On Blue's Waters by Gene Wolfe
(Tor, $24.95, 381 pages, hardcover; published October 1999.)
On Blue's Waters, written by the greatest author genre SF has yet produced, was the best SF novel to appear in 1999. This may seem like a piece of partisan exaggeration; 1999 was after all the year of Distraction, and Cryptonomicon, and A Deepness in the Sky, large books of large (and largely successful) ambition. But within its more modest compass, On Blue's Waters quietly, deliberately, and intricately shows off the fullest potentials of literary SF, taking its deeply flawed narrator through the painful beginnings of an Odyssey that will uncover the essentials of identity, perception, and compassion, this rendered in language of astonishing beauty and precision. Gene Wolfe has begun a third great Book, and the ordinary genre article cannot truly compete.
Thus the claim this review makes. Why, then, isn't Wolfe better known, why isn't he feted more in the genre's media, why is he Hugoless, why is On Blue's Waters (apparently) without a British publisher? This is the price both of greatness and of perversity: greatness, in that Wolfe's texts behave like those of a great author, demanding of the reader an absolute literate attentiveness that many readers are not prepared (in any sense) to undertake; and perversity, in that the great SF novels by Wolfe, individually difficult in their own right, are the constituent elements of multi-volume Books that are much more than the sum of their parts, and that in turn fit into a yet vaster and more intimidating Cycle. Wolfe is not in the habit of making matters easy for anyone, and this could be seen as willful alienation of his audience. But proceed beyond that first reaction, and the rewards are nigh infinite.
A quick synopsis: first there was The Book of the New Sun (1980-3), which in four volumes of meditative baroque narration takes Severian, a torturers' apprentice, to the position of Autarch of a desolated far-future Urth which can only survive if he, a Christ-emulating New Son, reignites its dying star by means of a New Sun. And then there came The Urth of the New Sun (1987), an extraordinary vision of time paradoxes and apocalypse, in which Severian, amid a plethora of revelations and resurrections, brings Urth its New Sun and a deeply ambiguous salvation. But: millennia earlier, the tyrant Typhon, a minor but symbolically powerful player in Severian's account, sent an enormous generation starship (the Whorl) from Urth to a distant solar system, that he might be worshipped on yet further worlds; and thus the second great opus, The Book of the Long Sun (1993-6), was conceived, again in four volumes. The starship has reached its destination, and the turmoil of exodus begins; Silk, a reluctant messiah, initiates this flight against a background of great existential and practical confusion, countless warring agendas and voices, all of which obscure for almost too long the fact that flight is the only option. But now, in On Blue's Waters, the first volume of The Book of the Short Sun, that flight is accomplished; the new worlds are settled, and the human dilemma is more terrible than before.
Although Wolfe is emphatically a Roman Catholic writer, and his fictions are irradiated with the sacramental and redemptive, the Books have not been very forgiving in their assessment of the potential of the human species. We stand indicted of ecological and genocidal holocausts, of tyranny and idolatry; and after Severian is judged by the angels (or aliens) in The Urth of the New Sun, it is highly significant that the coming of the New Sun incidentally annihilates almost all of Urth's people in massive floods. But in Wolfe's new work, there is a sense that a corner has been turned. Silk in The Book of the Long Sun was a saintly figure among the sinning throngs; Horn, the protagonist of the Short Sun series, embarks on a quest to find Silk; but it seems likely that he--and by extension all of the human colonists on the world Blue--will instead find Silk morally, will learn to follow his unselfish and sympathetic example. It is too early to be sure of this; but it would be profoundly typical of Wolfe's teasingly oblique literary technique that a literal quest should by some devious alchemy become a spiritual one.
These are the facts: Horn, twenty years on from the events of Long Sun, is following the humble enough profession of papermaking at a mill on one of Blue's many islands; this makes him a viable narrator, as he can find the sheets needed to write a memoir on a planet that is increasingly illiterate and barbarous. A delegation of powerful citizens, sinisterly echoing the evil Council left behind on the starship, approaches Horn to set out on an improbable search for Silk, who also remained on the Whorl. Although he, a dissident of sorts, is probably in fact merely being sent into exile, Horn takes his commission seriously: the new communities of Blue need Silk's guidance, as well as technical expertise available only back on the ship. He sails off in a small boat for the distant town of Pajarocu, where allegedly a landing craft is still in spaceworthy condition. But between home and Pajarocu, inscrutable events begin to occur
One of the fascinations of On Blue's Waters is its divided narrative focus: Horn is writing after his return to Blue from the Whorl, and his account skips between his younger self's adventures on the seas and rivers and his present self's career as the Rajan of the embattled city state of Gaon. The earlier thread is picaresque in the manner of Jack Vance, the later sombrely exotic in the style of Kipling; they form a rich weave, naivete and wisdom in counterpoint. In between, Blue has reached conjunction with its sister planet Green, home of the vampiric inhumi, who migrate between the worlds in search of prey. Somehow, their predatory Machiavellian intelligence is simply a mirror of the evil they find in their human victims; Horn's quest for moral guidance is also a means to defang this awful foe. And so, as Odysseus in his first aspect and Odin in his second, Horn exposes his own iniquities with an at times desperate candour (although also with much self-delusion), a process of self-effacing self-diagnosis that identifies at least some of the many human sins that must somehow be remedied. Further volumes will produce a cure. Or not.
Whatever that outcome, On Blue's Waters is a triumph of the authorial craft. All of Wolfe's repertoire is on show: his superficially simple, Homeric style, disguising a reverberant complexity of implication; brilliant set-pieces of dialogue, in which fugitive meanings and motivations are cloaked in flamboyantly eccentric mannerisms of speech; compulsively interesting passages of introspection as Horn agonises within himself; dramatic descriptions of action in which victory is not the point; horror mingled slyly with humour; curious fluidities of character and recollection, by which Horn can at times seem someone else entirely, or become a frighteningly unreliable witness to his own experiences. Myths, history, and language are remade and reinterpreted; religion is interrogated; and all are treated with a subtlety that can defy belief. On Blue's Waters is a magnificent opening to The Book of the Short Sun; In Green's Jungles follows in August 2000, and Return to the Whorl in 2001.
Review by Nick Gevers.
Nick also writes about Wolfe in Ultans Library: an online journal for Gene Wolfe Studies, and more of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.
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© Nick Gevers 25 March 2000