Tag Archives: Gene Wolfe

Epiphany of the Long Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Epiphany of the Long Sun: The Second Half of The Book of the Long Sun [Amazon, Publisher] by Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe Epiphany of the Long Sun

The closing arc of the Long Sun series is this Epiphany, comprising Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. As in the prior New Sun series, our protagonist ascends to political sovereignty before arriving at apotheosis. A key difference, mentioned in my review of Litany of the Long Sun, is that he is not the narrator. The fictive authorship of these Long Sun books is in fact established in the final volume. That turn is handled artfully in a concluding “Defense,” and then cleverly undermined in a subsequent “Afterward” (sic).

Where the earlier part of the series seemed to bring the relations between bios and chems into relief, there was a significant emphasis in this one on speaking animal characters: the bird Oreb and the cat Tick. As I understand many readers to have done, I became a great fan of Oreb. Tick was mostly irritating.

Much of these last two books concerned the increasing intensity of political and military relations between the city-states of Viron and Trivigaunte. Their cultures and technologies are very distinct, and these supply a lot of fuel to the plot.

There was a good deal of positive development of the characters from the Chapter that supplied Viron with its religious officials. Both Incus and Remora–with their respective verbal idiosyncrasies–underwent a fair amount of rehabilitation in this second arc. An important Patera Jerboa was introduced, and there was new and interesting information about the Sybils Mint and Marble. A startling explanation was supplied very late for the enigmas surrounding the Prolocutor Patera Quetzal.

I disagree with some other readers who insist that the Long Sun tale of Patera Silk is subordinated to author Wolfe’s Catholic Christian agenda. While it’s undeniably true that Vironese religion draws on biblical materials and the history of both Catholic practices and the pagan religions with which Christianity has competed and participated in cultural exchange, I don’t think that the story of the Vironese “Exodus” is just a rehash of the Hebrew one with Silk as Moses. Silk’s personal patron deity the Outsider is certainly meant to reference the God of Christianity, but there’s little evidence that the Outsider will enjoy any ultimate success, and Silk seems to be significantly reconciled (an understatement?) with Pas in the final book. The “Prophet Auk” is perhaps even more in the position of Moses, but at the behest of Tartaros. The Triviguantis are shown as being culpably monotheistic with their exclusive reverence of Sphigx, which is an interesting turn.

For some reason, it wasn’t until I had finished reading the whole series that I realized the actual point of future-historical intersection with (or divergence from, rather) the New Sun books, which was signaled by the two-headed Pas, father of the gods of Viron and its Whorl.

It appears that the Short Sun books take up as pretty direct sequels to the Long Sun, and I will read them this year.

Litany of the Long Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Litany of the Long Sun [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Gene Wolfe, the first half of The Book of the Long Sun.

Wolfe Litany of the Long Sun

This volume containing Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun was my first reading in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle beyond the Book of the New Sun (including its Urth). While I appreciate that this second series are supposedly set in a shared far-future continuity, there’s no intersection of plot, character, or setting with the five New Sun books.

There are quite a few points on which this Long Sun series differs from its predecessor. The chapters are longer and fewer in number, making for a different reading rhythm. It has a distinct central protagonist (and a more likable one, on the whole), but he is not the narrator. There is no concluding declaration for each book, to punctuate the story. In fact, it didn’t feel like much was resolved at the end of Nightside. So I thought, ok, I’ll look at the start of the next book and see if there’s a gap in the narrative, then I’ll give it a rest for a little before continuing. But–Lake of the Long Sun picks up without any pause for breath. So I ended up reading the first two chapters of the second book in the same sitting as the last one of the first book!

The protagonist Patera Silk’s dreams are important in the Long Sun, just as dreams were for Severian in Urth. Silk’s dreams are described more believably–the telling really communicates the distortions and uncertainty of dream logic, including ambiguity about the reality of events until waking is finally established. Silk is also, like Severian, a reasonably zealous product of a tutelary order. Instead of being a journeyman of the Guild of Torturers, Silk is an augur (priest) of the polytheistic religion of his city, serving in a neighborhood manteion (temple for animal sacrifice) with its attached school. Silk is sometimes called a “butcher,” since killing animals is central to his profession. So, despite the augur’s relative harmlessness Wolfe again raises for the reader the sort of conundrums he created with his torturer hero. He does a very effective job of making Silk into a conscientious, sympathetic character with “innocence” as his keynote.

Where the New Sun had the alzabo as a means to abrogate the conventional boundaries of personal consciousness, the Long Sun presents a number of instances of divine (and possibly diabolical) possession. The nature and ontological status of the gods is subjected to repeated questioning and re-evaluation by Silk and others over the course of the story, and at this midpoint–with two books of the Long Sun left to go–it doesn’t seem to have reached any sense of finality. But effects of divine initiative are certainly real, and they are not limited to theophanies in the “sacred windows,” which are quite evidently some sort of electronic display screens.

As in the New Sun books, the Long Sun presents a richly-imagined setting, working its way out from quotidian details to a much larger and stranger picture as the story proceeds. This setting has been subjected to spoilers in jacket copy and reviews, but I’d rather just say that it’s completely different than that of the other books. It is more fun to discover it through the book than it would be for me to try to reduce it to some of its larger features. One significant aspect that is introduced at the start is the fact that the city of Viron is a consciously mixed society of “bios” and “chems,” where the former are humans of biological descent, and the latter are engineered persons. There is a surprising level of community and reciprocity between these two sorts of people, and Wolfe often plays on the reader’s expectations in order to delay awareness that a given character is a chem.

On the whole, I find that these Long Sun books succeed in perpetuating and renewing many of the most interesting tropes and preoccupations of the New Sun series, while transposing them to an entirely new milieu. It’s an impressive feat, and I’m looking forward to reading the second half of the Long Sun series.

The Urth of the New Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Urth of the New Sun [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Gene Wolfe, book 3 of the New Sun omnibus series.

Wolfe The Urth of the New Sun

I bought this book in the twentieth century of the vulgar era, and moved it with my library about eleven times over the succeeding twenty-two years before I finally read it. Somehow that seems fitting. The Urth of the New Sun is the fifth of four volumes in Wolfe’s autotheography of Severian the Torturer, a.k.a. Severian the Great, a.k.a. Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, Epitome of Urth, and incarnation of the New Sun. It first recounts his voyage to and from the neighboring universe of Yesod. (Qabalistic Hebrew is strangely conscripted throughout the book.) Then it details his salvific manifestations on Urth and its successor world Ushas.

There are roughly as many plot arcs and riddling enigmas in this book as in the four previous ones put together, and there is hardly a person or a place in the earlier stories that is not subjected to some sort of revisitation in the sequel. These seem to assume their “proper” dimensions so that it is difficult to believe that the author did not secretly understand them this way from the beginning. There is less here than in the earlier books in the way of nested narrative and storytelling set-pieces; for a book chock-full of the vagaries of time travel and transcendence of space, the tale is surprisingly linear, keeping to Severian’s subjective experience of events.

I did not find this volume as difficult of access as I had its predecessors when I first read them in the 1980s. But there were still bits of it that resisted my full understanding, including the unspecified “plausible speculation” with which Wolfe teases his readers in the afterword on “The Miracle of Apu-Punchau.” I expect that a re-read would yield perceptions that were withheld from me on this pass. But my aim is first to proceed on through the seven further volumes of the Solar Cycle.

The Book of the New Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, an omnibus of the New Sun series.

Wolfe The Book of the New Sun

I first read this book (in the four individual volumes) many decades ago in my early teens. In 2007, I picked up this omnibus edition with the intention to re-read it, and quickly acquired most of the other volumes in the larger Solar Cycle, which resulted in a large prospective reading project on which I procrastinated until the thick of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Given my intention to re-read it, I had had a favorable impression of it on my initial read, but I really felt I had not fully understood or appreciated it then. I was correct.

In fact, I am such a different reader now, and so much more capable of grasping what Wolfe has presented here, that most of this book seemed entirely new to me. I remembered the largest plot arc, by which the apprentice torturer ascends to the office of Autarch–and it’s no spoiler to say so, since that framing is well established early on–but I had forgotten the smaller twists, if I ever really appreciated them, and many of the features of the setting seemed entirely new to me on this read.

There is a great contrast in the two literary backgrounds that informed each of my reads. On my initial approach, I came to the work with what I thought was the compatible experience of The Lord of the Rings and perhaps Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. I did appreciate that the described Urth was in our far future, and I had already encountered this sort of conceit in The Sword of Shannara, a highly conventional epic fantasy with various clues to indicate that it was set in a future after our civilization had been effaced by catastrophic warfare. To be fair to my younger self, I think this approach to Wolfe’s books was perfectly in keeping with the publisher’s packaging and expectations, and to some degree I had simply fallen for the author’s intentional misdirection.

On this recent read, I was far more informed by the reading experiences I had gathered from other works in the “dying Earth” subgenre, especially the Viriconium stories of M. John Harrison and The City and the Stars of Arthur C. Clarke. And I was further prepared by reading Wolfe’s own Fifth Head of Cerberus, which offers the sort of elliptical presentation that occurs throughout The Book of the New Sun, without the “epic” framing or red-herring fantasy tropes of the latter.

Wolfe personally adhered to the Roman Catholic confession, and critics have sometimes highlighted this fact as if it supplied a privileged interpretive viewpoint for the work. I remember being a little put off by the possible significance of “religious” elements in my first read–having been burned by the Sunday School allegory of Narnia and the rather dim messianism of Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. But on this recent read, I thought the better comparandum would be the religions, cults, and mysticism of Herbert’s Dune, using the grist of historical religion in the mill of speculative worldbuilding–with some genuine metaphysical rumination. For what it’s worth, Wolfe’s Severian is a lot more diffident about the miracles of his story than Paul Atreides was. The “Claw of the Conciliator” relic that supplies the title of the second book is present through all four, and its demystification in the fourth has the paradoxical effect of enhancing its numinosity. The “One Ring” it is not.

Some other comparisons that failed to occur to me on my initial read: . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The diction of this work is notable for its baroque qualities, archaicisms, and neologisms in an archaic manner. There is a rationale for these stylistic features, which are nevertheless alienating for the reader. Also alienating is the unsympathetic protagonist, who narrates the entire story on the basis of his professedly impeccable memory. A reader might (and I’m sure I once did) miss key details while simply trying to avoid getting stuck on these matters. Wolfe deliberately uses ambiguous language in his nautical and astronautical references. Spacefarers are simply “sailors.”

There are wonderful uses of form and metafictional structure. I especially enjoyed the central play-within-the-play of “Eschatology and Genesis” in the second book, and the Canterbury Tales concatenation of stories told by the convalescing soldiers in the lazaret of the fourth. Despite appearances, these are not digressions from the main work, and they can be understood in part as instruction in how to read the larger text. There is a very rigorous pattern governing the whole, with a strong sense of cyclic completion. The “Citadel of the Autarch” in the title of the fourth book is the place where the first book begins, but its identification with the Autarch is the result of the events of the tale.

The titles of the four component volumes highlight the riddles posed throughout. What is the shadow of the torturer Severian? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . What is the Claw of the Conciliator? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . What is the value of Severian’s sword? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . And what is the Autarch? . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Reading The Book of the New Sun is not like watching a Hollywood movie or even reading a mystery novel. If you let it carry you along, you will be left wondering why you bothered. But there are amazing rewards for the reader who is alert to the increasingly distant voice of the narrator and who works to recognize the features of the story that are left tacit. Not only do I hold this work in high regard for its own sake as a literary accomplishment, it has taught me about reading and storytelling.

Pandora by Holly Hollander

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pandora by Holly Hollander by Gene Wolfe.

Gene Wolfe Pandora by Holly Hollander

As a fan of Gene Wolfe’s fantasy and science fiction, I couldn’t pass up a free copy of Pandora by Holly Hollander, which I picked out of the detritus of a folded secondhand bookshop. This book, however, belongs very self-consciously to a different genre: the murder mystery. The titular Hollander is a teenage girl who serves as the narrator. The story is set in a tony Chicago suburb in the mid-1980s, and though it was written as a contemporary fiction, the absence of cell phones and the Internet now marks it as a period piece.

Holly fancies herself the principal sleuth of the story, but she’s not the only one investigating the crime, and there’s no guarantee that she’ll be the one to solve the mystery. She’s an avid mystery reader and a child of privilege, and she seems to get along well with people, but knowing Wolfe’s fondness for unreliable narrators, I had to wonder if she weren’t a “mean girl” or somehow papering over her own faults in the course of the story.

The novel is parsed into short, fast-reading chapters, with frequent asides and reflections on the authorial process by Holly, whose “first book” Pandora is. The foreword also serves well as an epilogue, and can be re-read with the pleasure of context after finishing the chapters. Pandora would serve well enough as YA literature, and my tween daughter is certainly welcome to read it if it takes her interest. [via]

The Devil in a Forest

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe.

Gene Wolfe The Devil in a Forest

This novel is a pretty quick read. The “science fiction” imprint and the “fantasy” label are both misleading; there’s nothing supernatural or counterfactual in the setting or the plot. It’s just a straightforward adventure story set in a medieval village and its environs. The protagonist is a savvy but ignorant fifteen-year-old weaver’s apprentice.

The interaction between Catholicism and the vestiges of indigenous European religion is a major subtext of the story, and it’s no Wiccanish glamorization of the latter. Wolfe’s own Catholicism often informs his fiction, and it may do so here, but in any case, the result is a more realistic treatment of the material than one usually encounters in a novel with this sort of historical setting.

There’s a significant plot-twist that seemed a little obvious to me, but the whole thing was so lucidly written and well-paced that I didn’t mind a bit. [via]