Sunday, 7 March 2010

New Thesis Plan: Delving into The Book of the Long Sun

I have decided, after a fair amount of reading over the summer, to focus my entire thesis around Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun. I was inspired to do this for two reasons: first, because in order to give "the role of the priest in science fiction" a half-decent treatment I would need to be doing a PhD thesis (or writing a book); and second, because the excellent articles on The Book of the Long Sun by Gevers and Beiting reminded me that there is plenty of fascinating material in Long Sun to fill an honours thesis (15,000-18,000 words).

The title of the thesis will probably be something along the lines of, "Materialism and Transcendence in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun." A brief, tentative plan would go something like this:

  • Brief discussion of the relationship between science fiction (sf) and religion / transcendence / metaphysics.
  • The dominance of materialism, empiricism, scientism, and the scientific world-view in early / golden-age sf.
  • Post-WWII sf and the New Wave movement see the genre open up to philosophical treatments of religion, transcendence and metaphysics.
  • Gene Wolfe often has religious themes central to his sf.
    • About Wolfe and his work.
  • Description of Patera Silk's Vironese religion: Graeco-Roman Paganism + Roman Catholicism + Technological Fetishism [citing Beiting].
    • The pantheon of 'gods' worshiped turn out to be artificial intelligences (AI) of the generation ship (Whorl). They are neither all-powerful, nor even 'good'.
    • Silk comes to see these 'gods' for what they really are, and realises they are not worthy of worship.
  • However, at the beginning of the book, Silk is 'enlightened' by 'the Outsider'.
    • Unlike the other 'gods', the Outsider transcends (the Whorl, the 'gods', all things...).
  • Silk and the other characters attempt secular or scientific solutions to the Whorl's problems, but always end up having to return to the religious paradigm of the Outsider and Silk's original enlightenment [citing Gevers].
  • By having Silk undertake this personal spiritual journey, Wolfe overturns some major sf tropes...
  • This chapter would contain an in-depth analysis of the generation ship trope, detailing the 'usual' formula for the story, and how it serves as a scientific or materialist allegory, representing religion as an ignorant mythology.
  • The central analysis will probably be of Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky, though I will also mention other generation ship stories.
  • For the most part Wolfe follows this formula, having Silk lose faith in the 'gods' of Vironese religion; but he also inverts the trope by sending Silk on a personal spiritual journey towards the Outsider, turning the tale into a story of metaphysics and transcendence.
    • The Book of the Long Sun as Christian allegory [citing Beiting].
  • This chapter would compare Wolfe's use of the priest protagonist to early uses, particularly those found in pulp sf.
  • Argument would probably be that while there are many different purposes for the priestly protagonist in sf, most authors use the character to attack organised religion, to show 'logical faults' with the religious world-view, or just to challenge faith in an all-powerful, all-loving God.
  • Central analysis would likely be Arthur C. Clarke's The Star.
  • Wolfe overturns this tendency as well, by having his priest, Silk, simultaneously lose faith in Vironese religion, and come to a stronger faith in the Outsider.
    • This also reflects the tension between materialism and transcendence in the text: Silk, in a sense, renounces the material and ritual aspect of Catholicism, while affirming the spiritual aspect.
    • This reflects Wolfe's own Catholic faith - even his (unorthodox) belief that the Graeco-Roman gods did exist, but were not all powerful and were not worthy of worship.
I am still unsure about the last chapter - I may end up re-focusing it on some other aspect of The Book of the Long Sun, but we shall see. I've got, probably, until mid-year to settle on it. So, thoughts?

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