Meaning and Mr. Wolfe
By Cheryl Morgan
When I reviewed Robert Borski’s Solar Labyrinth I noted that there was a lot more analysis for the vast New/Long/Short Sun series needing doing, and that you should buy the book to encourage Borski to finish the job. Obviously you did, because he has come out with a new volume, The Long and the Short of It. Maybe I have some influence after all.
The new book, however, is not quite what I was expecting. Rather than provide in depth coverage of the Long Sun and Short Sun books, it begins with a look at some of Gene Wolfe’s other fiction. There are, for example, chapters on The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Peace. These books are just as devious as the Sun series, and thoroughly deserving of a little scholarly illumination. In addition there are chapters on some of Wolfe’s short fiction. This is inevitably somewhat less interesting because Wolfe has rather less room in a short story to set up really intriguing puzzles. Nevertheless these chapters do provide an interesting insight into the convoluted workings of the Wolfe mind. And boy do we need it at times.
…what a tangled genealogical skein it is when your great-grandfather’s a robot, your grandfather has been killed by your father, you are the son of a clone who addresses you by number, not name, and you have no only a possible lost sister, but also multiple tuplet brothers who’ve been sold off as slaves…
There is a chapter that deals with werewolf themes in Wolfe’s fiction that speculates that Latro is in fact a werewolf. That’s about as much analysis of the Soldier books as we get, but maybe Borski is waiting for Wolfe to finish the series before embarking on a deconstruction. There is no material on The Wizard Knight, but that is understandable because it is so new. There is one chapter that, quite frankly, looked like filler. And then, at last, we get 35 pages on The Book of the Short Sun.
Interestingly Borski elects not to devote much time to The Book of the Long Sun on the grounds that it is a fairly simple and straightforward series. Certainly it is more straightforward than both its predecessor and its sequel, but I think the general reading public could still do with a study guide. As for the Short Sun, he’s right; Wolfe doesn’t get much more devious. Hardly anyone is quite what they seem. To start with there are the vampiric inhumi, whom we know can impersonate humans. Then there is the way that Horn’s mind gets uploaded into Silk’s body after his death on Green. But this, Borski speculates, is only scratching the surface of what is going on.
The key issue here is that Typhon, the dictator from Urth who launched the generation ship, Whorl, must have had some plan in mind. Wolfe has stated publicly that the Short Sun system was Typhon’s intended destination all along. But whilst on board The Whorl Typhon/Pas and his family have all be masquerading as gods while actually residing as uploaded intelligences in the ship’s central computer system, Mainframe. We know that the "gods" have the ability to piggyback themselves onto the minds of living beings. And, as Scylla so charmingly put it, Typhon would never have set out on the expedition if he hadn’t arranged for some means of lording it over the colony world when they arrived.
Borski therefore sets out to investigate two major questions: why did Typhon head for that particular solar system, and what did he and his family get up to once The Whorl arrived? The answers he comes up with suggest that almost no major character in the Short Sun books is quite who they seem.
I’ve said before that I think Borski has a tendency to take his Wolfe-tracking paranoia too seriously at times, and ends up with ideas that are rather too bizarre even for Wolfe to have come up with. On the other hand, even if he is wrong his speculation still makes fascinating reading. If nothing else, reading Borski’s books will help you understand why people say that Gene Wolfe is one of the greatest (if not The Greatest) writer working in English today.
And just for the record, no, I’m not convinced that Typhon is a Neighbor. I’m happy with the argument that he’s an alien. But if he was a Neighbor surely he would have known about the inhumi, and Wolfe has said he did not. I suspect that there is something else involved. But of course I haven’t got a clue what it might be.