'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.