Friday, December 14, 2007

Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe Review

While working and parenting, I’m normally only able to read about 5 pages of a book at the end of the day (just before my head hits the pillow). However I’m currently working my way through a series of dense, symbolic, almost Proustian books that are keeping me awake a little longer. And they’re – mumble it apologetically – science fiction. The series is called ‘The Book of the Long Sun’ by one of my favourite writers Gene Wolfe.

Having just finished two of the four novels in this series, it could be that I'm being premature by offering a review of them. However, I'm so besotted with Wolfe's prose that I really can't wait.

I bought `Litany of the Long Sun' (the collected volume of the first two books ‘Nightside the Long Sun’ and ‘Lake of the Long Sun’) some time ago and initially found the writing too obtuse and dense to progress beyond the first few pages. Initially things happen very slowly, with a very short period of time covered in great detail. I came back to it l

ast month, however, and found that it's one of those books that deserve persistence and, ultimately, offer incredibly rich rewards.

The books are set on the interior of what I guess you'd call a planet-sized tubular colony ship (known as `the whorl'), with the `long sun' acting like a giant solar fluorescent tube up the middle, providing heat and light. The ship has been on its journey for so long that none of the inhabitants remember that their world is artificial. However, this sci-fi setting belies the feverish imagination and literary intelligence that make this book so compelling.

The plot follows the young a priest – or ‘Patera’ – Silk as he attempts to save the Sun Street Manteion, the neighbourhood church he runs. It’s in the poorest area of the city-state of Viron and is bought by a powerful criminal kingpin named Blood.

Silk worships a pantheon of Gods, whose origin can be guessed by the fact that their Olympus is called ‘Mainframe’. However, Silk’s quest to save the Manteion is driven by a divine vision bestowed by ‘the Outsider’, who may be the ‘real’ God as we understand him. Mind you, another less miraculous explanation of Silk’s epiphany is offered towards the end of ‘Lake of the Long Sun’. As you can tell already, nothing is taken as read in a Wolfe novel. Everything is open to interpretation.

Indeed, Wolfe plays games with the reader– dropping in clues can easily be missed in the plot and intertextual references that connect with other Wolfe novels. For instance, the two-headed god named Pas in the Book of the Long Sun is the tyrant Typhon encountered in the Book of the New Sun. Silk is lame like Severian, the protagonist in the aforementioned tetralogy.

The characterisation is just as slippery: Silk is an earnestly just man, who strives to stay within the moral laws of his religion, but he is still capable of justifying compromises or capitulation with the criminal Blood in self-serving ways.

The writing style reminds me of 19th Century symbolist paintings - slippery of meaning, stoked by classical allusions, vivid imagery and mythological coda. Indeed, when I read it, I feel that I'm in the world depicted in the bejewelled fantastic paintings of Gustave Moreau. I find myself dreaming of the golden baroque images that Wolfe conjures up in his writing.

Of course, only being two books in, I have no idea of how Silk's story will progress or how all the symbolic threads that are being laid out will come together and resolve themselves. However, I'm enjoying the journey immensely...

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau


Steve said...

That's rather whet my appetite - I enjoyed the New Sun books very much and still rate Severian as a superb fictional creation. Once I have the energy to read again (!) I may give this a go. Along with all the other books you've bought/recommended to me over the years...

Aaron said...

I also love the Long Sun books as well as Wolfe's work as a whole. The only thing that I didn't like about your review is your contempt for SF. You say that the SF setting belies the literary quality of this work, but I know Wolfe doesn't feel that way at all. He is proud to be an SF writer and always has been. I really thought that after all the great SF books that have been written we were beyond having to say that any good SF isn't really SF at all. But it is.

Tristan said...

Hi Aaron - thanks for your thoughts. You're quite right - SF is a genre I passionately support and love. However, a lot of people do look down their noses at SF and my opening remarks were aimed ironically at them.

Some authors achieve mainstream success with SF novels that they claim aren't SF - Margaret Atwood, for instance. I prefer Wolfe's stance, but I wonder if it's come at the cost of greater sales.