Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review of The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

Begun more than a decade after the Book of the New Sun, the Book of the Long Sun (consisting of four parts: Nightside the Long Sun, Lake of the Long Sun, Calde of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun) is the middle “book” of Gene Wolfe’s three part Solar Cycle.  Presentation and setting wholly different than New Sun, the themes of transcendence, materialism, personal development, and ethical stamina, however, continue to be the undercurrents buoying story.  Wolfe ratcheting back on the allusion, symbolism, and general narrative complexity, readers will find the tale of Patera Silk more accessible in the writing but equally engaging in the telling when compared to New Sun.  Whether or not they consider Long Sun as good, however, will probably be up to how strictly Wolfe’s religious agenda is interpreted.

Book of the Long Sun is the story of Patera Silk, a young priest who recently took responsibility of a temple located in the city of Viron.  Experiencing enlightenment on the first page, Silk becomes aware that the Outsider, one of the lesser gods in the Pas-dominated Whorl pantheon, is the true God.  Going to the market to buy an animal for sacrifice that day, Silk encounters a rich man in a floater.  He later learns the man, named Blood, has taken advantage of his temple’s tax deficient status to claim the property.  Bolstered by the belief it is his duty to spread word about the Outsider, Silk resolves to regain his temple and sets out on what can only be described as a non-priestly mission to accomplish this goal.  A revolution slowly developing in the aftermath, Silk’s personal achievements are only part of the story, the state of the Whorl as a social and spiritual entity put to the test.

Revealed on the back cover (unfortunately, I think), the setting of the Book of the Long Sun is a generation starship.  Certainly not feeling that way until midway through Lake of the Long Sun, one of the joys of the book is the slow unravel of setting and the dawning comprehension just how naturalized the citizens of the Whorl (the name of the starship) are to their environment.  A fresh spin on Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky and Aldiss’s Non-Stop, everything has an Earthly feel (e.g. streets, temples, trees, lakes, bars, forests, restaurants, etc.) until more and more details begin to coalesce into the actuality of their existence. The sun a long strip of light instead of a globe, gods worshipped on television screens broadcast from Mainframe, strange and effective technology available only to the rich and well-connected, and people not always people (they may be aliens, androids, avatars, or gods in human form), Wolfe’s created whorl-d is science fiction of the purest variety.  

Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a landmark work of science fiction from an ethical/religious point of view.  Combining a post-apocalyptic setting with burning moral questions, the book strikes at the heart of many pertinent social issues, all from a Catholic perspective.  Book of the Long Sun, though borrowing its setting from the generation starship sub-genre, is likewise a deep examination of moral and religious values from a Christian perspective.  From enlightenment to choices regarding the best manner in which to regain ownership of the temple, Silk is required to make decision after difficult decision to achieve his goals, all the while trying to remain true to his sense of propriety.  Human at heart, the attempts are not always successful.  He sometimes flies in the face of what would seem straightforward morality (e.g. owning a weapon), and at other times reacts to choices far more gray in hue (e.g. how to deal with Orchid, Hyacinth, Chenille, and the other ladies) in ways the reader cannot predict.  Suffice to say, Silk’s moral fortitude is continually being tested, his sense of self developing in the process.  Whether or not this behavior is realistically portrayed, of course, is up to the reader.  

Regarding writing style, Book of the Long Sun is markedly different than Book of the New Sun.  Told in the third rather than first person, perspective is naturally less subjective; readers have deeper insight into the story at a distance from Silk rather than in his head, as was the case with Severian.  Secondly, there are more than a few expository moments; stopping short of underlining certain passages, there are nevertheless times one can almost feel Wolfe deliberately making clear important pieces of information, information that would have been left to the reader to glean in New Sun.   This is not to say the story is transparent, rather that Wolfe tones down the flux of subjective perception and is more obvious in revealing information integral to the story, setting, and characters.  (As a point of comparison, the style and structure of The Wizard Knight are nearly identical to the Book of the Long Sun.)

While simplifying the narrative may make the story more accessible, it does, however, present beliefs and behavior in a sharper, clearer light—a mode of presentation that’s not always becoming of the themes.  The symbolism inherent to Book of the New Sun was universal enough it was possible to make a range of interpretations regarding the content, everything from a Catholic base of morals to paradigms more generic.  Book of the Long Sun, on the other hand, shunts the discussion directly into Christianity.  Symbolism less disguised, it is obvious who the Outsider represents.  Focusing only on the transition from a pantheistic to a monotheistic system, Wolfe does not imbue the Long Sun with a similar sense of universal spirituality as New Sun.   For those of a Christian bent, this will be an agreeable story.  For those familiar with other forms of religion or ideological models, it may not.  I say this because, society in Long Sun begins with a pagan paradigm in place, based on which Wolfe posits the next natural point in society’s spiritual evolution is the one god as the be-all end-all.  This flies in the face of existing Earth culture which features several different beliefs systems evolved from the pagan, not all arriving at the one god.

One improvement over the New Sun in the Long Sun, however, are the female characters.   Many are still lascivious or weak-minded, but others break the mold in spectacular fashion.  The Mayteras Marble and Mint evince a sense of responsibility, strength, and leadership that offsets the bickering, lewdness, and continual nudity of some of the other female characters.  There are a few character statements that directly position men over women in terms of social structure, however, these must be taken in context with the inclinations of the speaker voicing the opinion.  I’m more than curious whether Wolfe will continue this positive development of female characters in the third and final book of the Solar Cycle, the Book of the Short Sun.

In the end, the Book of the Long Sun is an exceptional read for its story, sci-fi elements, and style in which it’s written.  (Contrary to opinion, the writing is neither beautiful or lyrical, but rather smooth, buoyant, and very human in dialogue.)  The underlying concepts, however, are a matter of taste depending how narrow they are interpreted.  As mentioned, believers in a one true god will nod their heads at Wolfe’s Christian myth-making, while those with different religious backgrounds or understandings of the cosmos at large may shake them.  So while it is true that Long Sun: “…is a tale of physical, religious, and philosophical exodus; and, as such, it interrogates, and dismisses, the material world.” (Nick Gevers at Ultan’s Library*), it’s also true that this exodus is based on a view solely informed by Christianity.  Enlightenment for Wolfe may not be the same for you.  The ethical discussion, however, should not be ignored.  Silk’s is a story confirming the importance of compassion and benevolence, something everyone could make do with a little more of.  

*If you’re a fan of Gene Wolfe’s but never visited Ultan’s Library, by all means immediately go to this site—but don’t read any of the essays until you’ve read the book in point!


  1. Book of the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun have some excellent sci-fi teasers regarding the generation ship. I was disappointed that it didn't pay off (perhaps because Wolfe is too artsy and thought the pay off would be below him?). I think I gave the four book sequence 5, 4, 3, and 3 stars, respectively. Started out well enough!

    1. I don't get the impression Wolfe is trying to be artsy. For example, he never uses purple prose and he doesn't get caught up in an idea just for the idea's sake. I think his aims are broader, more religious and philosophical. The story arc of Book of the Long Sun is that of a man who receives religious enlightenment (a la Paul the Apostle on the road to Damsacus), tries to walk a righteous path after (though not always successfully), and culminates his story in a moment which sees him transcending the material world for... well, Wolfe never exactly answers the question, but we are lead to believe it is the spiritual. I can understand your dislike of the latter half of Long Sun; it does not have the dynamics of say, Aldiss' generation starship book Non-Stop. However, I would argue the books pay off. I am not a Christian, but I do appreciate the deeper significance and challenges Wolfe poses in that dialogue-heavy second half, particularly the futility of war, improving one's own ethical standards, mankind's general inability to see past its own nose, and, in reaction, the responsibility each of us have but so often ignore to be good examples for the weaker members of society. We have the knowledge we're stuck on this generation starship/Earth together, so what is each person personally doing to do to make it a better, safer place? These are some deep ideas that are not easy to capture simply in plotting... But, different strokes for different folks! :)