empty. The Whorl is a reflection of contemporary Earth, that fallen spiritual wasteland. The name Whorl, mirroring the catachrestic diction of the minor character Tick, is a distortion both of World and of (Divine) Word, which should inform the World. World and Word have been lost; in their place, a corruption or catachresis of the world, created by the false god or satanic demiurge Pas, has come to be. It is a false Earth, as seen in its inverted or inside-outside shape. It has a false Heaven, a supposed place of the afterlife, Mainframe, whose servants, the Fliers, are false angels, their Celtic names (Iolar, Sciathan) and language suggesting that they ought properly to be seen as Fairy Folk, illusory trickster beings. False deities govern the Whorl, their worship, Lemur tells Silk, designed as a parody of an older, truer religion. Monstrous tyrants like Viron’s Councillors abuse temporal power. And as its life-support mechanisms decay, the Whorl is doomed, a short-lived exercise in hubristic blasphemy. The way out is not fruitless secular endeavour, but rather an ascent back towards God, an exodus into His Creation, a stepping into Briah.

In the Cabbalistic scheme of universes employed by Wolfe in The Urth of the New Sun (1987), Briah was the plane on which Urth, Severian’s home, existed. Severian took one step up the hierarchy of divine Emanations or Sefiroth, arriving in the purer realm of Yesod. The inhabitants of the Whorl are less fortunate in their positioning: they are in a subcreation beneath Briah, and can only aspire to arrive where Severian began. But the effort must be made. The medium of this ascension is Silk; his story is in one respect that of the Good Pagan, whose gathering enlightenment allows him to become Christian even where Christianity has no physical presence. If Long Sun is read as an account of one man’s conversion to belief in the true God (the Outsider), and of how his example further inspires many others, much of the book’s momentum towards transcendence is explained: from a dark state of Graeco-Roman paganism, lit only by the feeble Long Sun, souls rise towards a brighter knowledge of the Divine, in the fuller light of the Short Sun. But in Gene Wolfe’s work, nothing is ever quite that simple.

For one thing, Wolfe is never as directly categorical as the above argument may suggest. He readily concedes to the secular, and even to paganism, some measure of cogency. They should be tried; indeed, as instruments of God’s Divine Plan, they can be quite useful. And if they are not tried, how can their fundamental emptiness ever be demonstrated? Their simultaneous usefulness (limited) and futility (absolute) should be confirmed through rigorous experiment, before the necessity of Catholic monotheism is asserted. This project Wolfe masterfully undertakes in The Book of the Long Sun. First a world without Christianity is thoroughly dissected; then it can be left behind. The experimental method of Science, incorporated into a work of Science Fiction, is used by Wolfe as a proof of Faith.

To Wolfe, paganism and secularism presumably are aspects of the same mentality. A person who does not believe in God will instead believe in anything; in that climate, faith readily attaches to the mere concrete things of this world, and to deities who personify the appearances, the natural phenomena, of that world. Wolfe constructs the Whorl to demonstrate the evil effects of this lawless secular mindset; he then challenges that mindset to remedy those effects. The problem that the secular must thus solve is usurpation: in the Whorl, the fundamental wrongness that is God’s absence has allowed all legitimate authority to be destroyed. This pattern emerges repeatedly and at many levels of scale: when Pas (Typhon) usurps the prerogative of God by fashioning his own world, the Whorl; when Pas and his family proclaim themselves the gods of the Whorl, relegating the God who made them to the status of the Outsider, a minor, little-worshipped deity; when Pas’s wife and children in their turn depose Pas, ‘wiping him out of core’; when the Ayuntamiento of Viron, echoing the gods, deposes the legitimate Calde, Tussah, and usurps power; when the Ayuntamiento Councillors, in a bid for immortality, usurp control of ‘chem’ or robot bodies that formerly had personalities of their own; when Patera Quetzal, in fact a vampirical alien, assumes human form and usurps the headship of Viron’s Chapter (Church); when Mucor, Blood’s daughter, rides the bodies of others by casting her mind into them. The Father, the Ruler, the Sovereign Soul: these are evicted again and again; even the city of Trivigaunte, at first seemingly sympathetic, comes to be seen as a matriarchal dystopia, in which the elimination of patriarchy (which Wolfe, as a conservative Catholic, defends) has given rise to an illegitimate and harshly chauvinistic feminist militarism. The entire pattern may stem from an ancient usurpation, described when Typhon was originally encountered in The Sword of the Lictor (1982): Typhon’s appropriation of the body of his slave, Piaton. But whatever the Original Sin, a chaos of illegitimacy prevails: something must set it right.

Wolfe’s large cast of characters is given the opportunity. They live in a version of Hell; they try hard to retrieve their situation. By enlightening Silk and setting him on the road to the Caldeship, the Outsider Himself provides some momentum towards a secular solution. But only heroic failure is possible: human frailty and confusion are too great. Wolfe’s narrative expresses, integrates, perhaps is that confusion. As in The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe acts as a literary torturer, compelling his characters and his narrative form to confess their inadequacies of perception and representation. His instruments, naturally, are plot, characterisation, and dialogue; these should be examined in turn.

Plot. As Wolfe’s narrator years afterwards reconstructs Silk’s story from his own memories and from much oral testimony, he effectively relays the confusion of the times. Sometimes events are related in great, possibly very significant detail; elsewhere, complex developments are told at second hand, or conveyed speedily and with gaping lacunae; in certain instances, only guesswork can reconstruct what has occurred. And the plot itself is a maze of twists and turns, moving mercurially about, new characters and implications incessantly emerging. All the leading characters must at some stage wander unpredictably through the tunnels under Viron, in what is simultaneously a hellish Underworld and the primary route out of the Hell that is the Whorl. Silk’s adventures result in his being taken captive, by various foes, at least six times. The tides of battle and the alignment of factions are always shifting. Long Sun seems, for much of its length, almost helter-skelter.

This facilitates Wolfe’s assertion of inherent secular confusion. But there is much deliberation in the disorder also. Unexpected connections are struck between characters, ideas, symbols. What at first seems an isolated implication may retrospectively acquire great significance: for example, Horn’s imitation of Silk at the start of Lake of the Long Sun is no longer incidental when one considers Horn’s role late in Exodus. And, again in retrospect, the twisting plot of Long Sun may be understood as Wolfe’s exploration and demolition of a succession of secular options, whose abandonment will leave God as the sole alternative.

There are four of these options, one per volume, each a stage of Wolfe’s argument, making clear the cause of Long Sun‘s structuring as a tetralogy. Each phase of the plot sees Silk and his allies undertake a strategy which, however courageously pursued, fails; they are catapulted, willy-nilly, into another phase as the volume ends. Thus, Nightside the Long Sun sees Silk attempt to protect his manteion, and the people that it serves, by means of dealings with the criminal, Blood; the conventions of crime fiction come into play, only to be exhausted. Silk breaks into Blood’s mansion, becoming a thief; but as he is caught, he must compromise with greater thieves, and is made their tool. He also plays the detective, investigating a murder at a brothel owned by Blood; but unlike his model, Chesterton’s Father Brown, Silk must entertain supernatural hypotheses, and the tight secular reasoning typical of the whodunit falls away. The permutations of the criminal method and genre are discarded; next comes espionage. In Lake of the Long Sun, Silk initially hopes to blackmail the Trivigaunti agent, Doctor Crane, into providing the funds needed to redeem the manteion from Blood; but this intrigue comes to nought when Silk finds himself a prisoner of the Ayuntamiento, along with Crane. Not only is Silk poor at the spying game; he ought rather to have acted against his own deeply unpleasant government in the first place. But a career as Trivigaunti agent or ally is rendered impossible when Silk’s new comrade, Doctor Crane, dies in an absurd skirmish with friendly forces. The espionage option and the spy genre recede from view; the war story beckons.

Calde of the Long Sun embraces the military option. Armed righteousness is now explored. The rebellious citizens of Viron, many defectors from the City Guard, and Trivigauntis arriving on an airship make Silk Calde in truth, and the Ayuntamiento, with its thousands of robot soldiers, is restricted to limited areas of the city and the underground tunnels. Wolfe enjoys describing armaments and strategy. But Silk would rather have peace; war merely devastates Viron and slays thousands. The sense grows that Silk is becoming a puppet of self-interested forces: his military commander, Oosik, Patera Quetzal, head of the Chapter, and Trivigaunte. Victory at this volume’s end is partial, threatening stalemate; Silk wonders in the final scene whether the arrival of further Trivigaunti troops is desirable. War may inspire and liberate, as it does Maytera Mint, the shy sybil from Silk’s manteion who is suddenly transformed into a charismatic general; but it is no lasting answer. This ambiguity fuels the next option, explored in Exodus From the Long Sun. The genre now is the utopia. Trivigaunte represents a radical alternative to the patriarchal oligarchy of Viron: a society of Amazons, an experiment in matriarchy. But the outcome is inevitably unhappy, a dystopia. Trivigaunte, like any revolutionary society, must arm itself; its militarism has become absolute. Its rulers treat men as badly as men have ever treated women. It wages constant aggressive wars. Its intervention in the Vironese revolution is that of an imperial power establishing a colony. Wolfe dismisses the hope that utopian formulas can restrain human excesses. And so things become still worse. The only choice left for Silk and his followers is the abandonment of the world, the exodus into Briah.

Four secular possibilities, four literary genres: all implode. This is the pattern underlying Long Sun‘s bustling plot. In God alone should trust be placed: the fifth option, that of religious transcendence, prevails. But the first four have been useful, as demonstrations of secular futility, as tests of the mettle of humanity, as upheavals that compel thousands to flee the Whorl. Every action fits into the Divine Plan. In the end, the four empty stages are four necessary steps towards Briah, towards God. They make possible the fifth step, leading to the planets Blue and Green.

Characterisation. A glance at the prefatory list of characters in Exodus From the Long Sun might suggest that their sheer numbers would add to Wolfe’s spectacle of secular confusion. This is not the case: even the more minor figures are skilfully differentiated from each other, and Wolfe choreographs the movements of all effortlessly. It is in fact perplexities within individual characters that advance Wolfe’s design. Almost all of the significant people he describes, whatever their intelligence or moral profile, are impeded in their actions and vision either by ambiguity of identity or by uncertainty of perception (very often both). As in so many previous Wolfe novels, it is difficult to be certain of the nature of others, and even more difficult to know oneself.

So many of the characters in Long Sun are not precisely themselves. Their programming can be altered. Patera Silk is not the same man after his enlightenment by the Outsider as he was before, and Wolfe repeatedly emphasises how his experiences change him yet further. The three sybils of Silk’s manteion all undergo metamorphoses: Mayteras Marble and Rose become one united being when the chem or robot, Marble, incorporates into herself the dead Rose’s prosthetic parts; and Maytera Mint, absorbing aspects of the goddesses Kypris and Echidna, moves from quiet shyness to martial inspiration as General Mint. Silk’s eventual wife, Hyacinth, may be nothing more than an avatar or vehicle for Kypris. Silk’s sister Chenille and her lover, the thief and prophet Auk, are possessed by gods and gain a foreign purposefulness. Blood’s mad daughter, Mucor, can readily possess others and often does: this violates the selfhood of Patera Remora (the chief ecclesiastical bureaucrat), the Trivigaunti General Saba, the flier Sciathan, and Horn, to name but some. The Councillors of the Ayuntamiento are physically moribund, and so direct stolen chem bodies: are they humans or chems? (The answer horrifies Councillor Lemur, and leads to his death.) Since chems can be reprogrammed, the soldier, Corporal Hammerstone, is made into a quite different person by the ‘black mechanic’, Patera Incus. And there are characters who are simply thoroughly disguised, like the alien, Quetzal, and the foreigner, Crane: only they know themselves. In the absence of reliable recognition of the self and of others, agendas of outward action become precarious.

This is especially true given constant misunderstandings of the nature of phenomena and events. Silk often fails, earnestly but utterly, to comprehend developments around him; his pet and companion, the night chough Oreb, is frequently more perceptive than his master (of which, more shortly). Silk has his expertise, but it is unworldly and narrow. Indeed, all of Wolfe’s characters are competent in their way, but they almost all (very realistically) only know very small parts of the total picture. Auk is a great thief, Hyacinth a great courtesan, Oosik a proficient soldier, Remora a superb office politician, but these are not wide horizons. Viron is only one city state of hundreds; the Whorl extends even beyond all these; the real universe is a hardly guessed at realm outside: in the face of this, how informed can anyone’s planning be? Wolfe’s intimacy of scale in most of Long Sun, combined with sudden expansions of scale as the story proceeds, makes clear how small a reach individual experience covers.

Again, secular solutions will not serve. But it should be noted here that two characters do seem to know very much more than the rest. Detailed textual analysis, of the kind all Wolfe’s works demand, suggests that the Outsider has two oracular mouthpieces deployed in Viron: Silk’s bird Oreb, and Patera Quetzal. Both are outsiders, Oreb from the Palustrian swamps quite far from Viron, Quetzal from the planet Green. Oreb, at first designated by Silk as a sacrifice to the Outsider, and later identified by Mint as indeed sacred to that God, provides a constant verbal counterpoint to Silk’s own remarks. He is Silk’s guide as well as his foil. Also a winged being, Quetzal is a more enigmatic figure, on the surface a venerable holy man, beneath that a vampire inhumu. Whatever his true intentions in entering the Whorl, which Wolfe never clarifies, he is not merely a shape-changing monster. He simulates benignity too well. He assists Silk’s political struggle; he would seem to be instrumental in both of Silk’s glimpses of spirits from the afterlife. His religious erudition appears very deep. Furthermore, the planets of his home system, Blue and Green, are, as others have pointed out, reminiscent of the twin worlds in Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972). If this parallel has any force, the humans of the Whorl, like the colonists in Fifth Head, are invaders, the inhumi their victims. Quetzal may well be an envoy. But whether he stands for the Outsider and the outside universe or not, Quetzal, like Oreb, can impart only obliquely helpful fragments of his special knowledge to the people of Viron. They must be allowed their own difficult path of errors to Briah.

Dialogue. One of the most impressive features of Long Sun is Wolfe’s differentiation of characters by means of their idiosyncratic speech patterns. Dialogue dominates the text of the series, a great hum of interrogatory and confessional voices; the variety and complexity of spoken language is one of Wolfe’s central themes here. Yet for all the vitality of communication and interpretation in this text, the question is posed once more: how can mere secular understanding decode such a Babel of dialects and subjectivities?

The assembly of Long Sun‘s countless fragments of spoken meaning into a coherent whole is impossible for any character, leaving even Wolfe’s narrator, who writes with the hindsight of years, in some analytical perplexity. Rich eccentricities of diction abound, retarding comprehension. Tick the catachrest sets the tone with frustrating distortions of words; Oreb, the other major animal character, speaks only in bisyllabic exclamations. The lower classes speak a specialised ‘thieves’ cant’, disguising their activities from the authorities; the lower-ranking soldiers are programmed to speak similarly, as this fits them for their tasks, Hammerstone tells Silk. The educated can be as obscure: Patera Remora haws his way to a scholarly precision, while Patera Incus is ridiculously orotund. The Trivigaunti elite employ an exclusive aristocratic tongue, and so struggle with the common language – for them a mark of their superiority.

Even those who speak a more standard English (or what Wolfe ‘translates’ as such) have their strategies of obfuscation: Quetzal and Crane are in careful disguise; the gods who speak from Mainframe via the ‘Sacred Windows’ must be opaquely oracular; Lemur and his Councillors declare with every word their mad calculating hubris. And so those who seek clarity – in particular Silk and Mint – are lost in thickets of conflicting signification. Their interpretive efforts are heroic; but in the end, the Whorl is a Hell of misrepresentation and deception, and true answers lie Outside.

* * * * * * *

The Book of the Long Sun is a masterpiece of subversive persuasion. It deploys SF’s genre props in all their glamour and iconic resonance, constructing out of them a narrative that is exciting, knowing, seductive, a summary of the virtues of traditional SF. And yet, this is the device by which Gene Wolfe draws his readers into the trap of Faith: SF’s characteristically secular descriptive vocabulary, the terminology and rhetoric of Science, is eloquent, and alluring in its promise of understanding. It entices the secular-minded reader into Wolfe’s text. Then, too late, the reader realises that scientific analysis will not serve, that a religious paradigm must take over. Wolfe persuades with all the formal subtlety of an Aquinas. Or with all the brutal ingenuity of an Inquisitor.

The process will continue further. Two questions remain to be resolved (or not) in The Book of the Short Sun. First: now that they are in Briah, how will the colonists from the Whorl confront the inhumi of Green, who may be both devils and angels? Will they make further spiritual gains, despite the religious doubts that must flourish in Silk’s absence? And second: what was Silk’s fate on the Whorl? Did he accept Kypris’ off.er to join her as a god in Mainframe? If so, was the offer a corrupting trap or an opportunity to redeem the Whorl from within? This last uncertainty, so provocative of conflicting readings of Long Sun, is a quintessentially Wolfean gift and challenge to the reader, and integral, one must hope, to Short Sun.


  • Nightside the Long Sun (New York: Tor, 1993)
  • Lake of the Long Sun (New York: Tor, 1994)
  • Calde of the Long Sun (New York: Tor, 1994)
  • Exodus From the Long Sun (New York: Tor, 1996)

This article first appeared in Nova Express 5.1, Fall/Winter 1998. Now out of print, we reprint it with the permission of its editor, Lawrence Person.


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1 Comment

  1. Carlos Persico

    Wonderful reading, thanks for sharing. I hadn’t fully considered the parallelism and contrast between New Sun and Long Sun. Thanks for kindling that thought.

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