Filler content with a long sun

A review that originally appeared in The Zone #5 back in 1997:-

EXODUS FROM THE LONG SUN
Gene Wolfe
Hodder & Stoughton hardcover £16.99

In the years since publication of his landmark ‘New Sun’ tetralogy, Gene Wolfe has written books that have been good, bad, and indifferent, but has produced little of a quality to justify his high standing in genre circles. That state of affairs is now rectified with a novel sequence called, appropriately enough, ‘The Book of the Long Sun’, of which EXODUS is the fourth volume. This ambitious project sees the author return to the themes and ideas that made his reputation, and infuse them with new life and vitality.

At the command of a minor god known as the Outsider, the charismatic young augur Patera Silk set out to save his house of worship from closure, a quest that has led him deep into the secret heart of his world. EXODUS opens with Silk proclaimed ruler of his native city of Viron, but it seems that his troubles are only just beginning. The factions opposing him are not so much beaten as biding their time, while Silk’s ostensible allies, a female army sent by the matriarchy of Trivigauntis, seem intent on pursuing their own political agenda. And while this three-way power struggle is being fought out in the spotlight, backstage developments are taking place that threaten the very existence of Silk’s world.

With a cast of more than twenty major characters and a plot that can truly be called labyrinthine, EXODUS is not an easy book to step into. While it may be regarded as a standalone volume, readers will undoubtedly find the book more rewarding and accessible if they first familiarise themselves with the others in the sequence. And, with that small caveat in mind, let me say that EXODUS FROM THE LONG SUN is a book that is well worth the effort.

Wolfe takes the trappings of Science Fiction, generation starships and computer consciousness et al, and twists them through a full 360° to produce a work of fiction that is both familiar and startlingly new. His prose is as vivid as ever, creating a scene, a character with just a few well-chosen words that effortlessly bring it all to life. Much of the story is told by means of speech at which Wolfe has shown himself a past master, and at times it reads like nothing so much as one of Plato’s dialogues, with Silk cast in the role of Socrates and using his interrogative skills to uncover the truth about his world. And perhaps in that comparison lies a clue to the book’s real concerns. While there are enough feats of derring-do and sensawunda material to appease the most demanding fan of such fare, you get the impression that ultimately this is all just surface noise and is not where Wolfe’s true interests lie. At the heart of this work is a philosophical detective story that takes on board the nature of God and our obligations towards Him, the problem of evil and the paradox of freewill.

Comparisons with Orson Scott Card’s ‘Homecoming’ seem inevitable, given the common ground that both series share. And we can only speculate as to why two major SF writers should embark on such similar journeys at this time. However, Wolfe has produced a work of far greater subtlety and insight, one that should be welcomed by anyone with an interest in what SF is capable of when it declines to accept the limitations imagined by critics of the genre.

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