Gene Wolfe has earned a reputation for writing novels that benefit from being read twice. His works are often complex and they do tend to reward careful reading, so much so that it’s not uncommon to hear prospective readers asking which of his Solar Cycle works is the easiest to read. Wolfe’s Book of the Short Sun trilogy is certainly not the place to start, but it is an otherwise fine finish to this distinguished cycle of stories that bridge the gap between fantasy and science fiction, and for some readers, between literary and genre fiction.
In The Book of the New Sun, Severian is tasked with saving Earth and its dying sun. In The Book of the Long Sun, Wolfe tells the story of a generation ship that was launched to a nearby star system in order to save humanity — perhaps centuries before Severian’s time. In The Book of the Short Sun, the generation ship has arrived and humanity has mostly landed on Blue, one of two planets orbiting humanity’s adopted sun.
However, things are not going well for the human colonists. The settlers have begun to find that their crops are failing. There is corruption as well. New Viron’s foremost figures ask Horn, the narrator of The Book of the Long Sun, to set out in search of Silk, the great leader. Word has reached New Viron that a ship has been outfitted to return to the Whorl, where Silk may still be hiding. Blue is an ocean planet and Horn sets out in his sloop on his quest. Along the way, Horn encounters the mysterious Vanished People as well as the shape-shifting “inhumi.”
Wolfe includes a list of “Proper Names in the Text” at the start of each of the Solar Cycle novels, and it’s worth paying attention to it. Horn is listed as the “protagonist,” but the “narrator” is the mysterious “Rajan of Gaon,” who we quickly learn is Horn about to complete his journey. He has no companion, so while we know that Horn survived and that he failed to bring back Silk, we can’t help but wonder what happened along the way. Both Horn and the Rajan face difficulties, though they are at cross-purposes: one trying to return home and the other trying desperately to leave. In spite of his best efforts, the Rajan becomes ensnared in local politics — only a true leader will be able to get out of this mess.
Meanwhile, Horn must outwit any number of monsters. By the time we reach In Green’s Jungles, it’s clear that these conflicts have taken their toll on the protagonist. At some point, he ends up on Green, a jungle planet filled with ruins and any number of vampiric inhumi. However, for all their shape shifting and blood sucking capabilities, the Horn who is struggling to return to his island home on Blue seems to have discovered something vital about the inhumi: they mirror the behavior and attitudes of their prey. Wolfe does not use the word “vampire” in the text, and perhaps he shouldn’t; this mirror twist alone makes them entirely different from the vampires and vampire conflicts that grace most bookshelves today.
There are monsters — quite original ones — within The Book of the Short Sun. However, by the time readers reach Return to the Whorl, they should realize that the monsters and adventure have not really been the point, which is why both mostly attack from the margins of the story. The series is best enjoyed for its other accomplishments; the voice and dialogue in particular are superb. Wolfe has returned to the first-person voice that distinguished The Book of the New Sun, but he has abandoned none of Severian’s complexity. If anything, there’s more at stake in the narration and narrative structure here than ever before — and readers will be forgiven if they finish the series still trying to map out the chronology. So, no, this is not first and foremost an action adventure that punishes evil.
Instead, this series is as much a mystery as it is a quest novel: what happened to Horn during his time on the Whorl? This ambiguity and complexity recalls James Joyce’s claim that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that [Ulysses] will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” While the academic community may not ever pick up The Book of the Short Sun, this closing trilogy from Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle does offer an engaging puzzle for readers, and perhaps it is best considered over more than one reading.