For the past few months I’ve worked my way through Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Short sun, only recently finishing the final volume, and thus finally wrapping up his whole Solar Cycle which began with The Book of the New Sun, and Continued with The Book of the Long Sun. The short story of it is that I liked the Short Sun the least of the three, but still enjoyed it a fair amount.
Whereas the Long Sun had only a tangential relationship to its predecessor, the Short Sun is a direct followup to where Long left off: most of the inhabitants of the dyson sphere called the Whorl have emigrated to two nearby planets, Blue and Green, which are also populated by reptilian vampires called the Inhumu. Horn, who in Long Sun was an adolescent is now an older family man living on Blue. He receives an invitation from another settlement to return to the Whorl in the hopes of finding the Long Sun protagonist Patera Silk, who has been MIA for some time. Thus starts what is probably the most conventional quest narrative in the Solar Cycle.
Which is to say that it isn’t terribly conventional. Horn’s narration splits into two streams: the past, where he recounts his quest, and the present where he records the return journey after his quest’s supposed failure. It’s a structure that deliberately undercuts the linearity that is otherwise burned into this sort of journey, where we expect to experience the changing landscape along with the protagonist, perhaps even with a map included.
There’s a lot to like here. Blue is at once both evocative of the early American frontier and of an alien, eldritch place (though perhaps that’s how the American frontier should feel), and the narrative as a whole is a very melancholy look at the sacrifices required and the dangers inherent in striking out a new civilization in a new world. The high point for me was the second volume, In Green’s Jungles, in large part because it throws away much of what we expect to find in the midpoint of a trilogy; it’s a strange, elliptical book which seems too haunted by the most hellish phase of Horn’s journey to even properly recount it.
There’s also the inhumu, the best take on vampires I’ve seen in a while, re imagining them as chameleon-like creatures who can mimic the appearance of humans. And, at its best, there’s Wolfe’s narrative sleight of hand, and his uncanny ability to subtly nudge you into awareness of a plot twist that other writers would announce with a big neon sign. And scattered throughout it all are some breathtaking moments of beauty, horror and mysticism.
It feels the weakest in how it tries to split the middle between the two preceding novels. New Sun was an episodic picaresque packed with memorable incident and detail. Long Sun felt like Wolfe’s biggest statement, a deliberate attempt to write the Great Catholic Sci-Fi Novel, taking a style and tone where it could dive right into some heady theologizing. Short Sun attempts to be the intermediary and doesn’t always work. Its narrative style is closer to the trickery of New Sun. But while it would feel natural for Long Sun to break out into a discussion on the nature of God and whathaveyou, it feels a lot more clunky in Short Sun. Similarly, while Long Sun’s pacing had a monumental feel to it, there were sections of Short Sun where it just seemed like it was treading water. Also, I found Horn to be a much less interesting protagonist than Severian or Patera Silk was, seeming like much more of a cipher than they were (which is arguably intentional on Wolfe’s part, though it made feeling invested in him a little dimmer).
But in spite of all this, Short Sun is still better than most sci-fi out there, and a fine ending to the Solar Cylcle. It does likely represent the upper limits of what Wolfe could do with that setting, and so I’m glad he’s done other things since.