Saturday, 15 May 2010

A puzzle (one of many) from The Book of the Long Sun

I recently finished re-reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, and there is one thing that has really been bugging me. During Silk's enlightenments he is shown many images, and the significance of what he is shown is not always instantly apparent. When he sees, for instance, "lights beneath everyone's feet, like cities low in the night sky," he is seeing the stars and distant worlds of the cosmos, something completely foreign to Silk, who has lived his life on the inner surface of the hollowed-out asteroid that is the Whorl (Nightside 7). During his second enlightenment he is shown "a ragged child weeping on a mattress of straw," which is surely an image of the Nativity (Caldé 559).

However, there is one vision that I cannot understand the significance of. During his initial enlightenment, Silk is shown "a dead woman in an alley off Silver Street, and the people of the quarter," and a moment later "the dead woman seemed to stir, rags fluttering in the hot wind born halfway 'round the whorl" (Nightside 7-8). He mentions this vision of a dead woman some time later when describing his enlightenment to Doctor Crane: "There was a dead woman who had been left in an alley, and Patera Pike, and it was all connected, as if they were pieces of something larger" (Lake 490).

I've been trying to figure out the significance of this "dead woman in an alley" for some time—a few days ago I posted a message on the mailing list, but no reply just yet. Anyone have any idea what this could mean? It's driving me nuts!

Page numbers refer to omnibus editions of Nightside of the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun collected in Litany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty Associates, 2000); and Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun collected in Epiphany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty Associates, 2000).


  1. Well, knowing Wolfe, there's probably something deeper to the dead woman. The fact that he draws attention to her repeatedly sets off alarm bells for me. Of course, it could also be a sign of the Outsider's care for the lost, discarded, and broken things of the universe. As might be the ragged child.

  2. PS: I've been re-reading parts of The Book of the Short Sun and have been dazzled, as I always am, by the myriad puzzles lurking there. One off-hand remark that had formerly seemed like a typo suddenly made sense to me today, but many more remain mysterious.

  3. You may well be right about the dead woman representing the Outsider's care for the broken and disparaged. The child, however, I'm quite sure is a reference to the Nativity - the Outsider also showed Silk scenes from the crucifixion, and Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem (being greeted by people waving palm branches). But, like you, I feel the dead woman must hold some significance. If I remember correctly, the only other visions that are mentioned more than once are Silk's visions of the stars, and of Pike's sacrifice.

    The Book of the Short Sun is amazing. I really have to re-read it again soon. The narrative is so complex, and I love what he does with the narrator(s). _Return to the Whorl_ is my favourite of the trilogy - Wolfe's use of different narrators and styles is amazing! And it certainly is full of puzzles.

  4. We find out later that Quetzal is an inhumu that occasional preys upon humans for sustenance. Perhaps the dead woman in the alley is one of his victims, one that Patera Pike wasn't able to prevent. You may recall there was a young girl who got sick. When her parents called Pike in for help, he recognized the problem and he left a sign which was effective in preventing Quetzal from feeding on her in the future. I suppose it's possible Quetzal wasn't the only inhumu on board the Whorl, but he's the only one we know about, I believe.

    Alternatively, it might be foreshadowing the uprising that occurs in book 3, I believe.

  5. Of course that, knowing Wolfe, there might be some connection between that woman and another part of the story but I find it just as satisfying to see it as a random, unknown vision. What Silk means is that the Outsider showed him familiar and unfamiliar things, that ordinarily would not make sense to put together, but seen through the eyes of a god, all is connected and makes sense.
    To me, that image is just a premonition (vision of the future) of the fighting on the streets, connected with Pike because he prayed for help, help was Silk, and because of Silk all that fighting and death happened.

  6. I always thought it was a representation of the house on Silver St.'s sacred window being visited by a God (or Goddess) again, since it had once been a sacred window.