I randomly picked up the first book in Wolfe's The Book of the Short Sun trilogy called On Blue's Waters because I wanted to finally get into Wolfe's interplanetary science fiction, a subject matter much more to my personal tastes and interests than the more Heroic Fantasy-oriented work I'd read so far. (The swords, the walking great distances or riding horse-like animals, etc. give his earlier The Book of the New Sun a heroic fantasy feel ala Tolkien with hints and moments of far future technology in ages-long decay – i.e. it's Science Fantasy proper).
Furthermore, it was in Blue that I ran into the Outsider. Gene Wolfe has introduced the whole concept of the classic monotheistic God into his ambitious science fiction two-part, multi-volume series (The Book of the Long Sun tetralogy followed by The Book of the Short Sun trilogy) by means of this entity called the Outsider. The Short Sun trilogy is written in journal entries of varying lengths by the main character, Horn. He says the Outsider is the God who is Outside the pantheon of the finite gods of the universe (the 'whorl' as the characters call the 'world'/cosmos). He is also Outside of space and time (the 'whorl') altogether (presumably as its Creator, though this is not explicit). Yet the Outsider is very involved in space-time because he also gets his name from identifying with those who are the marginalised and outcast of society – the outsiders. (These elements go a long way toward conceptualising a very Christian form of theism.)
This is the theological theme of every multi-volume work by Wolfe as far as I can tell: people in various forms of, shall we say, 'pagan ignorance', coming into contact in one way or another with the 'one true God' of (usually revealed by some hint or other) the Christian faith.
All this richly woven theology plus wonders, thrills, and monsters aplenty! There are moments of true awe, of extravagant vision (moving theophanies of both gods and God occur), of chilling horror, of weighty philosophical speculation, memorable characters, many asides on writing and writers – there are also seemingly inexplicable moments and passages, even certain places where I became somewhat 'bored' (actually that's mainly in the New Sun series, not really in On Blue's Waters) in my bewilderment as to what was happening and why and what it had to do with the story. Wolfe strangely, spectacularly (and not at every moment successfully) manages to simultaneously play the roles of philosopher and pure adventure storyteller.
The element I need to hasten to add to that last comment, so that you don't come to these books with misguided expectations, is that Wolfe is also a literary obscurantist of sorts. He is a seemingly natural and effortless trickster who loves indirectness and, as some have said, his work is both allusive and elusive. He is referencing so many things in history, literature, philosophy, and theology whilst at the same time remaining at least one step ahead of you, always just round a corner, at the edges of your vision. One of the very strangest phenomena of his writing to me is that his worlds are incredibly solid and well-realised (you often notice this more when you're not actually reading) yet because you are so suddenly and fully immersed in them without explanation or guide or map, you are found feeling on the one hand profoundly satisfied at such a world-building achievement whilst equally on the other hand feeling profoundly perturbed by your inability to fully grasp this world you've been so thoroughly engulfed by. Some readers find this too much and are put off, many to never return. For me, the more obvious positive qualities of wonder and adventure and glimpses of philosophy and theology in a rather exquisite writing style are more than worth the more disturbing and challenging qualities. (But I'm the sort of person who reads the entirety of Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and doesn't worry about whether I 'get' it all – I just let it flow over and into me and enjoy it!)
Anyway, in reading Blue I realised I was way in the middle of something massive and amazing, so I determined to start all over and even go all the way back to the New Sun series and properly finish it, which I did with immense pleasure. First though I went back and read some of the earliest work, Fifth Head of Cerberus (a satisfying interplanetary science fiction novel) and Peace (an ostensibly 'straight fiction' novel that reads something like an almost hallucinatory mid-Western memoir that is very obscure indeed). At the very least, these two early novels display Wolfe's truly excellent writing skills – the prose, to me, is just so very, very good.
Well, you always hear that you have to re-read Wolfe to truly appreciate him and this was so very true with The Book of The New Sun. Not only did it make a bit more sense, I genuinely loved going over again the journeys and adventures of Severian (the main character, a Torturer gone bad – that is, who keeps betraying his vocation by showing mercy to victims), rediscovering the characters and thrilling anew to the wonders and terrors unfolded. And the last book I hadn't read was an excellent conclusion. (Still, I would say, just because of my tastes, this will always remain low on my list in comparison to other works by Wolfe because I prefer the more off-world stuff.)
And now I've finally begun to read the first volume of The Book of the Long Sun – Nightside the Long Sun. Nearly halfway through I'm probably more pleased with this than anything I've read so far (or perhaps equal to On Blue's Waters). I shall write more about it in a future blog entry. The first words and pages of the book begin with an enlightenment given by the Outsider to the main character, Silk (who is perhaps something like an abbot of a monastery and whom I'd heard much referenced in Blue). To start an s.f. story on such a blatantly theistically spiritual/supernatural note is just such a bold and thrilling move to a reader like me. And it is very well told, intellectually intriguing and visionary and yet believably realistic in its very human setting that so well-written. The plot unfolds from this central theme with the usual crisp and tight and yet at times demanding prose Wolfe is so well known for. The setting is also very enjoyably a wonder-filled far flung 'generation starship' that it seems has been so long on its galactic or intergalactic journey that its original function, nature, and purpose are completely lost in the mists of time and legend to the spectacularly immense space craft's inhabitants. The effect is like reading of the mystical mission of a medieval monk in an almost Blade Runner sort of futuristic setting. But in a way only Gene Wolfe could do, increasingly full of elusively crowding wonders and mysteries. My lupine explorations continue...
'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)