Notes on Gene Wolfe's "Short Sun" novels

Read Gene Wolfe's "Short Sun" trilogy*, curious to see what happened between humans and the vampiric inhumi that stow away on their Ark to another star system. (See post on an earlier series of novels.) Spoilers follow:

The new star system has two habitable planets, Blue and Green. The inhumi live on Green and have somehow come aboard the cybernetically guided Ark near the end of its 300 year voyage from the human solar system. For a couple of decades these shape-shifting creatures have been living amongst humans, studying them and covertly feeding on their blood. When it comes time for robot landers to begin moving people from the Ark to the planets that are their intended final homes, the inhumi (disguised as homo sapiens) try to influence immigration to Green, where the humans will be "cattle." In most cases the robots override these directions and take people down to Blue, a more hospitable, mostly uninhabited planet.

In the previous post I guessed that inhumi trumped us evolutionarily but that was wrong: Wolfe imagines them as our slightly decadent doppelgangers. The higher beings, called Neighbors, live on Blue, or they did--most have abandoned the planet after being ravaged by the inhumi. Strange that they can teleport but can't solve their mosquito problem! Wolfe tells us little about the Neighbors but mainly uses them as a Deus ex Machina to get the story's protagonists out of jams. 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 proportions.

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 worlds.

*On Blue's Waters, In Green's Jungles, Return to the Whorl, all late-'90s-early-'00s.

Update: This post is discussed on The Urth mailing list (scroll down to "Short Sun blog review"). On whether the book is "literature," it's not that "literature" must be downbeat, it's whether it breaks an implied contract with the reader. Please see Joyce Carol Oates on Lovecraft.