Though not essential, it wouldn’t hurt to do some homework before reading Litany of the Long Sun, Gene Wolfe’s omnibus edition of two novels: Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun. Litany and its companion omnibus Epiphany of the Long Sun make up the Book of the Long Sun series, which is itself an independent part of Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle.
Wolfe’s “Solar” novels are all set in a universe where the earth’s sun is dying. For humanity to survive this astronomical apocalypse, a generation ship is sent to colonize distant planets. The ship is large and the voyage long, so much so that recent generations are unaware that they are traveling. Only a few know that they are on a ship that is slowly breaking down as it reaches its destination. As far as most characters are concerned, they live in the “whorl” and the whorl is everything.
All of this sounds like a purely science fiction premise. However, as in his Book of the New Sun novels about Severian the torturer, Wolfe does a fine job of blending his science fiction ingredients with elements of the fantastic. For the most part, the inhabitants of the whorl live in a dusty and decrepit fantasy setting, particularly in Viron, the city Patera Silk calls home.
Patera Silk is one of the most impressive leaders in fantasy. An “augur” in the Sun Street “Manteion,” Silk’s role is something akin to a priest running a place of worship in a poor neighborhood. Silk has spent his life trying to lead his largely criminal flock to sacrifice animals as they worship the gods of the whorl. However, when we meet him, Silk has suddenly received enlightenment from the Outsider, an all but forgotten god that is barely mentioned in the holy books of the whorl.
Before long, it is revealed that Silk’s manteion has been sold to a local crime lord, Blood. Silk sets out to save his manteion and before long finds himself leading his city in a rebellion against its corrupt leaders, challenging his faith in the whorl’s gods, and even studying swordsmanship with a one-legged fencer. Though humble in conversation and lifestyle, Silk always finds a way to prove equal to the task before him. Surprisingly, his ability to resolve conflict relies on his quick mind and smooth tongue and never on swordsmanship.
What sets Litany of the Long Sun apart from the work of Wolfe’s peers is the way conflict and feelings are revealed. To start, careful readers will come to realize that every character has a unique way of speaking. Moreover, attention to dialogue is absolutely necessary because the narrator never provides an explanation of what characters are feeling or thinking. Wolfe trusts his readers to infer conflict entirely from speech and action. And when following the subtle evasions and dealings of Silk, we must be especially attentive because few characters in the novel realize that he has outsmarted them until it is too late.
Some readers may come to find the pacing of Silk’s journey relentlessly exhausting. Wolfe focuses on the minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour dealings of Silk, and it takes only a few days before we suddenly realize that the power structure of Viron has subtly shifted. However, during these moments we learn a great deal about Silk’s world and the intriguing people that populate it. Among the cast of characters are a talking bird that Silk originally intends to sacrifice but ultimately befriends, a woman that can send her spirit into other people, and the slowly decaying robots that help Silk to run the manteion and later to lead the revolution.
Though his novels are not found on the bestseller list, Gene Wolfe is among the most acclaimed writers in his field. Readers looking for a complex blend of fantasy and science fiction peopled with mature and intricate character interaction could hardly do better than to start with Litany of the Long Sun. Though Silk’s story is just one part of Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, readers should not shy away from starting with this fantastically written novel.