After finishing Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and facing writing of a review, I couldn’t help but feel daunted. While I was confident the four volumes had portrayed the moral and personal coming of age of a man to be judged as an example of humanity to determine whether his world was worth saving, there was much of the sub-text I knew I had missed—who really was who, the symbolism, the details of setting, etc. With Book of the Long Sun—a more accessible story, I had less trouble. Having now read Book of the Short Sun, the third and final series in the overall Solar Cycle, I’m back to square one: daunted. I may even be back to square zero: speechless.
If Book of the New Sun is recondite, Short Sun is recondite2. New Sun, with its mythic and pagan symbolism, dream sequences, and subjective personal view is a story that often surprises for the seeming incongruity of the scene at hand to the context of the story up to that point. But everything progressed linearly. Short Sun takes said complexity of New Sun, adds additional layers, and removes the straight-line plotting; the story is chopped into bits and rearranged temporally. There are also sudden shifts in location, parables, lucid dreams, remembrances that may or may not have been dreams, and, to top it all off, shapeshifters capable of assuming any human form. Point blank: Short Sun is personally one of the most challenging texts I’ve ever read. Far from a casual read, it requires focus, memory, attention to detail, and continual questioning of the reality presented to understand what the underlying reality or purpose actually is. But rather than discourage the would-be reader, it’s perhaps best to go into what I do know, as Short Sun is as rich as New Sun, if not more.
Like New Sun, I finished Short Sun with a strong belief I understood the vast undercurrent moving the flotsam and jetsam on the surface. The story of a man who forsakes his family and home to seek out a seer who can save his land from corruption, he comes to find the person he needed all along was himself. Like Severian and Silk, Horn goes through a personal and moral transformation that sees him discover what it means to be a father, friend, leader, teacher, and above all, a person aware of himself in society. Where Severian was set to be representative of humanity, Horn draws matters a little tighter: he is beholden to himself in the context of those around him—a fascinating concept, and one seemingly increasingly relevant in this age of virtual this and abstracted that.
A trilogy rather than tetralogy, Book of the Short Sun is comprised of On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles, and Return to the Whorl. Needing to be read in that order (despite the churn of internal chronology), there exists a grander design that sees Horn set out on a journey at the outset of On Blue’s Waters to find Silk and bring him back, coming full circle in Return to the Whorl—Horn finding what he was looking for but in a place he least expected. That is what I know. What I can speculate additionally on is:
Short Sun appears concerned with such issues as the cultural transfer of concepts and ideas, power dynamics, the qualities of the ideal ruler, the possible efficacy of prayer, and others. Even more fundamentally, it may deal with the existence of a supreme spiritual being and the moral development of a person toward pedagogical status. But that will require a re-read (or three) to flesh out in confident detail.
In the end, Book of the Short Sun is the most challenging and complex of the three Solar Cycle series to date. Wolfe going all out in literary terms, he employs a large number of experimental/non-standard writing devices that place the overarching story on the opposite side of the reading spectrum from transparent. Thus, Book of the Short Sun, like New Sun, and to a lesser extent Long Sun, is for the reader attentive to detail, who enjoys piecing indirect information together to create a hazily complete picture, is willing to read and re-read to gain full understanding, and is ready to ruminate upon a text for longer than the time it takes to read it. As LibraryThing Iayork states politically:“The difficulty in extracting those rewards out of the text is considerable and not to be lightly discounted.” The rewards, however, do outweigh the effort.