Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Divine Interregnum in Gene Wolfe's the Book of the Short Sun

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Divine Interregnum in Gene Wolfe's the Book of the Short Sun

Article excerpt

Between 1993 and 1996, science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolf published the four volumes of his The Book of the Long Sun series. (1) On one level a tale of science fiction and political intrigue, The Book of the Long Sun is, on a more profound level, a complicated religious allegory and deeply Catholic work--a rich mythopoetic effort in the spirit of G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis, all authors whom Wolfe has acknowledged as being influential on his life and writing. (2) The Book of the Long Sun functions in part as a sly inversion of the "generation ship" trope in science fiction, which has people traveling on a slower-than-light starship for so long that they have forgotten it is a ship at all. The end result is a materialist allegory wherein a Promethean few cast off their "supernatural" worldview in favor of a "scientific" one as they realize their world is just a machine.

The Book of the Long Sun masterfully inverts this theme. Its stage is the Whorl, a gigantic generation ship constructed as an act of hubris by a far-future human dictator named Typhon. Advanced neuroscience enabled Typhon to do two things: first, to alter the minds of the humans and robots selected to serve as the crew and cargo of the ship to accept his order and to remember nothing of the past, and, second, to copy the minds of himself and his cronies into the ship's computers to serve as the new gods of the Whorl. As the "great god Pas," Typhon presided over an Olympian-style pantheon of the gods known as Mainframe comprising nine major gods (digital copies of his immediate family) and fifty-three minor gods (copies of his favored courtiers). In addition, Typhon also created a state religion to go along with his new pantheon: priests known as augurs, aided by priestesses known as sibyls, offer worship from the "Chrasmologic Writings" (a "bible" composed of random snippets of earthly religious texts) and sacrifice animals for worship and divination before "Sacred Windows" (computer terminals in which Pas and the other gods can appear, and "possess" their worshippers by downloading elements of themselves into their brains). Those elements of the religion that are not Greco-Roman in nature are based on a parody of far-future Catholicism. But like the gods of Olympus, Pas and his courtiers fell to squabbling, and The Book of the Long Sun opens at a point of crisis: after three hundred years of travel, Pas has apparently been destroyed, civilization aboard the Whorl has degenerated to a level resembling Renaissance Italy, the Whorl has arrived at its destination (a star system containing two habitable worlds, called simply "Blue" and "Green") with no one knowing how to disembark, and the Whorl's systems are starting to fail, endangering everyone on board.

The Book of the Long Sun is the tale of Patera Silk, an imperfect but very holy young priest serving a ghetto "manteion," or parish, in the city-state of Viron, who receives a most unusual divine epiphany: not from one of the Nine, or the fifty-three lesser gods, but from the Outsider, the only one of the Mainframe deities not based on one of Typhon's family or courtiers, but deliberately left as an "unknown god" in the Mainframe pantheon as a placeholder deity. Moreover, Silk's epiphany was not through a Sacred Window, but to him directly, and was a simple charge, "Save my manteion." Over the course of four books, the reader comes to understand what none of the characters except Silk (and in his case, only partially) do: that the Outsider is in fact God, who is pushing his way into the closed, poly theistic world of the Whorl to save it. After his enlightenment, Silk finds himself the catspaw of a number of factions in the city of Viron, which is ruled by a corrupt and illegitimate junta known as the Ayuntamiento. Over the course of the stories, Silk rises in power and authority, but paradoxically becomes weaker and weaker along the way. It is only when he is able to step away from the pointless political struggles and open warfare that he is able to escort the members of his old manteion to a shuttle that they use to escape the Whorl to freedom. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.