'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)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I ATE THE SOLAR CYCLE!!!

Yep. All twelve books over the last year and a half or so. It was epic (to understate the obvious). How does one marshal their thoughts about a massive multifaceted work so vast, rich, complex, intricate, enigmatic, and deep? The prospect of analysing and commenting on it, even from an amateur ‘fan’ perspective, just sits there and laughs at me.

I guess one sort of fun and seemingly cheap way to think about it is by asking myself which of the three multi-volume works did I like best: The Book of the New Sun tetralogy (plus the add-on novel Urth of the Long Sun), The Book of Long Sun tetralogy, or The Book of the Short Sun trilogy? Well, as it turns out, I like each one the best for different reasons:

The Book of the New Sun: I have to say I get really annoyed that everyone seems to almost exclusively talk about this initial tetralogy in the Solar Cycle as if it’s Gene Wolfe at the height of his powers and though the subsequent novels are interesting, they’re obviously inferior and essentially minor works. I just really think this does no justice to the subsequent books in this cycle (not to mention other cycles such as the Soldier books and the Wizard-Knight saga as well as various standalone novels). I think the entire interconnecting Solar Cycle should be thought of together as Wolfe’s masterwork, not just the New Sun. Having said that, there are probably good reasons why the initial New Sun tetralogy is the best of the Cycle in certain respects.

For example, it seems to be his linguistically richest work both in terms of the inventive use of arcane vocabulary to describe the artefacts and culture of an alien world (an almost unimaginably far-future post-technological earth in decay) as well as in terms of his rich, ornate style of writing itself (even though this baroque voice is always somehow magically filtered through his exquisitely spare modernist style—Nabokov-meets-Peake or something). The four-part novel is a sustained work of highly stylised, almost virtuoso, prose that is an aesthetic delight to read – indeed, this pleasurable stylistic quality is probably what keeps many of us going in the face of the work’s length and at times difficult density and mystery and outright elusiveness. [Here’s a bit of a literary wonder: I only realised by the end of the Short Sun trilogy that the voice and style of the entire New Sun sequence are a sustained characterisation of Severian, the main protagonist who writes the story!]

The other main area in New Sun that I find to be the best of the Cycle is that of sheer invention: this world is very rich with creatures and wonders. There are plenty of very strange monsters (mostly of alien origin it would seem) that are often pleasantly creepy if not outright horrific: the ‘Notules’ and the ‘Alzabo’ stick out in my mind. Robots and aliens and spaceships persist at the edges of imaginative perception throughout this work and yet it is the one that feels the most like ‘Heroic Fantasy’ ala Conan the Barbarian and/or Lord of the Rings. For those who love heroic fantasy over against more blatantly science-fictional settings, I suppose New Sun could for that reason be the best of the cycle. My preferences are probably slightly the other way round and so in the area of genre style and setting I’m inclined to like the Long Sun and Short Sun sequences more.

I should add that New Sun is also probably the richest in puzzles and enigmas, to be analysed by scholars and fans ad infinitum it seems. Again, for me this is no great selling point but for many this is the meat and milk of the cycle that makes it all worthwhile. So for this reason also many would consider New Sun the best of the Solar Cycle. I’m sure there are a number of other areas in which New Sun excels over Long and Short, but this will suffice to illustrate ways in which it does so.

The Book of the Long Sun: As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, this one is my favourite for being the most outright theological. The ‘character’ called the Outsider, a minor, practically forgotten or unknown god in the pantheon that rules the inhabitants of this ‘generation starship’ (called ‘the Whorl’: a ‘starcrosser’ in the form of a hollow asteroid apparently), who turns out to be the only real God amongst a cluster of impostors, is an ingenious move from a writer who is of a theistic minority himself within his genre/s. The opening ‘enlightenment’ scene is one of my favourite things I’ve ever read – wonderful writing, again in that spare, understated yet coaxingly consciousness-expanding style. The main character Silk is also my favourite characterisation of the whole cycle as he is such an attractively good character in a way that isn’t the least cloying but is humble, fallible, and genuinely inspiring. The kingdom-of-heaven-expanding-from-a-tiny-mustard-seed sort of liberation and ‘exodus’ that the Outsider gradually brings through Silk is a fresh realisation of an old, old story. (I should clarify that there is a theological thread and terminology running through New Sun as well, Severian’s personal spiritual journey being a major theme.)

In terms of writing style I find this sustained third person narrative to be a welcome break from Wolfe’s usual first-person perspectives in the Solar Cycle as well as his other cycles (the Soldier books and the Wizard-Knight saga). I think he does it well and it allows his more tight, minimalist style of prose to flourish. The descriptions can often still be very rich and the world of the series is very fully rendered (in the usual ‘just off stage’ way that Wolfe has), but the language is not as baroque as New Sun. I think both are good but I’m glad he wrote this way as well within the Solar Cycle. Again, this will be a drawback to some who enjoy his ‘unreliable narrator’ trope, but then again in the end it is revealed that this is a joint work by Horn and his wife Nettle, so there’s plenty of room for perspective-bending perception of events.

As I say, the setting of Long Sun is more to my taste, actually taking place out in the deeps of space somewhere inside a truly gargantuan wonder of technology, but which is typically in decline, though still filled with its techno-artifacts: sentient robots of various sorts, networked computer monitors (from which ‘theophanies’ occur), hovering and flying machines, etc. (Though some of these technologies are more directly engaged than in New Sun, they still somehow feel in the background, peripheral to a society that is essentially ancient and pre-technological, thus making the technological elements feel more like ‘magic’ and thereby continuing Wolfe’s consistent ‘science fantasy’ approach to fantastic fiction.) It must be admitted Long Sun is overall not quite as rich and dense as New Sun and it does admittedly drag toward the very end, but it is a fine and important work – indeed, in some ways a great work in my opinion. The first book, Nightside the Long Sun, is probably my favourite of the tetralogy in terms of sheer quality of prose, description, and characterisation of more minor characters.

The Book of the Short Sun: this is by far my favourite of the Solar Cycle in terms of being more of a classic science-fictional ‘planetary romance’ (mainly only in terms of setting – it is otherwise far from conventional). In this sequence we are back in the wide ‘out of doors’ and it feels good to breathe terrestrial air again after the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of the closed-system of the Long Sun. Indeed, the adventures that rove over the twin planets of ‘Blue’ and ‘Green’ are likewise refreshing compared to the cultural decay and oppressively dying red sun of the planet ‘Urth’ in the New Sun sequence. I often could nearly literally feel the wind of Blue blowing in my face or the humid heat of Green baking my skin and soaking me in sweat, even though I don’t think these sensations were ever actually described! (It’s interesting that when the narrative returns to the Long Sun ‘Whorl’ starship it feels more oppressive than ever due to the phenomenon of total darkness for days at a time as the ‘Long Sun’ light source repeatedly fails.)

Because we are now back in an ‘open system’ of habitable planets with their own flora and fauna we again get plenty of creatures and monsters! (The boy in me never seems to tire of their plenitude.) The horror element returns in full force as an alien race of vampiric shape-shifters is one of the main features of the trilogy (introduced effectively through a particular character back in the Long Sun sequence). But there are also more brute monsters of a pleasingly flesh-crawling nature from time to time as is only to be expected when colonising the oceans, islands, woods, and jungles of uncharted territory. But all this is not really as dark as New Sun’s equivalent both because of the narration style and because these Short Sun creatures are mostly less ‘magical’ than those of New Sun (due largely I think to the more intergalactic alien nature of the creatures on the formerly space-faring Urth of New Sun, whereas these on the Short Sun are more home grown—the terror of tigers vs. the terror of Alien or Predator or The Thing). Short Sun is the best I think in the Solar Cycle as simple, wonder-filled, ‘open air’ interplanetary adventure fiction. (But of course in an oh so strange and un-straightforward way as you’ll see from what follows.)

There are aliens too, though, besides the aforementioned bloodsucking, transmogrifying ‘Inhumi’. The ‘Vanished People’ or the ‘Neighbors’ were former inhabitants of these twin planets who have long since migrated to other worlds but who, due to their innate inexplicable powers, still haunt Blue and Green in a wonderfully numinous way. The chapter that narrates Horn’s first encounter with them is maybe my favourite of the whole trilogy. Their exceedingly strange ability to be there and not be there simultaneously and take others with them on these dreaming-waking interplanetary journeys takes centre stage in the second book of the trilogy and just absolutely blew my mind away.

In terms of the writing it is a return to first-person narrative in a most self-conscious way in which the narrator very tellingly explores the very craft of writing itself. The whole trilogy runs along two parallel elliptical courses as two unfolding storylines are told alternatingly – one in the past of Horn’s journeys across Blue, then Green, then the starship Whorl and back to Blue again; the other telling what is happening day to day or week to week now that Horn-Silk/Silk-Horn is back on Blue again in the throes of an ongoing personal and communal identity-crisis (as indicated by the hyphenated monikers I just gave ‘him’). In addition to this two-track plot, the narrator goes forward, back, and sideways in describing events in each adventure sequence. Sound mind-boggling? It is. I enjoyed it immensely. It’s actually not quite as difficult as it sounds because the writing is of a very simple style (especially compared to Severian’s narration in New Sun) and all this only gradually develops over the trilogy into its full complexity. It is also very vulnerably human in perspective. (Silk-Horn caressing the shining metal head of a crying orphan robot girl in rags in the starship Whorl is one of the most uncannily moving moments I’ve read in fiction.) Neil Gaiman said he was ‘in awe’ of Gene Wolfe’s novel Peace and I must say that that perfectly describes how I feel about the Short Sun trilogy overall. The whole thing ends in a massive flying vampire attack on a wedding! (I just have to say that. If you know a thing like that, you just have to say it. I’m sure you understand me.)

I should say that the theology of the Outsider is eventually developed further in this trilogy as well, especially his connection to blood and the breaking of bread and drinking of wine in a sacramental way. It’s really, really beautiful and again, numinous, mysterious, invitingly spiritual.

In closing: I haven’t said anything about the weaknesses and/or difficulties of these books. There are frankly a number of them in my opinion. Still, Wolfe makes the vast majority of the other fiction I read pale in comparison. It’s a shame really. I’m often reading a perfectly good work of fiction and subconsciously, inwardly pining for Wolfean prose and depth, to the depreciation of what’s before me. (The main authors who stand up well next to Wolfe for me so far are of course classics like Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and Flannery O’Connor but also R. A. Lafferty, Cormac McCarthy, and some of Ursula Le Guin.) There is so, so much more to say and I hope to someday say at least some of it. Thanks for reading and PLEASE DO COMMENT.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Reading Wolfe is Dream-Like? (Another thousand words spent musing on the master!)

Reading Gene Wolfe is like having very vivid dreams. This simile comes to mind not least because I have been reading In Green's Jungles and Return to the Whorl where a sort of out-of-body (yet somehow pseudo-physical) 'dream traveling' is a major feature of the action. (But it's not remotely cheesy in the way that crude description makes it sound! Read in context, it's jaw-dropping, mind-bending stuff!)
Reading Wolfe is like having these vivid dreams because whilst 'in' them they seem so solid and real and they seem to essentially cohere according to their own logic (though at moments there is a quiet, bewildered voice somewhere within you asking whether this all isn't a bit strange and suspicious). But when not 'in' the dream you struggle to recall the details and why it seemed so real and convincing.

Again I'll point out that people have mentioned that Wolfe's writing is 'elusive' and yet that his 'world-building' skills are powerfully effective: that to read him is an immersive experience, so well rendered are his cultures and ecologies and economies and so forth. And all this without much, if any, technical jargon or explanation – just full tactile and psychological immersion in a world that's already and always been there, described by one of its 'everyday' inhabitants in his own everyday language.

I suppose Wolfe is reminiscent of Tolkien's Middle Earth in this but with some major differences: one is that he relates this dense secondary world almost wholly through elusive, allusive, indirect, inconsistent, enigmatic, non-linear narration that often pauses for deep philosophical speculation (in that world's terms!). I so often am reading along, seduced by this strange and mysterious, almost 'meta-fiction' narrative, having very little idea what's happening. Then I go away from the book and find that it is totally real and believable and it is indeed a genuine, 'traditional' story with a plot and so forth that I've been reading. (Well, to some degree.) But wait! This is the opposite of the dream quality I was describing where away from the dream you find it hard to recall its verisimilitude. What can I say? Wolfe's writing has both qualities. I could describe just how in each sense, but it would make my brain hurt more than I'm willing to hurt it just now. Patrick O'Leary has made some helpful comments on all this in his essay 'If Ever a Wiz There Was: The Ineffable Art of Gene Wolfe' in his book Other Voices, Other Doors. I plan to fully interact with that at some point on this blog.

The fact that Wolfe can build his worlds to such a profound level through such indirect narration is surely some form of literary alchemy! I mean, he almost seems like he writes nearly no direct description at all, but just constantly hints and alludes and presumes and assumes. (And this of course is partly what makes the world so palpable – that the narrator basically considers the reader one of 'his own', in need of no extra explanations.) Unlike Tolkien's lengthy in-depth description of landscapes and customs and so forth, Wolfe somehow comes across as expecting the reader to more or less already see or know all of this in common with the narrator in such a way that the reader eventually does see and know all this as effectively as if he'd been informed in detail. Does it sound weird? Unbelievable? It is! Believe me! Wolfe is a sorcerer, a wizard, a magus! I regularly walk away from his writing bewildered and bewitched. He is indeed one of those writers that after you've been reading him for a while, so much other stuff you might try to read just looks so childish and bland in comparison.

The other way Wolfe is generally different than Tolkien is that most of his world-building is in authentically science fictional terms (barring, of course, the Soldier series and the Wizard-Knight series). That is, in all twelve books of the Solar Cycle Wolfe is creating not 'alternate realms' of 'sword and sorcery' (oh yes, it sometimes looks and feels like this to a large degree so that he is often labeled 'science fantasy'), but genuine far-future, technologically advanced (so vastly advanced that it is in long forgotten decay), space-faring, interplanetary, alien ecospheres and economies. The Solar Cycle is indeed a subversive or alternative or 'punk' form of classic Heroic Fantasy, but it is in irreducibly science fictional terms. Of course, Wolfe also writes these books in a way that richly and readily includes the 'fantastic': the paranormal, the preternatural, the supernatural, the 'transcendant', the spiritual, the 'trans-dimensional' (though curiously, nothing authentically 'magical' that I can see). In this sense it is also fantasy literature but more in the vein of Lovecraft or Gaiman or Tim Powers or 'magic realism' or what have you. This kind of fantasy is neither Tolkien's Middle Earth on the one hand nor Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast on the other (though it includes a 'feel' from both). So when I call Wolfe's writing 'science fantasy' what I mean is something like 'science fiction fantasy', which I know is uncomfortable (not to say oxymoronic!) to some out there. But Wolfe's fiction is nothing if not uncomfortable, uncategorisable, and disturbing – but all, in my opinion, in ways that are ultimately enlightening and humanising.

To say reading Wolfe is dream-like then, is profoundly misleading in some ways because though there is so much that continually defies comprehension, there is also so much precision and solidity of setting and character. Perhaps it is better to say that reading Wolfe is both dream-like and 'wake-like': sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously, and usually both disturbingly and pleasurably, mixed.

Note: I am speaking in these ruminations mostly to those who have already read several of Wolfe's works, like me. If you have not done, for some temperaments (like mine) this attempt at describing a Wolfean reading experience may sound enticing. Rightly so, in my opinion. However, I'm not sure you should really go into the experience expecting all these sensations and reverberations I've clumsily outlined. Inevitably, what you hear me to be saying in trying to make sense of my own encounter with these writings will create in you, the 'inexperienced' lupine neophyte, some expectations of things you're just not going to find in Wolfe. Remember, for one thing, that I haven't described qualities that some might label 'irritating' or 'off-puting'. And though I think Wolfe is every bit as 'great' as I've described him, and moreso, I think he achieves and maintains his greatness in a highly unusual and, therefore, sometimes somewhat alienating way. It sounds strange, I know. And it is. For some of us, though, that's all part of the seduction. Just thought I should add this cautionary qualification.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Blue & Green!

Don't have time just now to really write something substantial, but just have to give a blurb to say The Book of the Short Sun trilogy is wondrous, amazing, so far. Patrick O'Leary has made much of In Green's Jungles in particular and I couldn't agree with him more. This second book of the trilogy really bends reality in a thrilling and mesmerising way - and the feat of storytelling is awe-inspiring. The whole revolving narratives thing where he's telling past stories alongside up to the moment present stories is dizzyingly delightful. I was genuinely shocked when I realised what was happening in the story in terms of 'spatial' presence and 'travel' (I have no idea how to begin to describe it) between various whorls (one of which is an exquisitely unforeseeable surprise). There were moments where I felt my heart beating noticeably harder as my mind reeled. The further you read the more excellent the entire narrative becomes in retrospect. It will be interesting to see where he goes with the whole thing in the last book, Return to the Whorl.

Can't believe I have so much Wolfe reading ahead of me! (I haven't even touched the Soldier books or the latest three novels or most of the short stories or most of the other stand alone novels - what joys and wonders and strangeness I have to look forward to! And then to read them all again because they're that deep and rewarding - and then to write, write, write about them! Apologies - I'm having an uncontrollably gushing Wolfe-nerd moment here.)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Thoughts on Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun (Part 2 of 2) – Evil Religion and The God Who Liberates

When all is said and done, when all the wonderful and strange elements that make up Wolfe's fine 'whorl-building' in this tetralogy have been catalogued (see part 1 of these ‘Thoughts’), it is the 'minor god' who is (barely) known as the Outsider and his servant Silk (the main character of the Book) that by far interest me the most. Their relationship is in some sense a central key to the overall story. Without the Outsider graciously granting enlightenment to Silk—that it is ‘grace’ is explicitly confessed by Silk himself—there would be no catalyst for the extraordinary actions of Silk and many others which eventually (and unintentionally on Silk's part) lead to political and civil revolution. And of course the even greater spiritual/theological revolution would not occur, not to mention the physical exodus (only for some initially) from the very ‘whorl’ starship itself. Indeed, knowledge that there were whole whorls outside the whorl at all was the unique contribution of the Outsider with which the entire drama memorably begins.

I shall sketch his progressively revealed divine character with actual quotes from the Book in another article devoted to that subject. To merely summarise here: this god is called by his name because the Outsider is

1) Outside the pantheon of Mainframe (computerized) 'gods' – the real God as Silk eventually describes him, compared to their merely super(cyber)human natures

2) Outside the Whorl created by 'Pas', the chief and 'father' god of Mainframe – that is, outside the California-sized generation starship or ‘star crosser’ the humans inhabit; indeed, outside space and time itself (i.e. he is the transcendent Creator of the whole universe)

3) The God who particularly identifies with and cares for all those who are marginalized by society, ‘God of the outcasts’

The Outsider manifests himself directly again on several important occasions, once even in human form with 'hands of healing' that make Silk recover from a fatal gun wound. The cross and its victim’s atoning blood (from Wolfe's Catholic faith) are brought in subtly by the 'sign of addition' that the augurs (priests) like Silk ritually trace in the air, for them an empty symbol with forgotten meaning. It’s meaning is hinted at in Silk's reflections around the time of his healing when he is being given blood intravenously: he meditates on the saving, life-giving power of blood (which makes the secretly blood-sucking Quetzal poignantly devilish and perhaps even ‘antichrist’).

That is a sketch of the Outsider. Now let’s sketch his servant. Silk himself is probably the first character in fiction that I've read who is essentially good in a completely believable (and even personally convicting) way. You hear about the rarity of a writer being able to do this and I always wondered what it was like. I've read plenty of 'good guy' characters who are 'on the good side' but never someone so compellingly... well, good. It totally took me by surprise. I wasn't expecting it. I just found myself some way into the series with a pang in my heart over my own lack of goodness as I repeatedly expressed in my head 'he's just so good'. It was only then that I took note quite consciously. That is powerful writing!

I hasten to clarify that Silk's goodness is not the least bit annoying or cloying or twee. It is genuinely admirable and commendable and exemplary – the kind of thing where you wish you were more like that. His un-self-conscious humility and his graciousness toward all others, high and low, noble and ignoble, lawful and unlawful, vicious and kind, is frankly shocking – but also inviting. Nor is his goodness some sort of moral 'perfection'. He is humanly and even likeably flawed and both he and those around him are aware of his shortcomings. One of his charms is his simple and heartfelt regret over his selfish or uncharitable thoughts and actions and his uncomplicated resolve to make things right or reform his attitude and behaviour. He knows he needs divine help to do this. He doesn't pursue goodness as some kind of way to get leverage over God and others by which he can congratulate himself and condemn others or demand certain rights for himself or what have you. He pursues the good for its own sake. How do you write such a character in a truly believable way that doesn't just turn into a moralistic sermon in the form of alleged characterisation? The fact that Gene Wolfe has achieved this so singularly is one very important reason why he to my mind nudges himself into the 'genius' or at least ‘great writer’ category.

In terms of this Outsider and Silk relationship, it seems to me that Gene Wolfe in the early 1990s had preemptively subverted the recent rather hackneyed clamouring of folks like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris who boldly and baldly assert the claim that 'religion is evil'. Wolfe agrees. And disagrees. That religion is a force for deception, corruption, superstition, and oppression is quite viscerally affirmed in this work as well as being equally vividly denied in the same work! That is, man-made religion is shown to be the benighted, power-hungry, mad, and spirit-crushing trumpery that it is, as played out by the pantheon of all-too-human cyber-gods that, through intentional and elaborately constructed deceit, alternately neglect and unilaterally control this unfortunate population. But this oppression is not countered by Sceptical-Secularists-to-the-Rescue! No, in Wolfe's work false religion is countered by true 'religion' (or better 'the true faith'). Undeception comes not by more unaided human effort but by real and genuine divine enlightenment enabling human cooperation with this guidance and giving supernatural aid that leads to progressive inner and outer liberation from religious oppression. It seems our dear ‘New Atheists’ never even thought of this tertium quid alternative to the tired binary scheme of superstition vs. secular humanism.

This too is another aspect of Wolfe's work I'd like to write a separate article about. Indeed, Zach over at the Silk for Caldé blog outlines his degree thesis that Gene Wolfe uses the priest character in s.f. to uniquely combine the usual antithetical options of 'priest has faith tested and loses it' or 'priest has faith tested and retains it'. Silk loses faith in the Mainframe gods but gains faith in the Outsider. It's a very interesting proposal. (He has now narrowed this to a demonstration of transcendence over against materialism in Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, which he writes about here and here. There is resonance with what I’m writing here.)

So The Book of the Long Sun seems to me to work as something of an s.f. theistic apologetic (however consciously or unconsciously intended by Wolfe). Indeed, as a foil to the perspective of ‘revealed religion’ Wolfe's memorable and attractive character Doctor Crane provides a materialistic-reductionist interpretation of Silk's enlightenment, which Silk has to internally deal with throughout the books. Says Crane:

‘You had a cerebral accident, that’s all. Most likely a tiny vein burst as a result of your exertions during the game. When that happens in the right spot, delusions like yours aren’t at all uncommon.’

So Wolfe is obviously aware of and willing to interact with secular points of view (the ‘God Delusion’ hypothesis), which should come as no surprise from such an erudite and generous Catholic writer who sets most of his fictions in a thoroughly 'pagan' environment.

Lastly, I want to briefly comment on how this tetralogy struck me as one who is already a ‘believer’, how it works on a level beyond mere apologetic and approaches something like ‘liturgy’ (this, be aware, is coming from a very 'low church' Protestant). What I find in reading Long Sun is that Silk's journey of faith becomes my own, convicting me of my selfishness and uncharitable cynicism, taking me outside myself into the needs and stories of others and ultimately into trusting the One who is outside all creation: the One who though he is absolute and eternal, yet so compassionately identifies with and is involved in his creation – the One who is graciously seeking me long before I bother to seek him, to whom I must surrender to truly live, whom I must serve to be truly free. And I do mean that these are actually themes woven through this epic s.f. adventure, not merely my own assumptions that I am reading into the text with no help from the author. Deconstructionists and other literary theorists make of it what you will!

For ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ then, I conclude that this four-part epic novel is a highly worldview-immersive/worldview-shifting experience from a generous author who gives us a true gift of Story, regardless of our current beliefs.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Thoughts on Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun (Part 1 of 2) – Limning the Whorl

To get right to the point, moments of this four-volume novel were as good as Wolfe gets and other moments seemed (you have to say 'seemed' about Wolfe because you never know when a re-reading is going to completely change your mind) like it might be less than his best. But Wolfe makes it very hard on himself because his best can be so profound that anything less is bound to be somewhat disappointing, even though a 'let down' from Wolfe is often far better than the best some other writers may have to offer. Is this tetralogy worth reading on a number of levels for a number of reasons? YES. Would my literary-aesthetic-philosophical experience be in want for having not read this tetralogy? YES. Here’s some of what I’m thinking about it:

The prose style was exquisitely crafted and executed as always. I really enjoyed a novel by Wolfe written in third person perspective for a change from his more usual first person narratives, even if it clips back his linguistic virtuosity somewhat. Actually, it’s just another example of that virtuosity that he can deftly handle this more minimalist and ‘objective’ style just as well as the more ornate, grandiose, subjective style he usually employs through the persona of the (sometimes unreliable) main character. His skills are on high display though in the various dialects and mannerisms of the various characters from different levels of society. (Whilst reading the books I often found myself calling things ‘dimber’ or ‘shaggy’ in my head as I went through my day.)

The opening divine enlightenment scene is wonderfully written and I think it so bold and innovative a central theme to be tackled at length in the s.f. genre. After some comments on the setting in part 1 of this article, I will mainly focus on this theological aspect in part 2.

The characters are deftly drawn, the big, rough thief-who-becomes-a-prophet Auk being one of my favourites. Human males are called by animals or animal products like Silk, Blood, Crane; human females by flowers or plants like Hyacinth, Violet, Mint; and ‘chems’ (androids) by minerals like Sand, Marble, Hammerstone. Even the chems are really rather shockingly well rendered as incredibly credible and indeed engrossing characters, physical mannerisms (on unmoving faces) and all. There is a pretty brutish and physically rigid sort of chem called a 'talus' that has a very particular, believable 'personality' that you even feel sympathy for at a few points! To top all perhaps, a pet raven (called a 'night chough') who can utter succinctly meaningful two-word sentences becomes one of the crucial and most attractive characters! People say Wolfe is a fine hand at characterisation and it's true.

The cast of characters play out their in many ways rather down-to-earth political intrigue, uprising, and revolution in the context of a California-sized cylindrical deep space 'generation starship' that is at least three centuries old, its technology in decay, and in which the inhabitants/passengers have lost all idea of just what they are in or why, thinking this is all the 'whorl' there is. There is some pleasing awe and wonder in terms of the mystery of just how this 'Whorl' works with its gods and Mainframe and 'windows' and 'glasses' (computer terminals where 'theophanies' occur), its occasional travel over ground by 'floaters' or in the sky by massive 'airship', the presence of 'skylands' seen only at night and enigmatic winged figures called 'fliers' sighted high in the sky, and the assortment of weaponry such as needle guns and slug guns and an 'azoth' (intensely destructive anti-matter sword blade).

In a world that runs in an essentially premodern manner, the occasional glimpses of technology often come as something of a revelation. For example, after a few hundred pages of travel on foot (and once by mule!) the introduction of advanced road-travel machinery comes as something of a shock (not least due to Wolfe’s prose):

‘The canopy slid soundlessly out of the floater’s sides as Blood and Musk backed away. When it latched, there was a muffled roar from the engine.

‘It felt, Silk thought, as if they were indeed floating; as if a flood had rushed invisibly to lift them and bear them off along the greenway, as if they were always about to spin away in the current, although they never actually spun.

‘Trees and hedges and brilliant flower beds reeled past. Here came Blood’s magnificent fountain, with Soaking Scylla reveling among the crystal jets; at once it was gone and the main gate before them, the gate rising as the long, shining arms of the talus shrank. A dip and a wiggle and the floater was through, blown down the highway like a sere leaf, sailing through an eerie nightscape turned to liquid, leaving behind it a proud plume of swirling yellow-gray dust… The floater leaned to the left as it rounded a bend in the road. Here were farms and fields and houses, all liquid, all swirling past as they breasted the phantom current. A hill rose in a great, brown-green wave, already breaking into a skylit froth of fence rails and fruit trees. The floater plunged down the other side and shot across a ford.’

Despite this enthralling environment, one disappointment to my own tastes was that there are not enough monsters and creatures here for a Gene Wolfe saga! I think the chems take the place of some of these, not least the giant, tank-like, gargoyle-faced taluses. The combat-armoured chem soldiers too are particularly prominent and effective as 'creatures'. There are brief and elusively described appearances of horned lynxes prowling the grounds of a mansion and devil-dogs lurking in a secret network of underground tunnels. There is one awful moment of a woman being swallowed up entire by a giant grotesque fish. She and Silk are ejected from some sort of submarine under water:

‘Slowly at first, then swifter and swifter, sweeping him along, the flood that had practically filled the compartment rushed back to Lake Limna. Helpless as a doll in a maelstrom, he spun in a dizzy whorl of blue light, slowed (his lungs ready to burst), and caught sight of another figure suspended like himself with splayed limbs and drifting hair.

‘And then, dimly, of a monstrous mottled face—black, red, and gold—far larger than any wall of the manse, and a gaping mouth that closed upon the splayed figure he had seen. It passed below him as a floater rushing down some reeling mountain meadow might pass a floating thistle seed, and the turbulence of its wake sent him spinning.’

There are a few other creepy characters: a ghastly, ghostly girl with a skull's grin who travels out of body by her mind and 'possesses' people (these instances of possession are in addition to people being possessed by various gods from time to time). And of course eventually we have the revelation at the beginning of the final book of the eminently creepy Patera Quetzal with his vampire fangs that he is able to fold up hidden in his mouth and his apparently boneless body mass that he has to remember to keep shaping into the form of a fat old man even though he is apparently swift in both climbing and winged flight when no one is looking so that he may take the proper shape. (This is never stated baldly as I have just done, but is implied so clearly that the statement is true – it's a weird and wonderful gift that Wolfe has; this is how he writes most of the time: indirect and yet extremely effective!) Quetzal is actually an alien called an 'inhumu'. But it is not until the very last pages of the last volume that this is made known. The 'inhumi' are introduced more thoroughly and centrally in the three-volume The Book of the Short Sun (of which I have only read the first volume; I decided to stop and read its predecessor Long Sun first before going on). I may be missing some creatures. I admit that when I arrange them all together like this in a listed menagerie, I find the Long Sun whorl pleasingly populated with strange creatures. But I think there are even more than this in the New Sun and Short Sun 'whorls' and certainly more of the bestially monstrous kinds that produce satisfying pulses of horror in the reader. (But then those are 'open whorls' as opposed to this 'closed whorl' where the biosphere, both terrestrial and extraterrestrial, is bound to be far more limited than on Urth of the New Sun or on Blue and Green, the twin planets of the Short Sun.)

Various fights and eventually pitched battles are well described and along with chases and explorations and intrigues give the book a satisfying 'adventure story' feel, which is common in Wolfe's epic multi-volume works. It's as if the boy who loved outlandish, fantastic, fabulous pulp adventure stories grew up to be a sophisticated literature-savvy writer who wanted to be true to both the boy and the man (you know, Jack Vance meets Marcel Proust or something). There are inextricable qualities of Wolfe's tales that are utterly genre s.f. ('science fantasy' or 'speculative fiction', take your pick), but there are also inextricable qualities of his tales that are absolutely 'modern literature'. Gene Wolfe wants to have it both ways and he pays the price of his artistic integrity with a notably limited readership! (Though for the demanding, uncategorisable sort of writer that he is, he is certainly rather famous and it seems he makes a comfortable living from the considerable sales of his books; so on second thought I guess he's rather successful for the sort of uncompromising artist that he is.) I should note though that some of the ‘war’ scenes have an uncomfortably real feel to them. Wolfe was himself a combatant in the Korean war. His fantasies are by no means sheer escapism.

And would you believe that all this (written in some 1300 pages!) takes place within the space of about a fortnight? Time seems almost dilated in this work with so much action, copious dialogue, transformation, revelation and revolution all compacted into, and yet minutely narrated, over this two-week period. I found myself alternating between whether even the most momentous, paradigm-shifting few weeks in history could plausibly contain all this or not. Overall I suppose it could.

People have commented on a certain 'coldness' to Wolfe's writing and I have sometimes noticed something of this myself. But I've come to realise that the more you read him, the more you get used to his strange way of approaching things and see that he is indeed a member of the human race like you and I and there is a deeply human, and indeed humane, root in all his work, even if at times he baffles you with a seeming clinical quality of storytelling (‘clinical’ is misstating it a bit, but it's a hard quality to nuance). Additionally, I must say that The Book of the Long Sun is the most warmly human of Wolfe's works I've read, a deeply empathetic sort of book (even if he still has that impenetrable Wolfean alien quality at times). Part 2 of these thoughts explores some of this more, especially in terms of the main character Silk.

I admit Long Sun is not without its potential problems. At times in the last two volumes the very protracted dialogues seemed so off topic and in some ways quite unbelievable (a fact so jarring with Wolfe's obvious skills!) that patience is pushed almost to the limit and (sad to say for such a powerful work) one is tempted to give up finishing the series. Of course one's perseverance is almost always rewarded with yet another scene of heart-stopping wonder or gripping action or suspense. And again, I here warn myself that with Wolfe scenes and aspects you find bothersome in a first read can become much more crucial and rewarding in a second read.

Lastly, in many ways, though Long Sun is thematically more to my taste than The Book of the New Sun, I have to admit the latter is richer in language and wonders and terrors and philosophy and narrative complexity. Long Sun goes further with theology I think and with the daring and surprisingly successful attempt at a good main character and for these reasons alone will always remain an important work to me. It is somewhat lesser in literary quality to me (but still of a very high and rarely achieved quality at that, let me not be misunderstood!). And of course it is crucial in setting up what promises to be the even more powerfully realised The Book of the Short Sun trilogy (that some say is Wolfe's best in the Solar Cycle). But it is to the theology and the main character(s) of Long Sun (Silk & the Outsider) that I shall now proceed in part 2 of this article.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

There Is Only One Good Thing That Comes Out of War

Perhaps when you were shot at in Korea you were forced to accept what the vast majority of the population has the luxury of not accepting? And it is written all throughout your fiction.

The biggest difference combat made is difficult to describe. A lot of it is fatalism, "I'll fight this thing until it's as good as I can make it. When it is, I'll send it out, reload, and resume firing. I'll keep on doing that as long as I can."

There's only one good thing that comes out of war. It is that the people who fight it are forced to see the lies that others tell them and the lies they tell themselves for what they are. It can be hard on some people – very hard. I wish I could say that it lasted for life; quite often it doesn't.


From An Interview With Gene Wolfe