I’ve finally finished all four volumes of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, the very loose sequel to The Book of the New Sun.
It almost lost me for a while. True to its title, the novel is very long and very deliberately paced, to put it mildly, and as the second volume went on, I wondered if it was going to amount to much in the end. It did; the cumulative effect was magnificent, albeit largely because I was in tune with what Wolfe was trying to do. Although Long Sun is, on the face of it, a much more conventional read than New Sun, I ultimately found it was a much more peculiar work.
Long Sun is close to what you’d get if Charles Dickens and G.K. Chesterton collaborated on a novel allegorizing the ultimate futility of Paganism/Secularism. And you really need to be on board that artistic vision if you’re going to survive all 1400 or so pages of it.
To recap, Long Sun is set at some indeterminate time in the future on a world called the Whorl, and focuses on Patera Silk, a priest of the Whorl’s polytheistic religion. Shortly after Silk is enlightened by one of the gods, his manteion (parish) is bought by Blood, a local crime lord who threatens to destroy it. Silk’s desperate rush to save his manteion snowballs into a massive conflict about the ultimate fate of the Whorl.
In my previous post, I compared the first volume to Chesterton’s Father Brown, as they both shared protagonists who use their philosophical and moral insights as a priest to deal with criminals. That still holds true, although the scope of the story greatly expands to a massive cast of quirky characters who feel much closer to the exaggerations and grotesques of Dickens. In the latter half there’s even some shades of Kipling in the attention given to soldiers.
In short, this is a novel which wears its Victorian and Edwardian literary influences on its sleeves in terms of style and character as opposed to (like steampunk works) echoing the visuals of the era. Now, that era constitutes one of my favourite literary eras, and so I’m all over what Long Sun wants to be. But I can see someone who’s not crazy about Victorian bloat being a little bit annoyed by it.
This is amplified by Wolfe’s tendency here to deliberately leave out a lot of the action, and have the characters provide their own recaps in dialogue. The plot itself is extremely compressed, with events unfolding over a week or so (again, it’s not a snappy read).
But still, it has cyborg nuns, a talking bird, a crazy old swordsman, a thief with a heart of gold – how can I not love it?
As I’ve also suggested, this is the most overtly Catholic of Wolfe’s novels (that I’ve read). Silk himself is practically an ideal righteous pagan – a man of great moral fortitude and philosophical aptitude on the cusp of a conversion. He even frequently chimes in with theological insights and expositions that could almost have been taken from the Catechism or Summa. And, even though the Church never explicitly enters into the narrative, the latter parts of the story are practically pointing in her direction.
The trouble with talking more is that the Whorl is such a mysterious setting that to go into more detail is inevitably to spoil some of the revelations scattered throughout. And the book was heady enough that I still feel like I’m processing a lot of it.