Gene Wolfe is an author who has been working in the science fiction/fantasy area for a long time, and at a very high level. I haven’t read all his work, but I’ve read three of his series, which may constitute the most important part of it. The New Sun series, the Long Sun series, and the Short Sun series. All three are connected, though the first is connected rather tenuously.
The first is the story of Severian, a trainee in the Torturer’s Guild in the distant future. Torture has been pretty constant in human history, and it makes a degree of sense to formalize it, if only to control it. The Torturers are part of the judicial arm of the government, punishing offenders as the courts decide. Severian is an orphan, so he has no other connection to anyone. As he reaches his middle teens a noblewoman is imprisoned there, and he’s often assigned to bring her food, and otherwise care for her. They become friends, she introduces him to the arts and other knowledge, and they eventually become lovers. So when he disobeys an order to prepare her for a form of torture he knows she will have difficulty enduring, by giving her a knife with which she can commit suicide, it’s somewhat traumatic for him to be forced to leave the headquarters and become a torturer in a small town some distance away.
The series takes the form of a bildungsroman showing the process of the young man reaching maturity, and in this case becoming Autarch of the government in his part of the world. Apparently primogeniture is not the system by which rulers are chosen, though Wolfe is vague about this.
A fifth novel is appended to the first four, in which Severian goes to a distant world (or possibly another universe) to ask that Earth’s sun be renewed. This story takes place in the very far future, when our sun has become red, and is dying. The request is granted, Severian returns to earth to observe, and finds himself living in various different places and times. Apparently he is some sort of god or demigod, unbeknownst to himself; unless he does suspect, and doesn’t see fit to mention it to the reader.
There’s a good deal of action in these books, a lot of strange characters, and much that is different, without being absolutely alien, in these books.
The following two series I find more interesting.
The first is the Long Sun series, which starts out with a concept not unusual to science fiction readers, the colonizing ship that travels to the stars at less than the speed of light, so that only the descendents of the people who began the voyage arrive. Wolfe puts this on a much different scale by making the spacecraft a hollowed-out asteroid, and an immense one. The city where much of the action takes place is said to have a population of about half a million, and there are said to be many cities, as well as at least one large lake, mountains, deserts, farmland, and so on. There is an artificial sun to make the ecology work (therefore referred to as the long sun), but soil, air, animals and vegetables have been imported so the world can be self-sustaining.
The culture is rather odd as well: the main character is an Augur, similar to a priest or minister, but belonging to a polytheistic religion (no other religion is mentioned), of which the principal members seem originally to have been a human family, who have probably died, but live on in a gigantic computer system which has given them augmented powers. There are also examples of high technology, like robots, and a particularly destructive hand weapon, alongside the use of animals for farming and transport, as well as sacrifice to the gods.
The series begins with the enlightenment of Patera Silk, the main character, by a god he calls the Outsider, which may correspond to the Judeo-Christian God (Wolfe is not definite), since he apparently is powerful outside the spacecraft (called the “whorl”), while it’s at least implied that the other gods are confined to the “whorl.” Quickly following that is a rebellion in his city, which has to do with local politics, but actually has more to do with the spaceship (which most people are unaware they’re on) has almost reached its destination, and the gods now want the passengers to leave, and colonize two planets: one called Blue, for its color, as seen from space; the other Green. Patera Silk is a leader, and is characterized as being a good man, as well as a great one–it being pointed out that many people called great are not particularly nice. He’s not just nice, but willing to act and firm in his beliefs. There are other leaders on his side, but everyone defers to him. But as the settlers leave the whorl, Silk is left behind.
The Short Sun series begins on the planet Blue, where a man who was a teenager at the time of settlement, and who had know Silk well, is asked to return to the whorl the settlers left to find him because people think his leadership would stop the corruption and criminality of their town. He leaves his wife and three children to search for Silk, as well as a way to return to the whorl, which means finding a working lander. The landers have mostly stopped working because they’ve been looted of everything usable by the settlers. Finding such a lander takes a long time.
If the New Sun series was a bildungsroman, the Short Sun series is plainly the reflections of an older man. The story is chronologically disconnected, and a lot of things don’t get said very plainly, or possibly not at all. But there’s a good deal of wisdom here, usually imputed to the main character, Horn. Horn has eventually found a lander, but instead of taking him to the long sun whorl, it takes him to Green, a jungle world where the inhumi breed. The inhumi are reptilian and vampiric, destroyed the civilization of the previous inhabitants of the two planets, and threaten humans too. The two planets come into close conjunction periodically, and the inhumi are able to fly from Green to Blue to seek victims. They’re crafty, and have bodies that can imitate humans so that few can perceive their real natures if they wish to conceal them. They’re particularly motivated to do this because it turns out that their intelligence is derived from human blood.
Horn reaches Green, and dies there, but suddenly finds himself on the long sun whorl. It develops that he has found Patera Silk, and has taken over his body. People who have known him in the past don’t recognize him, but he steadfastly denies that he is Silk, though we’re not certain if he entirely believes this. Silk occasionally speaks to him through other people, to make matters more confusing, but Horn is also a better man after his “translation”, if that word fits. He becomes a leader in several different places, and a competent one, with arguably a larger view of life ,and deeper insight than when he began his quest.
Although Wolfe uses some science fictional ideas, there are a lot of very odd things that happen in these books, so the only category they could fit in, I think, would be science fantasy. Religion is certainly one of the subjects that interests him, and most religions don’t fit the materialistic worldview that’s usual in science fiction. There are suggestions that Silk is some sort of a messiah, that he has become part of the father of the gods, and that Horn has partaken of Silk’s possible divinity by taking over his body. Horn testifies that he has always tried to emulate Silk, and eventually his emulation ends in his becoming Silk.
Does any of this sound interesting to anyone? I’m leaving out all the action (and there’s quite a bit), and focusing on the ideas, and implications of the writing, which is purposefully suggestive and imprecise. Anyone reading this might think the books tedious, and some might find them so, but however imprecise the impression given by the writing, there are multiple plots, there is plenty of action, and there are many memorable characters. These books take time to read, but you might just find it time well-spent.