'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)

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.

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