Gene Wolfe
The Book of the Long Sun

Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun

NEL 333pp £15.99 and Tor 352pp $22.95

One problem with reviewing Gene Wolfe is that often there's so little to say that isn't trespassing – peeling away at least some of his veils of sneakiness and indirection. Another is that with only the first two books of a new series to hand, critics can confidently expect a gleefully grinning Wolfe to pull the rug from under any too-rash understanding of what's going on....

As far as I can see, it is not actually stated anywhere in Nightside's text that the setting, the 'whorl', is a vast generation starship modelled like a cylindrical space colony (or like Clarke's Rama), with its artificial 'long sun' running down the central axis. Part of this emerges in the blurb – which after all has to tell us something – and the picture will soon be evident to any sf reader used to picking up on clues like the skylands visible overhead when the sun is shaded, or the scavenged building material called shiprock. And does 'whorl' hint at cloud patterns shaped by Coriolis force down the long axial vista? Pay attention! (I made that tiny speculation before reading Lake, which explicitly gives another though not incompatible origin for the name.)

This new sequence The Book of the Long Sun is set 'in the world of The Book of the New Sun' ... but remotely and not near the period we know. The whorl's launch is ancient history in the Book, its presumably slower-than-light technology long superseded by the mirrors and ships of the Hierodules. As though in passing, Lake drops the name of the autarch who once ruled many worlds and ordered the launch of this 'starcrosser': we have met him in The Sword of the Lictor and The Urth of the New Sun, after which his mere name adds a whiff of gigantic vanity and hubris to the star-voyage. That allusion apart, it is not necessary to have read the four or five books of the Book.

Now, three centuries on, the whorl's launch is forgotten history in this new series too ... a venerable sf tradition since Heinlein's Universe (though here longer and variously reliable memories are owned by certain AIs and robots – called 'chemical' beings or 'chems', for all that they appear to be metallic and nuclear-powered). Equipment is dying with age. Dwindling stocks of old-technology slug-guns, 'floater' hovercars and videophones coexist with swords, pack animals, labour-intensive farming. The gods – whose nature is best indicated by the fact of their heaven being called Mainframe – appear only very rarely at the windows of the electronic altars. The whorl is already old.

Perhaps necessarily, the setting doesn't at first seem as deep and wondrous as Urth in the Book. But this is Wolfe, and things are subtler than the easy sf summation above. When the new books' hero Patera Silk, teacher and priest, is touched by a god, it is not one of the nine chief gods of Mainframe who gives him enlightenment and purpose, but the shadowy (though known and accepted) Outsider. There is mystery here, and probably Mystery ... we are given to understand that the Outsider is the only god whose dominion and creation extend outside the whorl; and that once, incarnated, he may have driven merchants from a temple. Is it significant that for a little while before violence intervenes in the final chapter of Lake, Silk finds himself heading for acclaim in his home city and about to enter it on a donkey?

Silk is a new and likeable variant of the Wolfe hero, seen from outside in third-person rather than first-person narrative (cf. Severian, Latro) for a change. He's truly devout and even celibate despite some severe temptations so far ... yet ready to turn his hand to burglary ad majorem deorum gloriam when his church and school are sold off to pay taxes. Silk's bravura attempt to steal them back forms the centrepiece of Nightside. The whorl's nightside refers to its criminal underworld as well as the darkness under the long sun's revolving shade [wrong inference, I think; the shade apparently masks the whole sun rather than revolving], and there's some nice thieves' cant to go with this: as expected from this author, the more esoteric terms like 'dimber' (meaning approximately 'nifty') can be traced to authentic English historical slang. In the cant, to burgle a residence is – precisely but euphemistically – to 'solve' it.

So we shortly find the young, bright, resourceful and entirely inexperienced Silk solving a crime-lord's mansion which is surrounded by high, spiked walls and guarded by a monstrous, tracked killer robot ('talus'), oversized lynxes and birds, novel weapons, etc. People have banged on so much about Wolfe's elusiveness, his games of indirection, that it's worth noting how frequent, well-crafted and straightforward are the passages of high adventure or suspense.

Our hero is also capable of solving problems in the detective sense, like Father Brown. (Little ratiocinative treats keep recurring in this author's work: remember the lochage in The Shadow of the Torturer who deduces Severian to be no impostor but a genuine torturer, without so much as looking up from his desk?) Later in Nightside Silk unravels a murder in a brothel, uses knowledge painfully gleaned from his earlier adventures to tackle a case of almost literal demonic possession, conducts a ritual cleansing and exorcism, and is rewarded by a numinous encounter with one of the lesser Mainframe goddesses.

All these strange activities appear to be having a catalytic effect on Silk's home city of Viron, one of very many city-states in the whorl, whose democratic Charter has long been suspended along with the office of mayor or 'Caldé'. Instead, a bunch of evidently corrupt councillors, the Ayuntamiento, has held on to power for a period which seems not merely illegal but impossible. There are whispers in the streets, and by the end of Nightside the words Silk for Caldé are appearing scrawled on walls....

Lake of the Long Sun illuminates much of what has gone before, with the new light casting longer and darker shadows. Further theophanies occur. This time Silk's journey to the underworld is literal: searching for the secret meeting-place of the Ayuntamiento, he finds himself ensnared and lost in endless tunnels within the skin of the whorl, 'down' where it's colder and closer to space. Here we find the chem soldiers who were placed to defend each city against the others, most 'asleep', those on guard worrying that after three centuries the defence plans may no longer suffice: more wheels within wheels.

The deeps also contain humans in biological stasis. Devotees of the Book will wonder if it's important that Silk, already lame like Severian, helps call a 'dead' woman from the deeps of time as Severian did.... Other mysteries and wonders abound, including a window through which Silk at last sees stars and one brief dazzling glimpse of what must surely be, for him and all the whorl's passengers, the New Sun. There are confrontations with members of the Ayuntamiento. We have seemingly come to the brink of revolution and war, with portions of Viron's above-ground human army – prodded in some cases by the electronic goddess who most favours Silk – hailing him as leader. The next book is to be called Caldé of the Long Sun.

I haven't even mentioned the still unexplained case of apparent vampirism, the secular rationale for possession by gods, the too-obvious-to-see system of naming which is demurely revealed in a glossary at the beginning of Lake, the talking night-chough, the thief, whore and other-city spy who variously befriend Silk, the highly-charged dreams and prophecies, the flying men who glide watchfully far above the action (and the subplot about hawking for one with an eagle), the submarine in Lake Limna, the careful delineation of the three females who run the church school with Silk (one human, one chem, one half-and-half), the ultra-black joke when one of those 'corrupt' councillors proves to be literally so, the inevitable discovery that the tokens used as coins in the whorl are not coins, and much more. These books read so very smoothly that one feels a distinct jolt on looking back to realize how thoroughly crammed they are with colourful invention and incident.

The prose remains fine and precise. There's a temptation to remark that it contains fewer of the deep notes, the magical resonances and ironies that throb through the original Book ... but many of those moments of the Book went unrecognized or half-understood until the entire work was available for rereading as a whole. The Book of the Long Sun remains maddeningly incomplete.

So far: vintage Wolfe, indeed. His hand has not lost its cunning. Be sure to buy the whole series.

Caldé of the Long Sun

NEL 291pp £16.99

If you haven't yet caught up on Wolfe's new generation-starship series to the extent of the two already published as NEL paperbacks (Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun, reviewed together in Vector 177 ... then where have you been?

Book three of The Book of the Long Sun is as crammed as the first two. All the action to date happens over a remarkably brief span of days, and thus it really should be no surprise that our intensely devout priest-hero Patera Silk has taken so many pages even to weaken in some of his observances. He remains a compulsive truth-teller and rigidly moral in his own probing way, a man who commits only justifiable burglaries and kills only in self-defence as he feels his way through the mutating moral labyrinths of his world's political upheaval. His gods have let him down by proving to be mere ghosts in the machine heaven called Mainframe, and (for the most part) not nice ghosts either: Pas the father has already been murdered by his family, Echidna the mother forcibly possesses one of the most sympathetic characters and conducts a nasty human sacrifice to herself, and Scylla – one of the several offspring – is a monstrous bully. Only the enigmatic god called the Outsider, here tentatively identified with the forgotten 'Ah Lah', might be the real thing....

The action fragments into multiple viewpoints in addition to Silk's, as war and revolution break loose in and around his city of Viron. These include Maytera Mint from Silk's own manteion or temple, who becomes the inspired general of the rebel forces hoping to overthrow the corrupt Ayuntamiento or council and instal Silk as caldé or mayor; her fellow-'nuns' Maytera Marble and Maytera Rose, whose mysterious affinity (a tantalizing point since the opening of book one) is finally actualized; the prostitute Chenille, briefly possessed by Scylla; the thief Auk, now brain-damaged and communing with the blind night-god Tartarus; Prolocutor Quetzal, scorner of gods and Silk's churchly superior, about whom mystery still clings (why must he hide his face in thick cosmetics? how do his unexplained folding fangs and hinted power of flight connect with the unresolved vampire mystery of book one?); the aged fencing-master Xiphias; even Silk's engaging pet, the talking night-chough Oreb.

This splintered narration reflects the fact that the clash of forces is no easy struggle but a tortuous multi-sided fight between rebels, outcasts, criminals and crime-lords, the divided city Guard, Viron's mechanical defenders from underground, the Ayuntamiento, the religious hierarchy, and forces from a second city whose colossal airship intermittently blots out the sky and eclipses the Long Sun. The whole thing is both thoroughly exciting and demanding of close attention.

Wolfe continues to move sure-footed, detailing both violent action and moments of transcendence in the same deceptively transparent prose where much of importance is conveyed through omissions, casual modifiers or unobtrusive throwaway clauses. Some characteristic deceptions and family-tree secrets are laid bare. At the end there is a kind of peace, and (as the title promises, and despite some possibly ominous noises off) Silk is caldé of his city.

Further games, however, are afoot. The focus on such a short though action-packed period invites contrast with the leisurely centuries of this starcrosser's voyage so far; it implies that these are important times, perhaps great times; and the fourth book is to be Exodus from the Long Sun. I hope I don't have to wait on the edge of my seat for too many more months.

Exodus from the Long Sun

Hodder & Stoughton 386pp £16.99

After Nightside the Long Sun, Lake of the Long Sun (both reviewed in Vector 177) and Caldé of the Long Sun (Vector 183), Exodus completes Gene Wolfe's new tetralogy. It will come as no surprise to Wolfe fans that the final volume of The Book of the Long Sun clears up several difficulties only to add fresh ones....

New readers are strongly advised to tackle the books in sequence, now that it's possible to read them through as one long novel. The complexity of what has gone before makes it difficult to follow Exodus without recent and unfaded memories of the past books' action, necessary to map the maze.

Here's a situation report, inevitably containing mild 'spoilers'. The starcrosser colony-vessel known as the whorl or Whorl was sent out from the old Earth of The Book of the New Sun, by that megalomaniac past autarch Typhon – a digital scan of whose personality is or was Pas, chief god in the ship's synthetic Heaven called Mainframe. Within, the whorl is a vast hollow cylinder lit by its axial Long Sun, arguably a tube of fusing plasma. Outside, as could be inferred from a fleeting glimpse of brilliant sun-dazzle through a viewport in Lake, the starcrosser has actually reached its destination system and has almost certainly been orbiting there for some time.

The colonists or 'Cargo' are ignorant of this, owing to centuries of technological decline made worse by their own vandalizing of computers and lander craft for the microelectronic 'cards' now used as coinage. In Viron, one of many internal cities, the series hero Patera (Father) Silk has set out like a holy fool to save his threatened manteion or temple-cum-school. The repercussions of his efforts lead to political upheaval and the waking – and active interference – of several long-quiescent 'gods' from Mainframe's electronic pantheon.

Behind all these potent but false deities lies the Outsider who first 'enlightened' Silk and who is here identified as the god of gods, creator of Pas himself. Links with Christ and Allah are hinted in the text, although the title 'creator of Pas' would also fit Gene Wolfe ... and, more seriously, the twin male/female nature of the Outsider's perceived voice suggests a resonance with some aspect of the former tetralogy's Severian/Thecla. This fascinating question has been put to cagy Wolfe himself. Q: 'Is the Outsider a form of Severian?' A: 'No. Severian is a form of the Outsider.' Since Exodus appeared, Wolfe has stated explicitly that 'The Outsider is a spiritual God' ... the real thing.

Exodus continues the established multi-sided struggle, with new ingredients added to the pot and intelligently stirred. These include the arrival of an army from Silk's dubious allies in the matriarch-ruled city Trivigaunte; various regroupings, misunderstandings, betrayals and deaths (including one shockingly unexpected sacrifice and another that's almost imperceptible); the apparent but debatable electronic resurrection of Pas himself; and emissaries from Mainframe – the Flyers who for so long have watched the action from on high – warning that Pas is prepared to visit the equivalent of Egypt's plagues on the Cargo to force them into setting out for his promised land.

As well as copious action – it's almost cheeky, the way Wolfe ends scene after scene after scene with the sudden crack of a needler or boom of a slug-gun – the book contains much reasonable talk. Silk continues to be an engaging hero and a plausibly good man, still slightly naive and strongly self-doubting, but bringing genuine intelligence and originality to the problems of making war and making peace. Many other characters are instantly distinguishable by manner of speech, sometimes maddeningly so: the hesitant Patera Remora's ums and ahs and incomplete sentences take a certain amount of getting used to, as does self-important Patera Incus's habit of stressing virtually every other word. Other effective leitmotifs include 'foreign' choices of word and word-order, varying densities of thieves' cant (authentic and historical), ejaculated sentence fragments bedecked with exclamation marks, highly constricted vocabulary, stilted formality, and one severe speech defect.

The narrative progresses via many rapid scenic cuts, often losing track of Silk altogether in the doings of a large and active cast, often halting at a cliff-hanger, and very often skipping clean over some expected payoff, set-piece or fragment of continuity – subsequent dialogue fills us in, perhaps not always reliably, on what happened in these tantalizing gaps. How many other writers would lead up to and then calmly omit a double wedding of four major characters? We are as baffled as the Trivigaunti when Silk appears to be sabotaging their famous airship (currently taking him where he doesn't wish to go), shutting down its engines one by one as if by magic. His later, modest explanation of what he did while briefly offstage proves to contain an error, pointed out still later by someone else.

Any simple declarative statement in a Wolfe novel may similarly require suspicious examination. Even the routine-seeming cast lists – first printed at the front of Lake – are far from static, containing information and confirmations not to be found elsewhere.

All this, though, could make a lively story sound solemn (which it isn't) rather than serious (which it is). Despite its darkness Exodus also features capers, pratfalls, wit, and some outright jokes – including what I'm sure are in-jokes aimed at Wolfe's own publishers and a particular unloved US critic.

Where does it all end? The physical home of Mainframe at one end of the cylinder-axis is finally attained. There is a vision of space outside the whorl, seen with a fresh and piercing clarity that makes familiar sf trappings strange again. Silk saves his manteion, though not in the sense he'd originally expected, and slips elusively sideways into the mists of history and legend. Many do indeed reach the promised land – only there are two worlds out there, Green and Blue, and one is already inhabited by 'inhumi' (multiple meanings beckon) who can flit between planets. This explains an important, benevolent-seeming yet surely vampiric and shapeshifting character who has been a troubling enigma throughout the sequence ... but the significance of his last living action remains uncertain.

Exodus closes with a subtly disconcerting perspective-shift, adding a new layer of slipperiness to a long narrative which still holds a residue of mystery. (For careful readers, this shift has been amply signalled earlier in the book; others who suspected Wolfe of a mere momentary carelessness may now kick themselves.) Looking back, I remember how the finale of The Citadel of the Autarch seemed unsatisfactory on first reading, and how deeper and more haunting resonances emerged from further study of the whole Book of the New Sun. Perhaps, as I suspect, The Book of the Long Sun is an achievement of lesser scale; but it too demands to be read again.

Meanwhile, just as the first series acquired that pendant volume The Urth of the New Sun, Wolfe is now working on a new series set in that promised land, with the overall title The Book of the Short Sun. Rumoured titles: On Blue's Waters, In Green's Jungles and Under the Long Sun ... suggesting an eventual return to the Whorl. Stay tuned.