Friday, 19 March 2010

The Demonstration of Transcendence in Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun

I have settled on a theme for the third chapter of my thesis. The introduction to the thesis will summarise my arguments, look briefly at the history of religion and the idea of transcendence in the science fiction genre, and introduce Gene Wolfe. The first chapter will be an in-depth analysis of The Book of the Long Sun and its representation of materialism / scientism and religion / transcendence. The second chapter will compare Wolfe's tetralogy to other works of science fiction, especially earlier generation ship stories. Originally, my third and final chapter was going to be on Patera Silk (The Book of the Long Sun's protagonist) and the role of the priest in science fiction. However, I have decided that this topic is too complex to spend a mere 5000 words on, since I would have to acknowledge a huge number of other science fiction stories and would probably just end up repeating the arguments of my previous two chapters anyway.

Then it came to me: while Wolfe tells us about transcendence and the infinite through Silk's learning about 'the Outsider' (God), he also goes further and performs or demonstrates this very transcendence in his complex narrative style. In my third chapter, I will examine how Wolfe opens up The Book of the Long Sun, allowing it to transcend the text itself, and become more than some set story or narrative.

The philosophical framework for my analysis will be provided by Emmanuel Levinas, a twentieth century French philosopher who wrote extensively about ethics, transcendence, and the idea of infinity. According to Levinas, a fictional text is only 'ethical' if it resists becoming part of the 'totality' - that is, if it resists becoming a simple, set story that can be fully comprehended and completely 'known'. As an example, he often cites Dostoevsky, in whose work he sees the possibility of a multitude of interpretations. In his opinion, the text's resistance to any definitive interpretation allows it to demonstrate the idea of infinity, and accurately reflect our inability to fully comprehend or internalise the world in which we live.

Emmanuel Levinas. Photo by Bracha L. Ettinger.

I will look at three ways in which Wolfe achieves this opening up in The Book of the Long Sun: [spoilers follow]
  1. The raising of questions which go unanswered. There are many questions left at the end of the fourth book that seem to be unanswered (although, of course, the answer may sometimes be hidden in the text itself). These would include: what was really taking place with the appearance of Patera Pike as a 'ghost'? does Silk, at the end of the fourth book, get 'digitised' and become a 'god' himself? who is Silk's (biological and adoptive) family? to what extent are the inhabitants of the whorl successful in escaping their dying ship? what happens to Silk and Hyacinth, who remain in the whorl?
  2. The "slingshot ending". This is written about by Kim Stanley Robinson, who attributes Wolfe with the invention of the "slingshot ending", wherein the pace of the narrative builds to a dense, complex flurry of activity at the end of the story. Each of the four books in the tetralogy demonstrates this type of perplexing ending: Silk encountering 'himself' at the end of Nightside; the ambush and (ironic) murder of Crane at the end of Lake; Silk's murder of Blood at the end of Caldé (and the book's confusing epilogue); the revelation that Horn is the author of the books at the end of Exodus. The effect of this "slingshot ending" narrative technique is that it leaves the reader wondering what is taking place, raising questions about what has been happening in the book and what will happen after the narrative ends.
  3. The unreliable narrator. Almost the entire tetralogy is written in the third person by a supposedly omniscient narrator. With the revelation at the end of the final book that one of the text's minor characters, Silk's pupil Horn (with the aid of his wife Nettle), is in fact the book's author, the entire narration is thrown into question, and we can no longer assume the accuracy of what we have been told.
All three of these, of course, are narrative techniques commonly used by Wolfe, and when describing each of them I will also refer to their use in some of Wolfe's other work. The space which these techniques create is one in which the hard tasks of decoding and interpretation can take place. This space transcends the text itself, and demonstrates for us the infinity described in the text.


  1. Interesting ideas! Keep in mind the Short Sun trilogy, though, in which Wolfe answers some of the questions left at the end of Long Sun. And I think some of the questions you raise can be puzzled out from clues left in the text itself.
    But otherwise, yes, I think much of Wolfe's work does "resist becoming part of the totality."

  2. Thanks for your comments! You are right, of course. Though I did mention that the answers are sometimes "hidden in the text itself" - however, I believe in a lot of cases finding these 'answers' often requires an intuitive leap, and the 'answer' settled upon will often be one of a number of possible interpretations. Take, for example, questions of Severian's family in the Book of the New Sun - while the identities of his father and paternal grandmother are generally agreed upon, there is a great deal of speculation over the identities of his sister and mother.

    Regarding the Book of the Short Sun - I am going to attempt to keep to the Book of the Long Sun in my thesis, and only mention its sequel trilogy briefly. I will be treating BotLS independently, as a complete text in itself. Also, although some questions are answered in Short Sun (such as whether or not Silk was digitised), a whole lot more are raised (I think this is Wolfe's price for answering our questions - raising even more!).