(This review originally appeared on my own weblog, Where Worlds Collide)
While on holiday I finally finished the reading “Return to the Whorl”, the final volume of Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the Short Sun” science-fiction trilogy. A deep, complex and literary work, it’s one of those books I know I shall have to read a second (and possibly third) time to fully understand.
The “Short Sun” trilogy is a direct sequel to Wolfe’s earlier “Book of the Long Sun” tetralogy. The Book of the Long Sun is set in a vast generation starship, The Whorl, three hundred years into it’s vogage, and concerns the adventures of a novice priest, Silk. The story becomes more complex as Silk discovers more of the true nature of The Whorl, it’s ‘gods’, and his own destiny.
The the first volume of the Book of the Short Sun, “On Blue’s Waters” starts as the story of Horn, the supposed author of Book of the Long Sun, now living on the colony world of Blue. Civilisation on Blue is degenerating into anarchy, and what passes for the rulers of the city of New Viron see Silk as the only person that can save it from collapse. Horn’s mission to return to The Whorl to find Silk.
As expected in a Gene Wolfe novel, nothing is as simple as it seems, and it grows more complex and adds layers as the story progresses. In the first volume, we learn that the narrator is now ruler of another town on the colony world, Gaon, and the story of Horn’s journey towards The Whorl took place many years earlier, a device used in Wolfe’s earlier “Book of the New Sun”. But by the second volume, “In Greens Jungles”, the ‘present-day’ story of the ruler of Gaon takes over the bulk of the narrative. And the indentity of the narrator becomes more uncertain.
I won’t give away any more of the plot; you’ll have to read it yourself. I love the way Wolfe uses so many generic SF tropes, such as robots, psionics, virtual reality, space travel and blood-drinking alien shapeshifters, but in a totally original way. There is also a very strong moral and religious theme right through all his books.
It’s a pity Gene Wolfe is not better known; the Short Sun trilogy doesn’t even have a British publisher! Perhaps it’s the combination of his mannered, literary style that doesn’t appeal to many SF fans used to a more straightforward type of storytelling, and his use of so many SF tropes (with the assumption that the reader will recognise them) limits the accessiblity to a ‘literary’ audience.
Of course, there are a lot of web sites about his work. After a few web searches, I found Ultan’s Library – an e-journal for studies of the SF of Gene Wolfe, and The URTH mailing list: Discussion of the works of Gene Wolfe. I also found an essay by Gene Wolfe on Tolkein. Gene Wolfe strongly approves of Tolkein’s world view, perhaps not surprising in the light that Wolfe, like Tolkein, is a conservative Catholic.