" ... as ambitious as Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, as intricate and beautifully written as Nabokov's Pale Fire." - The Washington Post Book World
"... insidiously beautiful - it releases delayed detonations of pleasure days after you've read it.
This is art of the highest order. It has all the magic we expect from Wolfe: chilling beauty, dark intrigue, and huge invention, and much we do not expect: love, tenderness, and comedy." - SF Eye
The Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996) is a massive, masterful four-volume novel by Gene Wolfe. It is a sequel in a loose sense to his The Book of the New Sun (1980-1982), and is followed, much more closely, both thematically and in setting, by The Book of the Short Sun (1999-2001). It consists of Nightside the Long Sun (1993), Lake of the Long Sun (1994), Caldé of the Long Sun (1994) and Exodus from the Long Sun (1996), though it is now available in two volumes by Orb where the first and second halves are reprinted in two omnibus editions, entitled Litany of the Long Sun and Epiphany of the Long Sun. I refer to it as a single four-volume novel rather than a tetralogy because there is a strong unity of purpose and of dramatic action across the entire work.
Like all of Wolfe's work, The Book of the Long Sun is vast in its scope, an exploration of the problems of faith and skepticism, human nature, sin and the problem of evil. It has dozens of characters, tabulated in the beginning of every volume after the first in a deceptively straight-faced list of "Gods, Persons, and Animals Mentioned in the Text". Despite being written in the third person, it eventually reveals itself to be yet another tilt at the problems of the unreliable narrator, Wolfe's all-time favorite literary technique, in a way that asks for a re-reading of the whole thing.
The protagonist is the young, idealistic, and constantly self-reproaching Patera Silk, a poor parish priest (or augur, as the text has it) and schoolteacher, in the polytheistic and animal sacrifice-oriented religion of Viron, his native city. Though the inhabitants have quite forgotten, we gradually become aware that Viron is in fact situated on the inside of a cylindrical generation ship, called the whorl (or the Whorl by the few people that remember its original function), lit by a long linear sun that is physically occluded at night. Furthermore, we come to doubt the divinity of the deities of his religion fairly quickly, as they are described as living in a heaven called Mainframe, and manifesting themselves in suspiciously monitor-like "Sacred Windows"; the glimpses we get of their personalities make them seem well less than divine too. Viron seems to be organized as a sort of Early-Renaisance city-state, with typically Wolfeian anachronisms: wise and slightly tragic sentient robots, rare and irreplaceable hovercars, salvaged circuit boards used as money.
The book stands in sharp contrast in many ways to The Book of the New Sun, its classic predecessor. Where The New Sun is picaresque, all vivid images, otherworldly places, and a few symbolically loaded, perhaps entirely allegorical characters, The Long Sun is an urban novel with a sprawling, lived-in feel to it, focused more on the interplay of its characters and the complicated network of responsibilities and pleasures that make a civic life. Where The Book of the New Sun can count Jack Vance and Borges as its main influences, The Book of the Long Sun looks more to Dickens and Chesterton.
The story opens with Patera Silk's enlightenment, in the form of a divine epiphany at the hands of The Outsider, the shadowy, hardly-known god of things outside the Whorl. We get hints that the Outsider is the God of the Abrahamic religions: a possible reference to the crucifixion, and an old book that refers to him as Al Lah. But we also get hints that the Outsider is capable of taking on numerous names and aspects while remaining larger than any of them. To muddy the waters further, at one point a doctor suggests that the whole experience was actually the result of an aneurysm. One of the major themes is Silk's struggle to come to terms with the revelation, in terms of both his personal faith and the world as a whole.
The Book of the Long Sun is also a story about maturity, and what it means to come to adulthood and the fullness of one's own potential. Somebody (Tom Disch? Wolfe himself?) wrote that most science fiction is overwhelmingly about adolescence, with stories usually ending right at the moment, or right before, the protagonist starts to become an adult. Here instead, the story is about how both the characters, and, in a certain way, the city of Viron itself, wrestle with their newfound adulthood.
It might be tempting, from the description I give, to read this story as a sort of veiled attempt at Christian, or at least monotheistic apologetics: as being about the moral transition from a false polytheism to worship of the True God. Wolfe tends to resist simple readings, though, incorporating them but simultaneously subverting them and moving well beyond them. It's never clear that Silk's new faith in the Outsider is a significantly truer way of imagining the human relationship with the divine than worshipping the ill-tempered computer personas that are Viron's native gods, and eventually we realize that the narrative of the book may not even be an accurate representation of Silk's faith.
Wolfe's prose style deserves special note. He is one of the master living stylists in the English language, and here his skill could fairly be said to find its apotheosis. His prose takes on a certain spareness that is not always typical of Wolfe's work; while it could never be said to be simple, it avoids the more egregiously clever of the vocabulary games that fill The Book of the New Sun, preferring to let a limpid surface conceal the turbulent depths. The dialogue is particularly well done, with a feel for the tics and awkwardnesses that define speech patterns, and an interesting lower-class slang that Wolfe has partly based on British thieves' cant.
The greatest tragedy of The Book of the Long Sun is that, because of the idiosyncrasies of genre definition, it has not found a much larger readership. Too many science fiction readers have no patience for Wolfe's ambiguities and lack of hard science, while too many readers of whatever it is that we now call literature or literary fiction think of "genre fiction" as simply not being worth their time. Wolfe has a strong cult following, but not the general and critical readership that a work of this caliber deserves.