The Book of the Long Sun

Here should appear general notes and links to articles about the series in general. Each of the four books has its own page:


  • Note: this Overview is written for those who have not yet read The Book of the Long Sun, and as such, deliberately avoids "spoilers." This is not true of the more specific articles linked to below. Caveat lector!

The Book of the Long Sun is the second major series in Wolfe's "Solar" or "Briah" cycle, which currently consists of twelve novels in three series, and several short stories. The first series is The Book of the New Sun, published between 1980-82. The immediate sequel to New Sun, The Urth of the New Sun, was published in 1987.

From 1993-6, Wolfe published Long Sun, a story set in the same fictional universe as New Sun, but without an immediately-obvious connection to it. In fact, it would be quite possible to read the two series and never realize they took place in the same fictional universe. Nevertheless, at least one character from New Sun reappears in Long Sun, though in a very different guise.

Briefly, Long Sun takes place on board a slower-than-light starship. This ship, the Whorl, was launched generations ago from Urth (though the people on board the ship call Urth the "Short Sun Whorl"). Wolfe does not choose to follow the common trope wherein the passengers aboard the starship forget that it is a starship; nonetheless, they have forgotten a great deal, and this may have been the intention of those who planned the mission. The inhabitants refer to their ship as "the Whorl," the way we would say "world," with no real thought about it as an object moving through space.

The people of the Whorl are of two kinds, "bios" or humans and "chems" or robots. Male bios take names from animals or animal parts or products; female bios from plants; and chems from minerals. Thus, the protagonist is named Silk, and the two women with whom he is most closely associated at the beginning of the book are Mint (a bio) and Marble (a chem).

The Whorl is a very large cylinder. There are many city-states scattered about its interior surface. The action of Long Sun takes place in and around the city-state of Viron, a vaguely-Hispanic society ruled by a Juntado (though once there was an elected Caldé).

The Whorl is ruled, ultimately, by the "Gods of Mainframe," electronic personalities who reside in the Whorl's computer network and appear to the residents by video screens called "Windows." But no God has appeared in the Windows of Viron for over a generation. The story begins when Silk has a religious vision...



by Patrick O'Leary

(This review appeared in SF EYE Autumn 1997)

The Book of The Long Sun is many books in one--each of them more impressive than any book I expect to read in the near future. So richly layered with invention and meaning and fascination that one's head spins trying to decipher the levels. Yet, the good news is one can enjoy this massive work at the simplest levels. As a tale of wonders, as an exciting adventure, as a masterstroke of Science Fiction World Building--it has enough holy cow for anyone to feast or nibble. It is more accessible than anything I've read by him. It is full of laughs.

Patera Silk--the reluctant hero--is a priest (Wolfe doesn't call him a priest) with shaggy blonde hair and a batch of enlightenment in his brain. He lives in a world (he doesn't call it a world) inside a cylinder, see? Only it's not a cylinder; it's an immense generation starship with a neon (sort of) bar of light down the middle (perfectly plausible invention--try it sometime). The inhabitants do not know they occupy a ship. They take themselves for reality. This world/ship/"Whorl" is decaying; suffering a drought; entropy rules. It has been decades since any of the church's altar computers have hosted a divine visitation. The system is down. The gods are silent.

The silence is broken when a revelation is uploaded into Silk's mind. This happens in the very first line of the book and drives the entire adventure stem to stern. He has been given the key to the mystery of the whorl. Question: Are its inhabitants people, or cargo? What, in other words, is their purpose? How can one act meaningfully, morally, without the crucial knowledge of one's identity? These questions echo throughout the book.

It's up to Patera Silk to discover the answers, to decode the revelation of a mysterious god--"The Outsider," to save his parish (he doesn't call it a parish). The challenge is played out against a tragic backdrop as Silk's world becomes more and more mysterious and chaotic, as it grows larger (and, in a sense, smaller). His identity becomes less and less fixed and safe as he stumbles into a criminal underclass of thieves, whores and spies, as he descends into the terrifying maze of tunnels beneath his world, and he meets the ambiguities of politics, diplomacy, war, sex--the scale grows gigantic--the old gods die--each new revelation is more shocking than the last.

Silk--a most devout and gentle and honest man--must lose his faith, break his precious vows, learn to lie and kill and lead and love.

(The dog just threw up. I'm in the backyard. It's Saturday night.)

But, of course, this is Gene Wolfe. And nothing can be taken at face value. The Book of The Long Sun is a tale of deception and mystery. Each character has several names and at least one secret identity. People are a enigmas --and their most deceptive masks are the personas they take for granted.

It has a marvelous talking crow (Wolfe doesn't call it a crow) who provides much comic relief in a book with more laughs than any Wolfe I've read. He becomes Silk's loyal companion/familiar once his sacrifice has been botched. Did I mention that this gentle man is an "augur" who slices open animals and reads the future in their entrails? (Odd echoes of Severian sparing his "client" Thecla--the plot springboard of The Book of The New Sun. Severian The Torturer. Silk The "Butcher.")

There are nuns who are robots (sort of--and he calls them neither nuns or robots).

There is a Thief who becomes a prophet.

There are accommodating computer butlers in mirrors who conscientiously compliment their hosts on their appearance.

There is nun who becomes a Military leader.

There are dead Presidents in prop-bodies (Been there, Done That)--creepy portraits of evil--Wolfe's very good at it.

There are significant "possessions" in every volume: some demonic, some divine, some merely human.

Each character is unmasked sooner or later. In fact one could look at the whole work as a meditation on Metamorphosis--everyone is in a stage of becoming something else. The most unlikely characters become sympathetic. Gods are redeemed. Charmers become monsters. Even Robots resolve their shame. The voyage of the "Whorl" is a voyage of self-discovery as much as a trek to a new home (there are even two possible homes). Identity cannot be trusted.

One of the Book's most shocking revelations has to do with the actual tale we are reading. So typical of Wolfe--he tucks it into the narrative like an aside--it is a mind-blowing moment very late in the book which treats his reader to a paradigm shift synonymous to those that have wracked his characters. We are no longer safely outside the text--we're in. And we may as well be Silk standing in the cockpit of The Whorl, staring for the first time at the stars beneath his feet.

Finally though, neither the self-consciousness of the text, nor the speculative ingenuity seem to be the point. This is part of Wolfe's greatness, I believe. Whatever his literary and SF sleights of hand, you never feel the cleverness is what matters; the people do. The destinies they choose are always moving and meaningful, as are the choices themselves. This is supremely moral fiction.

People die; it hurts. People love; it hurts. People are forgiven and change--and it hurts. Even Torturers are redeemed.

Those charmed by Wolfe's virtuosity when it comes to choosing names will marvel again at how his lexicon can be both original and familiar, archaic and advanced--as if we'd stepped into a neighboring reality which used almost the same words as we do. We are constantly looking at the familiar cloaked in the exotic.

And the Talk! The Talk! The range of dialects alone is dizzying. And you know you're in good hands when a character is never identified but you understand who is speaking, simply by their voice. There's also a peculiar loquaciousness that most of the characters exercise. It is the one of the most seductive traits of Patera Silk. He says stuff like: "I have a question. No, two questions, actually. Ahh, make that three." Then he asks them, and (if you're lucky) maybe two get answered. I found this charming and soothing. Most of the time Silk is genuinely befuddled, trying--as the reader must--to make sense of his world. Yet we, the readers, are blessed with a peculiar foreknowledge of this world. We know they are our distant descendants. We recognize their variations on our cultural themes; They can only live them. And we can only follow Silk through his dark cocoon, praying for his emergence, yielding to his holiness.

Strange. At the heart of this grand tidal story of war and deception, misplaced faith and devotion, betrayal and loyalty lies an innocent man. A center of gentleness and sweetness.

The last thing I'd expect from Gene Wolfe.

Some Questions:

Why are there two of everything?

Why is everyone following the wrong god?

Why are the characters listed and exposed prior to the text? Major spoilers are included here. And the reader would be advised (in my opinion) to save them for the end.

Why is Silence so important? Three of the volumes begin in silence. One begins with a thunderstorm and a being "unruffled" by the noise. Watch out. )

Is a cane a sword? A microchip moolah? A clock a coffin? A god a program? A world a ship? A whore a Lover? A robot a person?

Why doesn't everybody know Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer alive?

Recent News:

The world is a Jawbreaker.

There's a big ball of iron about the size of the moon at the center of the earth. It rotates on a slightly different axis, at a slightly higher rate of speed than the outer husk, so that it laps us every 400 years.

We live on a beautiful crust--Patera Silk.

It rests on an unstable husk--Calde Silk.

It floats on a molten candy coating--Silk The Lover.

Which revolves around a ball bearing at the center of the earth--Silk's God, The Outsider. Perhaps, the one God we can trust.

In summary let me paraphrase the gushing blurb I wrote after reading an advance copy of the final volume.

Thrilling, mysterious, heartbreaking, funny--The Book of The Long Sun is 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.

It is a tale as big as life whirling like a cyclone about Wolfe's most lovable hero: Patera Silk. With deceptive clarity and stunning craft Wolfe concludes his classic tale of metamorphosis and redemption.

 ------Patrick O'Leary

Other Reviews

Reviews of the Long Sun books by David Langford

Five Steps Towards Briah: Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun by Nick Gevers (Internet Archive copy)