(urth) Short Sun blog review

Gwern Branwen gwern0 at gmail.com
Tue Sep 21 07:05:43 PDT 2010

It's that time of the week again!


"Notes on Gene Wolfe's "Short Sun" novels"

"The novels' not-so-big revelation is that the Neighbors brought the
inhumi aboard the Ark and are studying human interactions with the
vampires there, on Blue, and on Green.

It's a twist on the cultural mirror idea. Humans want to meet an
extraterrestrial species to understand what it means to be human. When
the inhumi suck human or Neighbor blood they become like their
victims. Thus they are not a true mirror--they become too much like
us. The Neighbors want to see how human-influenced inhumi differ from
Neighbor-influenced inhumi, so the Neighbors can understand
themselves. This seems awfully complicated: wouldn't it be easier to
just cut the inhumi out of the loop? Especially since the book's other
not-so-big revelation is that the inhumi have a potentially
race-dooming weakness: they must suck the blood of an intelligent
species or remain forever in a pre-sentient, tadpole stage.

Wolfe plays many unreliable narrator games with his protagonists. The
ability to transfer cybernetic pieces of people into other people or
animals makes for some confusion as to who is really talking and who
is "riding" whom. Ultimately we don't care much. The novels leave too
many holes for fans to fill in with theories. The decision to have the
Ark narrative be set in the same timespace as the earlier "New Sun"
stories, two multi-volume series back, seems like a nostalgic impulse
Wolfe shouldn't have succumbed to. Surely a culture that could produce
an Ark to travel between star systems is an energetic young one, not
the miserable Byzantine world of the "New Sun" novels, set on an Earth
so far in the future that the Sun has swollen to Red Giant

Wolfe is a good writer but I wouldn't call his work literature so much
as eloquent, intriguingly convoluted post-new wave SF. Wolfe's
penchant for Melville-like parables and analogies exists within a pulp
continuum where faith in technology sits comfortably with faith in the
supernatural. Genre expectations are satisfied; the Ark we thought
irrevocably broken will be repaired to colonize yet another group of


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