If Nightside The Long Sun was about the protagonist’s self discovery, this second book in the series is about Patera Silk slowly discovering the true nature of his world.
The 4 volumes of The Book Of The Long Sun are set on a multigenerational starship – a fact that Tor reveals on the back cover, but one that is only revealed to the reader in this second book. It’s understandable that Tor did so, as The Long Sun is extremely hard to market: it’s an odd book: a lot more accessible than Wolfe’s magnum opus The Book Of The New Sun, but less lush, and a lot less compelling – at first sight maybe even boring. Tor might have increased its sales, spaceships sell, but the spoiler doesn’t do the reader any service: it takes away part of the joy of discovery, and it sets wrong expectations. Multigenerational starship yes, but no space opera or high tech scifi of whatever ilk.
Patera Silk’s quest to save his parish buildings simply proceeds where Nightside ended. In the first book, he discovered that in order to fulfill his desire to do good and obey the gods, he could justify theft and other sinful things. I wrote about the book’s relativistic moral in my review of the first book. I cannot add a lot to that here, aside from the fact that Wolfe’s religious motives become more clear in this book.
I’ve read about Wolfe’s Catholicism in various discussions of his work, but it is only here I think it truly becomes obvious. I don’t want to imply I missed Severian of the New Sun being a messiah, but there are messianic figures in a lot of religions: it’s just that Lake has more overt Catholic symbolism. That is not to say this is a preachy book that tries to convert its reader to Christianity. It is however, in one respect, a catalogue of moral decision making and religious sociology, especially in the first 200 pages, just as the first volume was.
The final third of the book has a lot more action, and even has outright suspense, plus a fair share of ‘regular’ science fiction stuff. For those familiar with Wolfe know that he doesn’t write hard science fiction: Lake remains very much a tale, not a realistic portrayal of what such a starship would look like – this is no Aurora. As he does not understand the true nature of his world, Silk is a hopelessly naive character. The fact that he lives in a society that’s still into augury and by all means must be qualified as rural (not technological) only enhances this naivety. It gives the first two books of The Long Sun a distinct mythological feel, not unlike the other works I’ve read by Wolfe, yet simpler, less labyrinthine and more straightforward.
Simple and straightforward, yes, but not superficial. Wolfe’s choice of describing the mundane, daily stuff too ultimately makes for a richer, deeper brew. As I said, there’s a bit of regular scifi stuff: cyborgs, sleepers, AI, energy weapons. When that spectacle stuff occurs, it functions as a treat for us readers: Wolfe slowly pulls away the curtain, and the narrative never bores as the unexpected keeps on happening. Admittedly, Lake has less humor than Nightside, but the added scifi elements make up for that.
And yes, questions can be asked about Wolfe’s voluptuous female characters, or his portrayal of the masses. It’s indeed fair to assume he has a conservative and elitist side to him. At the same time, Patera Silk is a compassionate character, trying to do good in world that’s much more complex than he thought. Gene Wolfe might be old-fashioned in a way, but that doesn’t make these books bad or unwanted. On the contrary: Lake Of The Long Sun opposes such binary thinking, as things or people aren’t always as they appear to be. Caldé Of The Long Sun is the third installment, and it will probably continue down this path.
The Long Sun has to be read in order of publication, as it is actually one long novel. Two books in, I firmly say ‘recommended’ – but probably not as the first Gene Wolfe you should read. It is not nearly as difficult as the magnificent The New Sun, but it is no escapist beach reading either.
Orb put out a two-volume paperback edition of the whole Book Of The Long Sun in 2000. The first volume – consisting of Nightside and Lake – is called Litany Of The Long Sun.