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by Robert K. J. Killheffer

Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe, Tor, 2001, 412 pages, $25.95

The last time I reviewed a book by Gene Wolfe, it was Lake of the Long Sun, the second volume of The Book of the Long Sun. That was in my very first column for this magazine, back in 1994.

I haven't stilled my pen from lack of interest. Rather the opposite: I've read Wolfe devotedly since I was fourteen years old—for twenty years now—and I've reviewed a great many of his books enthusiastically over the years I've worked as a critic. I've written about his novels, from Soldier of Arete to Castleview to Nightside the Long Sun, and collections of his stories such as Castle of Days and Storeys from the Old Hotel. I'd guess I've written more reviews of Gene Wolfe's work—more wildly positive reviews, without a doubt—than of any other writer's.

And that's why I've not considered him in these pages since that first column. I've wanted to give attention to new writers, and established writers whose books I had never reviewed at any length. More than that, though, I worried that in reviewing Wolfe I would end up repeating myself too much, rehearsing the praise I had spent on his previous work. How often can the coals of enduring admiration be fanned into something resembling flame?

I needn't have feared. Return to the Whorl—and the whole Book of the Short Sun, of which it is the third and concluding volume—certainly offers a feast of the delicacies we've come to expect from Wolfe, but it's also got riches uniquely its own. And it would be a nearly unforgiveable shame to suspend comment on what will likely prove to be the best novel published in the sf field this year, and the best multivolume work of the transmillennial period, simply because its author has achieved so much so often in the past. Return to the Whorl provides a nearly perfect culmination to a nearly perfect sf epic. (Its only disappointment is the unfortunate and atypically bland title.) The Book of the Short Sun may be, in some ways, Wolfe's best work ever—and I say this of an author who's been likened to Mozart, Homer, and other giants of Western culture.

Can I make it any clearer? You should read these books.

As its title suggests, The Book of the Short Sun connects to The Book of the Long Sun which preceded it, and more loosely to Wolfe's classic Book of the New Sun as well. It's something of a direct sequel to the Long Sun series, which concluded with the departure of some of the inhabitants of the "Long Sun Whorl"—an interstellar colony ship—for new lives on the two habitable planets, Blue and Green, of the "Short Sun" star system at which it had arrived. One of those colonists, Horn, undertakes a mission on behalf of his town to return to the Long Sun Whorl and bring the near-legendary Silk, revolutionary leader of their old city, down to Blue to become their governor. The volumes of The Book of the Short Sun are almost entirely Horn's record of his journey.

At heart it's a tale of travel with deep echoes of the Odyssey. In the first volume, On Blue's Waters, Horn sets out alone in a small boat to find the mysterious town of Pajarocu, where there is supposed to be a functional lander planning a trip back to the Long Sun Whorl. He encounters strange characters and strange places, and his mission goes terribly wrong when the Pajarocu lander carries its passengers not to the old Whorl, but to the planet Green, a world of steamy jungles dominated by the vampiric reptilian inhumi, who have killed or enslaved most of the colonists who landed there. Horn nevertheless reaches the Long Sun Whorl (in a sense), and his experiences there, along with his trip back to his town on Blue, make up the action of Return to the Whorl.

This thin precis suggests some of the complexities of the storyline, but it's the merest iceberg's tip. Wolfe never weaves his tales along a single simple line, and The Book of the Short Sun approaches his dense early novel Peace in narrative complexity. From the start, Horn spends at least as much time describing the events that follow his return to Blue as he does on his quest for Silk, and those two narratives intertwine and spawn digressions as they unfold. In Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, Wolfe set himself the arduous task of recounting a story through the eyes of a narrator who cannot recall events from one day to the next, and he stayed true to his conceit with astrounding fidelity. So he does here. All the action of The Book of the Short Sun must be described after the fact, when Horn finds free moments (and materials) to set down his account, and frequently he runs out of time before he can complete the stated goals of any given chapter. We must sometimes piece together events from fragments, and we usually encounter characters in passing before we learn how Horn met them. It may sound maddening, but it's actually exhilarating.

The richness of the three volumes of The Book of the Short Sun beggars description. As he has proven time and again, Wolfe can conjure worlds and characters to people them more vividly in the interstices of his text than most other writers can do in ten thousand words of lump description. Horn spends time as a kind of prisoner-king, an unwilling governor, in the tropical town of Gaon; he helps lead another town, Blanko, to a successful defense against conquest by its neighbor, Soldo; he overthrows the iniquitous government of corrupt judges in the seaside town of Dorp. He hates the vampiric inhumi, but comes to love one inhumu as a son, and another as a daughter. He loves the siren Seawrack, travels with Silk's talking bird Oreb and the equally intelligent, bearlike Babbie, and becomes a favored friend of the Vanished People, the original inhabitants of Blue and Green. He befriends the blinded trooper Pig, and brings back a new eye for his old android teacher, Maytera Marble. And yet all of this action and interaction retain a quiet, contemplative mood in Horn's narrative, and it's Horn's inner journey—his yearning to find Silk, his longing for his wife Nettle, his strained relationship with his son Sinew, his tortured guilt and deep desire to do good—that forms the true center of the whole long novel.

For sheer narrative density, The Book of the Short Sun recalls nothing to me so much as Don DeLillo's monumental novel Underworld (1997), but where DeLillo builds his massive referential edifice on the foundations of an ostensibly real shared history and culture—the matter of America in the second half of the twentieth century—Wolfe performs the same feat while inventing that background of which his story makes fluid allusive use. He has invented some of it before, in the nine volumes that comprise The Book of the New Sun and The Book of the Long Sun, and of course his imagined future history draws archaeologically upon not only the world DeLillo uses—our world—but also the literary traditions of several decades of sf (and centuries of written work in general). Still, the sense of a vast world behind and beyond the text of The Book of the Short Sun stands as a stunning achievement.

Most amazing is how Wolfe manages this without abandoning either the classical form of the novel or the gaudy, audacious concepts of sf. In strategy and even prose, Wolfe owes more to Melville, Kipling, and even Rider Haggard than he does to Pynchon, Coover, or any other light of more recent decades. Wolfe has been justly celebrated for his linguistic powers, and his language retains its familiar precision, intelligence, and evocative power in The Book of the Short Sun, but his are not the fireworks of edgy neologism found in Gibson or Womack. His prose recalls Nabokov, not Joyce.

Wolfe's materials might have sprung straight from the pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Alien vampires? Interstellar colony ships? Kindly android grandmothers? Wolfe is perhaps the only writer—living or dead—who can take elements like these and produce something with the profundity of human feeling of Dostoevsky. He accomplishes this with a humane vision and burning conscience that infuse every line. Consider this moment: Horn has brought back a single working mechanical eye and given it to Maytera Marble, who has been blind after her own parts gave out. Of her joy, he thinks, "if ever comes a time when I must justify my existence—when I must account for the space I have occupied, the food I have eaten, and the air I have breathed—I will tell about Maytera's eye first of all. I doubt that I will have to tell anything else."

Wolfe makes his gaudiest element—the blood-hungry inhumi—into a source of some of the most powerfully moving moments in The Book of the Short Sun. From the start we know them as horrifying, despicable creatures who mimic the appearance and behavior of human beings while they hunt them. Horn's son was nearly killed by one as an infant, and Horn loathes them almost beyond reason. But as he sails for Pajarocu he grudgingly befriends one of these creatures, and travels with him, and this inhumu—Krait—sides with Horn against his own kind when the lander brings them to Green. Horn comes to think of him as a son, and Krait's death in the jungles haunts Horn throughout the rest of his travels. While in Gaon, Horn frees some imprisoned inhumi to fight for the town, and one of these becomes another companion, whom he treats as a daughter.

In a sense, The Book of the Short Sun could be seen as the story of the inhumi as much as the story of Horn, for they present the most urgent moral problem of the story, and Horn's regard for them is the clearest illustration of the hard-won goodness of his character. Toward the end of Return to the Whorl, one of Horn's biological sons, Hoof, says of him, "Father knew exactly how bad we were but he loved us just the same." Horn's love of the inhumi is his greatest challenge, and thus his greatest accomplishment.

Little or nothing is an accident in Gene Wolfe's writing, and the catechistic echo in Hoof's comment simply confirms the centrality of religious themes in The Book of the Short Sun. Not even the Christological overtones of The Book of the New Sun approach the overt meditations on ethics, the spirit, truth, redemption, and God that pervade this later series. At one point during his time in the old Whorl, Horn performs an impromptu ritual of sacrifice which, for reasons far too complex to explain here, explicitly recalls the sacrament of the Eucharist in Roman Catholic practice. "This is my body," he says of the bread he cuts. "This is my blood," of the wine. It doesn't get any clearer than that, and it is a further measure of Wolfe's talents that he can merge the traditionally incompatible idioms of religion and sf so smoothly that the combination feels most effortless.

I have spent the last twenty years thinking of The Book of the New Sun as the finest work of sf ever produced. I don't believe that The Book of the Short Sun surpasses it in that context. I don't know if anything can outdo The Shadow of the Torturer for sheer wonderment and strangeness, or its suffering young protagonist Severian as the exemplar of sf's redeeming hero. But Horn is an adult, where Severian is a boy, and Horn's story plumbs caverns of sorrow, hope, grief, and guilt that only exist in a person of deeper years. The Book of the Short Sun is a tale of personal redemption, not cosmic, and as such, it is not so fine an sf novel as The Book of the New Sun. But it may be the finer novel overall.

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