a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

The Reader as Augur: Beginnings and Endings in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun

By Nick Gevers

Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun (1993-6) is a deeply complex expression of momentum: the momentum of faith, of history, of escape, of understanding. Science Fiction is replete with texts that involve such accelerations of vision and concept; but Wolfe, with his penetrating and parodic understanding of the conventions and purposes of the genre, carries this technique of escalation to levels of subtlety not frequently encountered. In so doing, Wolfe achieves two grand purposes: first, he is able to demonstrate once again the extraordinary arsenal of irony, of resonant symbolism, and of subliminal implication that has fuelled his extraordinary career; and second, he is able to affirm the absolute primacy of religious faith – specifically, of his own idiosyncratic Roman Catholicism – by way of a work superficially characteristic of a thoroughly secular genre. The four volumes of The Book of the Long Sun are exponentially progressive secular leaps into the surrounding realm of Faith; this article, by means of close reference to the opening and concluding passages of each volume, explores how Wolfe structures this cascading, apparently inadvertent but in truth inevitable, march closer to the Divine.

In a previous article (“Five Steps Towards Briah”), I set out some ideas as to how Long Sun is designed. Briefly, I suggested there that Long Sun is a formal tetralogy in the same manner as The Book of the New Sun (1980-3): that is, that its volumes form a sequence of four very deliberately differentiated stages of a developing argument. Long Sun‘s wild twists and turns of plot, its multiplicity of characters, and the bewildering variety of voices that those characters assume, all contrive to conceal a highly linear momentum of the protagonists towards escape from their generation starship (an illusory world, a false creation) into Briah (the true universe, a part of God’s Creation); caught up in the toils of immediate events, Wolfe’s dramatis personae and his readers can only glimmeringly or retrospectively perceive how and where the God-ordained torrent has carried them. Along the way, each volume has tested and invalidated an important secular option and related literary genre: Nightside the Long Sun (1993) dismisses detection and detective fiction; Lake of the Long Sun (1994) similarly deconstructs espionage and thus the spy story; Calde of the Long Sun (1994) demolishes the revolutionary war story; and Exodus From the Long Sun (1996) discredits political utopias (by means of a disillusioning delineation of the Amazon matriarchy of Trivigaunte). By the end of the final volume, the merely physical, gods-ruled but Godless secular domain of the generation starship has been castigated as a depleted wasteland, an island of perplexing wrongness which no program of practical action can redeem; the souls who have been Cargo must relinquish their temporal concerns, and step outside their ship, into new worlds where the writ of God, known in the text as the “Outsider”, runs with complete, if inscrutable, authority (just how inscrutable will only be known with the appearance of Wolfe’s sequel, the trilogy The Book of the Short Sun). The secular concepts and rhetoric of SF have been employed, very cunningly, as the proofs of a religious teleology. What must now be investigated is how Wolfe’s authorial strategy works in detail.

One of the numerous formal devices of The Book of the New Sun is the conceit that its text is like a hologram: any fragment contains the essence of the whole. Although Long Sun has a more casual manner than New Sun, a more relaxed style and fewer gestures towards the narrative sleights of modernism and postmodernism, it conforms in many ways to the same ideal of each chapter as the totality’s microcosm. Generally, as mentioned above, a Babel of eccentrically voluble characters, their identities often fluid or ambiguous, articulates in every part of the text the Fallen confusion of the cast. The Whorl, Wolfe’s generation starship, is described so that its wrongness, its duplicitous misuse and misrepresentation of religious truths and symbols, is evident in every passage: its Chapter (or Church) is a systematic parody of Catholicism, abusing such elements as the Cross and the Eucharist, while the ship’s governing pantheon of deities, their Mainframe computer, and its servants, the Fliers, function as a burlesque of God, Heaven, and Angels. Usurpations of sundry kinds pervade Long Sun; these resonate with each other, summarising the illegitimacy of the Whorl. Also repeatedly present are motifs implying the necessity of escape from the Whorl: the wind that blows constantly through the city of Viron, and sometimes in dreams, a gusting intimation of the pressure for the inmates to depart their prison; the image of birds, both those held captive and those indulgently set free, a reminder that souls are in bondage where they should be at liberty to rise high into the Light; and the remarkable prevalence of imprisonment in Wolfe’s plotting (the hero, Patera Silk, is repeatedly captured by sundry enemies, only to be freed, and all the major characters spend considerable time in baffling underground tunnels, seeking egress). But an especially noteworthy device is Long Sun‘s emphasis upon prophecy, or to be more precise, augury: frequently, characters divine the shape of the future from entrails, from chance events, from dreams. This keeps the longer-term shape of the narrative always in view; but a more profound purpose is simultaneously served: Wolfe encourages his readers to exercise the augur’s interpretative acuity of vision; often in his text, augury is a metaphor for, and instruction in, the demands of incisive reading. Long Sun‘s purpose is clear on every page – to the reader willing to be augur.

Because the worship of a pagan pantheon is the official religion of the city of Viron, and because Patera Silk is an augur at a temple or “manteion”, scenes of formal augury are found in each volume of Long Sun. While pagan superstitions are often interrogated by Wolfe, he accords augury a genuine prophetic function – most likely so that it can summarise the virtues of close reading. Considerable insight into the further course of the narrative is available in those scenes where Silk and others sacrifice, and read the entrails of, animal victims: notably in chapter two of Lake and in chapter three of Calde. But most significant is Silk’s address to the children at his palaestra near the start of Long Sun, in chapter two of Nightside: here, he selects a passage at random from a book of prophetic writings, emphasising that any page will do, and finds words of immense significance. This is an initiation of the reader into the sort of intensive and ingenious textual decoding that Wolfe expects, and a warning that such alertness to symbolic implication and nuance must be exercised at all times, as every paragraph, however incidental seeming, reflects the whole. But a further warning is offered at the same time: whatever his virtues, Silk is quick to misunderstand the evidence of his eyes, and of his senses generally; the conclusions he draws from divination and more secular investigations are frequently mistaken, both in content and in emphasis. The Whorl is a domain of illusion, of false representation, and close reading must compensate for the obscure and the misleading elements playfully deployed in all of Wolfe’s major works.

Although every section of the text repays scrutiny, it is possible to identify a range of passages in Long Sun that are especially responsive to augural interpretation. Chapter two of Nightside implies much: Silk visits the marketplace to buy a sacrificial victim, a signal that divination is imminently necessary; the fact that animals and vegetables, their names corresponding to the human nomenclature of Viron (men have animal, and women vegetable, names) are on sale suggests that a struggle is on for the ransom of souls; Silk rejects the purchase of a catachrest (which speaks distortedly, as its name implies) in favour of that of a night chough, which speaks clearly, if brokenly: he (and we) should heed whatever signs are honest in a world of deception (pp. 33-42). Later in this chapter, Silk has an imaginative vision in which images of birds and the theatre anticipate quite clearly the eventual abandonment of the Whorl, and return visits to it by its people (a proleptic glimpse of Short Sun) (p. 49). By the fourth chapter of Lake the reader is in a position to assess the rich implications of Silk’s dream of death, imbalance, and outward momentum (pp. 104-6). Calde contains passages whose dense, resonant prose invites intricacies of comprehension (the prophet Auk’s underground wanderings, the sacrificial scene in chapter three, and Silk’s hotel visit and dream of the Outsider in chapter seven). Exodus, the longest and most demanding volume, constantly tests the reader: a conundrum of augury is posed when General Mint, interpreting her own dream, understands it fully only while again dreaming (pp. 102-7); in chapter seven, Silk’s interview with the director of the factory that makes taluses (fighting robots) entails discussions of slavery and exploitation that will surely acquire great significance when the dealings between humans and the alien “inhumi” are related in the colonial context of Short Sun; and Silk’s ruminations in chapter fifteen are of extremely complex implication. In all of these sections, the augural faculty is imperatively summoned.

But the clearest indication of Wolfe’s challenge to the reader is found in his structuring of the beginnings and endings of the four volumes. As stressed earlier, these volumes are the stages of an argument; each must begin with some instruction of the reader as to how this stage is to be analysed and understood; at the same time, Wolfe must declare the conditions of ludic narrative disguise that will complicate the process of understanding. To this end, each opening passage features a dialogue between a more-or-less naïve individual and a figure possessing privileged information, which he will only yield up in oracular or otherwise obscure form. The information and the precise character of its obscurity amount to guidance, to terms of reading, for the remainder of the volume. When the volume concludes, a schism occurs: old and new states diverge, laying a basis for the next stage of the argument, in what Kim Stanley Robinson and John Clute term a “slingshot ending”, an ending whose momentum of implication carries well beyond the confines of the text it terminates. In this manner, the text’s weight of significance escalates, until in its closing pages Exodus rushes outside the Whorl, prefiguring the shape and themes of the ultimate phase of Wolfe’s religious thesis, The Book of the Short Sun. A detailed examination of Long Sun‘s interlocking beginnings and endings can reveal much about the intentions behind the tetralogy, and about Wolfe’s subtleties of narrative technique.

The oracular speaker in the opening passage of volume one, Nightside the Long Sun, is God Himself: the Outsider. He enlightens Patera Silk, who is playing a basketball-style game with the boy pupils from his parish school. The first irony here is that the teacher is being taught: “all that had been hidden was displayed” (p. 9). As subsequent episodes where Silk acts as teacher indicate, he has difficulty conveying his lessons with any speed or accuracy; in the same way, he will need a long time to absorb the true import of the lessons the Outsider has imposed upon him with such magisterial urgency. He is a mere pupil now. Thus, his enlightenment is a stream of images, their significance yet to be decoded – Silk will think about them long and hard afterwards, “whispering to himself in the silent hours of the night as was his custom”. And they are conveyed from behind Silk, by two voices, which must be heeded simultaneously, and which may speak to contradictory effect; and the voices whisper, as Silk does to himself, a mark of obscurity as well as of confidentiality. And the voices interrupt the game just as the boy Horn reaches “for an easy catch”, substituting difficulty for ease. From the start, Wolfe emphasises that revelation is a challenge.

For the reader as for Silk, the content of revelation is hard to parse. Although “hidden” things are “displayed” at the end of paragraph one, they are still qualified as “hidden” in the first sentence of paragraph two. They make little sense, and come in a rush. Wolfe additionally makes clear that what is being revealed is only the workings of a “clockwork show”, in the additional context of the basketball match: if Silk and his people inhabit a game, what higher realities must lie beyond the Whorl and the scope of Silk’s enlightenment? Within that scope, signs are presented to those augurs, Silk and the reader. Horn’s grin is “frozen in forever”, an ironic tribute to his craftily concealed and long-term function as Long Sun‘s narrator. Dead Patera Pike, the former senior augur at Silk’s manteion, is seen praying mumblingly for the Whorl‘s salvation while he sacrifices a rabbit “he himself had bought”, an intimation of the efficacy of humble prayer but also of the need for personal sacrifice, a balance kept throughout Long Sun. Silk sees a “dead woman” in an alley, and the “people of the quarter”, an equation implying that all those people will die unless he saves them. Silk is shown the stars, but juxtaposed with Pike’s sacrifice (pp. 9-10): the Whorl can be escaped, but only at great cost.

The panorama continues: proud houses (that will soon be abandoned); the very different characters of the manteion’s three sybils, who all will be central to later developments; the inefficacy of Maytera Rose’s pagan prayers; the boy Feather falling, a first glimpse of the wider text’s crucial bird symbolism; Horn shoving him aside, a hint at Horn’s status as the one who will relate (and so usurp) Silk’s life; the deterioration of the Whorl‘s environment, which is so much more serious than Silk presently believes. Wolfe is at pains to emphasise again how obscure this burden of enlightenment is: Silk beholds a bewildering mingling of colours, including some “he had never known”, unlike the more predictable “Holy Hues” of the pagan gods; the Outsider has more than two voices, but Silk cannot hear these others; the Outsider makes of the Whorl both “an empty show” and something “precious”, a warning of necessary ambiguities of perception; and we are told that Silk will later try to push away the Outsider’s “bitter lesson” and “fell words”. Before Silk returns from the eternity of his vision to the ordinary world of time, the images of the vision run together (pp. 10-11): they have a united meaning, but what is it? Many small answers are needed, so that a greater one can be formulated; Long Sun will be a long amassing of evidence.

By the end of his enlightenment, Silk knows that it is his destined task to set his world to rights, feels the blowing of the wind that will carry him through this destiny and the text, and seizes the initiative in the ball game from Horn (pp. 10-11), showing his awareness of the need for action. But this awareness is very vague, symptomatic of an ill-informed or partial reading of his vision. Silk spends the rest of Nightside in attempts to fulfil merely the letter of the Outsider’s instructions: to save his church, or manteion. This leads to short-sighted conflict with the criminal gang lord who is acquiring the property on which the manteion stands; encounters with the underworld, a bizarre break-in at the crime boss’s mansion, an injury to Silk’s leg, an exorcism at a brothel, and other events not seemingly much to the point follow. Silk blunders, like a man lost in a maze. In retrospect, the reader realises that all of this has, willy-nilly, served the Outsider’s deeper purpose; but this is in retrospect only. The opening passage of Nightside has been a warning – from God or Wolfe – that great care must be exercised in interpreting divine or authorial evidence, and that the cost of inattention can be high. These are the first volume’s terms of reading.

The function of Nightside‘s conclusion is to hurl Silk and the reader into volume two, into another phase of the plot, another set of textual conditions. Silk returns to his manteion somewhat uncertainly (he hobbles, p. 330) but also definitely (he locks the gate carefully behind him, pp. 330-1). He will proceed, however erringly. He now hears voices, one “harsh”, the other his own. In these few apparently surreal or supernatural moments of standing outside, listening to his own voice deliver a talk, Silk realises he has undergone a schism, been “split in two” by the Outsider (p. 331), between the old, habit-bound, and gentle Silk and a new, part-criminal Silk, who is open to the temptations and hatreds of the world (pp. 331-2). He is unsure which Silk is better (an uncertainty the reader may share). Although Silk is wrong to fear that the old Silk may literally be inside the manteion, by some magic waiting and speaking there, he is symbolically and psychologically correct: he has left his unenlightened self behind. The pagan sermon his doppelganger is speaking no longer articulates his true beliefs.

As he prepares to open the door (to the manteion, to the new volume that is his next phase), his weapon ready, Silk reflects on how dark the goodness of the Outsider may be (p. 333). This sums up the techniques and perils of Nightside, which as its title implies has ventured into the gloom of morally uncertain, criminal territory: the simultaneous obscurity and potency of divine knowledge, the imperative to interpret this knowledge correctly, so that however grim its implications, it informs and transforms one in the proper way. The practical reading of his enlightenment, although it has been erratic and hard, has prepared Silk for change, changed him into a hardier version of himself: this schism is the slingshot that propels him into the different dangers of Lake of the Long Sun.

The reader accompanies him, and encounters an opening passage that calls at once for augural insight. The first pages of Lake are significant in a highly devious way. Silk discovers that the speakers in the manteion have been his bird, Oreb (the harsh voice) and Horn, the same boy who featured so prominently in the basketball game. Horn has been mimicking Silk’s oratorical style. What follows is a prolonged dialogue in which Silk discusses with Horn various issues, which helpfully sums up and further contextualises the events of volume one. Silk has no literal doppelganger; he settles comfortably into his old role of teacher; this seems anti-climactic after the sinister tone of Nightside‘s final pages. But Wolfe is simply offering a climax of a subtler sort. The tone for this is set by Lake‘s first words: “Silence fell, abrupt as a shouted command” (p. 13); silent implication can convey as much as any violent confrontation. There are two silent but vital clues here: Horn, a relatively minor character, is again present at a volume’s inception; and Horn, not Silk, is the teacher in this scene.

Once more, Wolfe structures a volume’s initial pages as a didactic encounter. But what seems to be a series of principles and ruminations addressed by Silk to Horn is in reality a silent lesson administered by Horn to Silk. Horn’s mimicry of Silk’s speech, which he again demonstrates for Silk (p. 20), is a warning that Silk is going to be narrated by others: ultimately, by Horn, who as the author of Silk’s biography will reconstruct his life in the text we read; but also by others, the individuals, factions, and manipulative agencies that will make Silk their instrument even as they make him the calde or ruler of the city of Viron. As Silk becomes a public figure, he becomes whatever others desire him to be. At the start of Nightside, Silk learnt from God; now he can learn from his “author”. But again, the clues are subtle, best understood in retrospect; Silk will move through Lake as uncertainly as through Nightside. Nevertheless, Lake has declared at the outset its terms of reading: that the Silk presented by the text must be seen as a construct by others, a simulated or estimated Silk, prone to being incorrectly quoted (p. 22) or quoted without proper comprehension (p. 20); that as such, his nature may shift as the narrator, or the Outsider, or other manipulators require; and that in general lessons must be interpreted with great attention to Wolfe’s characteristic slipperiness of nuance.

Accordingly, Silk moves very changeably through Lake. He first plots to repurchase his manteion from the crime lord, Blood, by blackmailing the Trivigaunti agent, Doctor Crane; later, held captive by his own city’s tyrannical rulers, he realises perforce that they are worse than any foreign power, and forms an alliance with Crane. Meanwhile, his capacity to attract theophanies from the gods and his selfless charisma have combined to make him the general choice to fill the caldeship, the presidential office long rendered vacant by Viron’s usurping junta; to deities like Kypris and Scylla, to the political and criminal underground, to the dictatorial Councillor Lemur, and to the spies of Trivigaunte, Silk is a figure to be used, moulded or narrated into convenient shapes. He veers between these misrepresentations in a highly fluid plot, encountering ghosts and gods, spies and soldiers, revenants and revolutionaries. By Lake‘s close, Silk is clearly on the route to becoming calde, but what will this mean?

The volume’s concluding scene provides definite clues as to what Silk’s caldeship will bring: civil conflict and the triumph of the Outsider. At this stage, some members of the Vironese military are turning against the ruling Councillors, and are prepared to support Silk’s claim to be calde. This is a promising development; but as Lake ends, it leads to a farcical tragedy. One set of mutineers, under Captain Serval, escorts Silk and Crane from the town of Limna towards Viron, pretending that they are prisoners to avoid official interception. This entails Silk riding bound on a donkey (p. 347), a likening of his progress to Christ’s into Jerusalem, but a sign also of the constricting, ambiguous role his messiahdom will impose on him. Unfortunately, a second troop of sympathetic Guardsmen, believing Silk’s captivity to be in earnest, ambushes the first party, “freeing” Silk but killing Crane in the process (pp. 349-352). This is prophetically significant in two ways: it warns that as a consequence of Silk’s rise to power, friend will fight friend (as duly happens, with Viron plunging into civil war and the Vironese rebels eventually fighting their allies the Trivigauntis); and it shows the price the Outsider exacts for his favour: Faith. Crane has been the text’s foremost advocate of rational scepticism, dismissing the gods and Silk’s enlightenment as delusory. His sudden death, while seemingly a random event, is in fact a toll: merely secular Reason must be left behind by Silk and the reader, who must accept the Outsider’s difficult, even treacherous, guidance. Rain begins to fall in Lake‘s final scene, ending Viron’s drought; but even as it revives and cleanses, it brings death and divine “wrath” (p. 350). Premonitions of Viron’s civil schism are the slingshot propelling Silk into the battlegrounds of volume three, Calde of the Long Sun; and the arduous demands of Faith and of Wolfe’s narrative have been amply emphasised.

Gene Wolfe the trickster is fully on display in Calde‘s first scene, perhaps the most teasingly challenging in the entire tetralogy. By now, a rising revolutionary tide is forcing Viron’s public institutions to choose sides; the head of the pagan Chapter of Viron, Patera Quetzal, and his deputy, Patera Remora, converse, considering how to react to the crisis. As in the other opening passages, Wolfe makes this dialogue didactic: the venerable Quetzal instructs and tests the much younger Remora. But all is not as it should be: unknown to Remora, Quetzal is in reality a disguised alien inhumu, a vampirical being native to the Whorl‘s target solar system, who has infiltrated human society for inscrutable reasons. The clash between Quetzal’s apparent clerical benignity and his true nature as a mischievous predator lends this passage a disorienting ambiguity, which is compounded by Quetzal’s alien cast of thought. In theological terms, Quetzal is additionally uncategorisable: a vampire (or an alien) might be supposed to have no soul, but Quetzal’s image is visible in the mirror of a silver teapot (p. 15), implying that he is no true vampire, having a reflection, tolerating silver, and presumably possessing a soul. He is a part of the Outsider’s Creation; but his actions and speech will have to be exhaustively scrutinised for any reliable clues as to how he can fit into the divine scheme of things. As he gulls and manipulates Remora, he is deviously measuring the reader’s augural mettle.

Before sending Remora out of the room, Quetzal delivers a few initial hints as to how this scene (and the rest of the volume) will have to be read: he is “a careful man” (p. 15), not apt to let secrets slip; vision is relative, so that two observers can see quite different things (p. 16); and knowledge is rooted in reading (p. 16), as direct an observation as Quetzal will ever utter. Calde will require close and alert perusal, with full awareness of ambiguities. Unfortunately for Remora, he lacks much talent for this, being a cautious and complacent bureaucrat. When he returns with Quetzal’s beef tea, Remora is subjected by Quetzal to a barrage of tantalising hints and bizarre logical leaps, and is mystified. Quetzal leads Remora on a verbal chase from topic to topic: from “the nature of humour” (p. 18), to the inability to swim (p. 19) to the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve by the Serpent (pp. 19-20), to the doings of Silk (p. 20), to the long-lasting “jokes of gods” (p. 20), to the practicalities of the Chapter throwing its support behind Silk and the rebels (pp. 21-25). The story that Quetzal is telling, in fragments that the reader must piece together, is of profound significance: the Whorl is a centuries-long joke by the Outsider, a baiting of secularism and paganism to which the sardonic Quetzal is apparently privy; from their pagan innocence, helped along by Silk’s ascendancy, the people of the Whorl will presently ascend a tree of divine knowledge, as they swim from the false realm of the starship into the truer worlds outside. As in Eden, that knowledge is deeply ambiguous; it can be seen as a temptation leading to a Fall, especially as the ones who wait outside, the inhumi, are Serpents for whom trees are “a fount of joy” (p. 25). Quetzal, like the pagan deity Pas, is a part of the Outsider’s Plan inducing the human exodus from the Long Sun to the Short Sun; this is a not very reassuring reminder that the Outsider combines beneficent light and perilous darkness, in an inscrutable mixture.

Thus, Quetzal’s remarks offer rich insight into the further course of Wolfe’s plot, and state volume three’s operating instructions to the reader: the necessity of assembling the meaning of the text from numerous seemingly disconnected clues, the need to trust the narrator no further than necessary, to read without a moment’s complacency. And Calde is duly a volume more demanding than its predecessors. Its pace is more rapid, its range of viewpoint characters is greatly expanded, and its portrayal of war involves an escalating chaos that renders the narrative jerky and fragmented. Silk is repeatedly captured by government forces, only to escape; his political goals are clouded by his naïve quest for the beautiful courtesan, Hyacinth; the increasing prominence of other characters, notably Maytera Mint, the thief Auk, and the pompous Patera Incus, adds to Long Sun‘s prodigious Babel of voices; there is much confused wandering in Viron’s underground tunnel system. In respect of belief, Silk is coming to doubt the pagan gods, in a spiritual version of the general fog of war that the sundering of Viron’s polity has brought. By the close of Calde, the rebels have won major victories, driving the tyrannical Council into the tunnels; but the problems and implications of the plot are ramifying. These are adumbrated in volume three’s curious Epilogue.

This Epilogue is unusual in that it is not continuous with the previous action; rather, it is a flash-forward, to the earlier part of the parade scene in volume four, chapter four, in which Silk, now largely victorious in the uprising, stands ready to greet the approaching army of his allies from Trivigaunte. This may be read as a concession to the reader impatient for Exodus From the Long Sun, which after all was published quite long after Calde; whatever the case, the Epilogue functions as a collection of omens of the content of Exodus. The augural eye can perceive the “hastily erected” “triumphal arch” (p. 379) as a sign of the generally makeshift nature of the revolutionary regime of which Silk is now calde. The wind that gusts across the Alameda is the same wind that (symbolically) will soon blow Silk’s people out of the Whorl. The “long streamer of coloured paper” that the wind blows from the arch resembles “a flying jade snake”, a fair representation of the alien inhumi the humans will later encounter. Silk’s failure to co-ordinate his communications with those of the Trivigauntis (pp. 379-380) does not bode well for his understanding of them. The appearance of a flock of Fliers in the sky points to the imminent arrival of Fliers in Viron in volume four, and Silk’s daydream of following them to their home base directly anticipates the plot of Exodus. The apparent fading of the Long Sun (p. 381) is prophetic of the failure of the Whorl‘s life-support systems. And Silk’s uncertainty concerning whether the first sounds of the foreign army’s approach are “a good sign”, although seemingly a trivial worry about how soon they will arrive, concludes the volume on a note of justified doubt as to whether the Trivigauntis should be welcomed at all.

But the Epilogue also identifies the schism that determines Silk’s path into the final part of his story. As in Nightside, this is a fission in Silk himself, this time between the old Silk, the holy thief and fugitive rebel, and the new Calde Silk, the recognised leader of Viron, its Caesar. Wolfe clearly suggests this imperial transition just before the Epilogue, when mutinying soldiers acclaim Silk in an echo of the ritual of the later Roman Empire, when the army created so many Caesars. Now Silk wears “the Cloak of Lawful Governance” (p. 380): he is projected into a phase in which the problems of holding and wielding power will beset him. The ground is laid for Exodus.

Exodus From the Long Sun is a title declaring an inevitable outcome. But this volume’s initial passage is crafted to suggest the difficulty the inhabitants of the Whorl experience in perceiving the need to depart their home: they know no other world, and their immediate, mundane conflicts preoccupy them fully. In chapter one, the rebel commander, the former Maytera Mint, and Patera Remora have entered the ruins of the now deceased Blood’s mansion in order to negotiate an end to hostilities with the remnants of the old regime, the Ayuntamiento. After some exploration, they are greeted by Councillor Potto, the junta’s intelligence expert, whose arrogance is well known. Once again, Wolfe arranges his opening scene as a didactic dialogue, but perversely it is the deeply obnoxious Potto who is the instructor here. It is possible to read this passage as a dark parody of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, with Potto as the Mad Hatter, Remora as a reluctant March Hare, and Mint as a victimised Alice. Potto offers the two envoys tea (p. 26) in a highly menacing fashion, and later employs the kettle of boiling water as an instrument of torture against Mint. He poses sardonic riddles, his object being to force Mint around to the Ayuntamiento’s point of view (pp. 34-38). This lesson is a case of diabolical misdirection, warning the reader that false perceptions will complicate the narrative of Exodus.

Potto’s argument is that Mint and the other rebels must see Trivigaunte as their true enemy, a false ally using them to divide Viron against itself. Potto is correct; the Trivigauntis’ intentions are unfriendly. But his “advice” is fundamentally misleading: he is urging another petty reconfiguration of the power politics of the Whorl, whereas the only important concern is leaving the Whorl behind. Potto is a devil’s advocate, miring others in the affairs of a world that no longer matters, and distracting them from higher, essentially spiritual purposes. In this he is successful; although Mint later escapes her captivity, she continues fighting empty temporal battles to the end, and is comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Potto in them (pp. 312-317). Chapter one states Exodus‘ terms of narration and reading very clearly: the text will present worldly entrapments and fascinations, enthralling complexities of plot, that Silk, Silk’s allies, and the reader must avoid or navigate, so that the closure of exodus, from the Whorl and the text, can be achieved. False prophets must not be credited; Potto and his assistant, Spider, weave a fatal web for the unwary.

Volume four’s plot is indeed complex. As the temporal realm of the Whorl disintegrates, its fragments diverge and recomplicate. Mint and Remora engage in a long battle of wits with Spider in the tunnels, spinning a moral web that eventually entraps him. Auk and Incus are involved in a succession of sacrifices and theophanies, which activate the Plan of exodus. Silk struggles to manage Viron’s government, a constant feat of balance. The arrival of the Fliers is the catalyst for war between the Vironese rebels and Trivigaunte; the rebels must reach a bitter-tasting rapprochement with the Ayuntamiento. Silk and others are brought as captives aboard the Trivigaunti airship, and hijack it to Mainframe, the Whorl‘s control centre. Subplots and intrigues multiply; beliefs and loyalties shift wildly; Wolfe’s narration becomes spare, unexplanatory, a minefield of hints and implications, both practical and symbolic. Eventually, the exodus begins, with Auk, Horn, and others escaping the toils of the Whorl for the uncertain pastures of the planets of the Short Sun. But Silk has not heeded the moral of his own story: on the point of departure, he decides to stay in the Whorl for love of his unfaithful wife, Hyacinth (pp. 369-370). A carnal lure draws him back, and, like Moses, he does not enter the Promised Land. However good his heart, he has been an inattentive reader, and so becomes one of the text’s many victims.

Exodus concludes with the customary schism and slingshot. After Horn has identified himself as the narrator of Long Sun in the section entitled “My Defense” (pp. 370-382), thus forcing the reader to re-appraise the whole of the preceding text, a two-page “Afterward” repeats the technique of Calde‘s Epilogue. An unnamed narrator tells of events many years after Exodus, on the planet Blue, where Horn has settled with his family, and has just completed the writing of Long Sun. This is prolepsis, a foretaste of The Book of the Short Sun. The schism here is one between worlds: the Whorl and Blue. Horn remarks in his final paragraph that he lives “on Lizard Island, toward the tail” (p. 382); if the Lizard is the Whorl, it has discarded its tail, the people who have departed it. This schism is also particular to Horn: in completing his Book, he hopes “the ghost of the boy he had been” in the Whorl will “leave him in peace (p.383). Like Silk, he leaves old selves behind, and a different, mature Horn will feature in Short Sun. The passage of years, changing selves: these are the slingshot into Wolfe’s next series; but some other hints are offered as to the concerns of Short Sun. The narrator of “Afterward” mentions that the setting of the Short Sun creates an “Aureate Path” similar to the imaginary celestial road to the Whorl‘s Heaven, Mainframe; but this Aureate Path leads to a “new Mainframe” that almost certainly does not exist. This may imply that religious doubt will be central to Short Sun. The home world of the inhumi, Green, is “almost a second sun, yet baleful as a curse” (p. 383); as Horn looks up to the Whorl, something dark and stealthy, presumably connected with the inhumi, passes in front of his old home, a reminder of the schism. The conflict (or reconciliation) of humans and inhumi, of colonists and indigenes, will surely dominate the new Trilogy. As others have observed, this, and the motif of sister planets, brings Wolfe back to the territory of The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972).

As this extended analysis of beginnings and endings in The Book of the Long Sun has shown, Wolfe’s mastery of the craft of narrative remains undimmed. The volumes of the tetralogy are not merely pieces of a long novel split up for commercial convenience; they are different in emphasis and texture, designed as stages of an argument, each starting with a distinct body of instructions to the reader, each concluding with a surge of momentum anticipating the following instalment of the story. Further, Wolfe’s technique of narrative momentum and his requirement that the reader exercise the critical and predictive capabilities of an augur combine to mirror his subject matter: the nature of paganism, the inexorable movement from paganism to Christianity, the flight from a Fallen, carnal world to a higher, more spiritual one. A magisterial marriage of content and form, Long Sun is a work of genius.


  1. Nightside the Long Sun (New York: Tor, 1993)
  2. Lake of the Long Sun (New York: Tor, 1994)
  3. Calde of the Long Sun (New York: Tor, 1994)
  4. Exodus From the Long Sun (New York: Tor, 1996)

This article was composed in 1998, before publication began of The Book of the Short Sun. It is a sequel article to Five Steps Towards Briah, and makes its first appearance here.


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


Torture and confession in Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun

1 Comment

  1. what a pair of fascinating articles. I’d felt a portion of this on my first read. I wasn’t sure if I would read Long Sun again, but after these articles, I’m looking forward to it.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén