There are some books that are hard to categorize. One of these books is On Blue’s Waters (1999) by Gene Wolfe, the first book of the Short Sun trilogy. It is a weird mix of science fiction and fantasy. The fantasy elements are there in some strange oddities and the situation in which the truth of advanced technology has been lost to the people in story. Many things remain unexplained because the characters simply don’t know.
The Short Sun is the third series I’ve read by Gene Wolfe. The first was the New Sun and the second the Long Sun. The Short Sun is a sequel to the Long Sun. I do not know if there is a relationship to the New Sun, but I have not noticed it. The New Sun novels and the Short Sun novels are told from the first person point of view and the limitations that go with it. Gene Wolfe abused this fact to make events unclear because the main characters cannot perceive it sufficiently. This was not that much of a problem in the New Sun novels. In the Long Sun novels it was hard to keep a clear view of the events that were evolving even if it came from multiple persons. What Wolfe was doing in the Long Sun novels was presenting a recording of recollections of different characters which were made into a novelization. This was really a more complicated way of writing a story but also original. One could call it literary SF.
In the Short Sun Wolfe has taken this concept a big step ahead. He is trying to fuse original literature into science fiction. We find ourselves with a narrator not just telling us his story but also experience him writing the story at the same time. It is a sort of diary in which a story is told.
This may sound exciting, but Wolfe takes it even a step further. The narrator is doing a messy job. Sometimes he recollects events to come or skips back to relate to some earlier events as in reference to the events he had just described. Thus he is taking away some surprises but also creating questions about what is going to happen. And while the story progresses his current events start taking up a bigger role so that we are actually reading two stories at the same time. Even as this way of writing is an interesting experience it also made it hard for me to keep reading. It took me quite some time to finish. There is no smooth development or action sequence to move you on as the narrator often breaks the story to add his comments to what happened.
What really made the book hard to read was that I disliked the main character. He is a normal person with weaknesses and strengths, but also with a doubting nature. He is unsure of himself although he sticks to some vague convinctions he thinks he must follow. He can be quite frustrating.
The story itself is relatively dull as it describes a long journey, but Wolfe has added a number of oddities to keep the reader going. The fact that the journey is nothing peculiar it is strange that it is the main character who seems to attract all these oddities during his journey. They serve some purpose, probably, but only some time later in the story. The so-called second story is without these oddities and that worked better for me.
Even with all these difficulties I will surely continue with the series. I already have the next two books. I will just not be in a hurry to do so. I will take a break and pick up the next book when I’m in the mood for it. Despite all the difficulties Wolfe writes very interesting and weird stories and I like that. The thing is that his style will not be everyone’s piece of cake.