How Far Away is the Short Sun Whorl?

How far did the Whorl in Gene Wolfe’s Long/Short Sun books travel? The author leaves a few hints, although they are ultimately inconclusive.  Fair warning: if you haven’t read the later novels in Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, this will be of little interest to you.

First, here’s a highly relevant passage from In Green’s Jungles.  Silk/Horn discusses how long the Whorl’s journey was, and other characters try to determine how much time has elapsed on Urth since the unruined if rather decadent world remembered by one of the Whorl’s hibernating passengers:

“I only know that it has been about three hundred and fifty years since the Whorl left [Urth].  A bit more than three hundred and fifty, really–three hundred and fifty five, or some such figure.”

 

“There are seven thousand steps in a league…From what I’ve seen here, the streets are seventy or eighty double steps apart.  Say a hundred to be safe.  If Eco’s correct in his estimate, four leagues, they’ve been falling down for about two-thousand, five hundred years.  If your son is, three-quarters of that should be one thousand, nine hundred, unless I’ve made an error”

[…]

“Old though these houses clearly are, I can’t believe they’re as old as that.  No doubt the rate at which they’re abandoned was much higher at one time; but if we accept Cuoio’s estimate and the error is fifty percent, they’re still a thousand years old, roughly.”

So the Whorl traveled for about 350 years.  However, it spent an unknown and possibly significant amount of time parked around the Short Sun — possibly as long as fifty years, about the time the other gods rebelled against Pas and Quetzal entered the Whorl.  Somewhere between 1000 and 2500 years passed on Urth.  Before I go further, I’d like to note something: Gene Wolfe’s Urth is nowhere near as ancient as Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, where the very mountains have worn down to hills.

Anyway: here’s The Relativistic Rocket, which explains in relatively simple terms how to calculate distance, velocity, and time in separate frames given acceleration and other values — which we have.

Continue reading “How Far Away is the Short Sun Whorl?”

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Some Thoughts on The Short Sun

In my review/exhortation to read of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Short Sun, I avoided spoilers.  I will not do so here, regarding my thoughts on certain details of these books.

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The Book of the Short Sun

Well, I’ve done it.  I’ve finished The Book of the Short Sun and, with it, Gene Wolfe’s “Solar Cycle”.  It was worth it.  The rest of this post will assume that you have read or are at least familiar with The Book of the New Sun The Book of the Short Sun tells the story of a man who strives to fulfill a great vow, perhaps taken too lightly, and changes greatly because of it.

Assuming one has read The Book of the New Sun, I hope to convince you to read the rest of the Solar Cycle.

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Underrated: The Light of Other Days

Worried about pervasive surveillance?  About how much ammunition your 7th-grade MySpace posts and AIM logs will provide to the opposition when you run for office, or interview for a job?  Check out the highly underrated The Light of Other Days, joint venture of science fiction giants Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter.

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The Magus, First-Person, & The Greatness of Gene Wolfe

John Fowles’s The Magus long ago caught my eye on some Top 100 Great Novels list because I hoped it would be about a wizard in the Gandalf sense and remained intrigued by the premise when I found out otherwise.  While it is indeed a Great Novel, it’s not about the Istari.  However, as many things do, it got me thinking about Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.

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Warning: there is an image at the bottom of this post that spoils many things about both books

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“Armor” and the Holy Trinity of Mil-SF

I’m not into military science fiction.  Hammer’s Slammers?  I’ve heard of it.  Honor Harrington?  Never read it.  Some guy named Marko Kloos got into some sort of spat.  A distaste for open-ended series accounts for more than a bit of my aversion, though, so if I’m going to dip my toe into the subgenre, it’s through standalone books.  The three milSF books that everyone should read, so I’m told, are Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and Armor by John Steakley.

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Fantasy Justice and the Great Frontier

The backwater setting and approving attitude towards “frontier justice” in Jack Vance’s Araminta Station reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s Future History books, and criticisms of science fiction as authoritarian, statist, and parochial in general.  While some authors do have authoritarian or anti-democratic ideas that they incorporate into their work, mostly these works express a longing to re-open the wild frontier, combined with a limited scope.  As the memory of frontier exploration fades from collective memory, more stories turn inward to find a source of narrative conflict.

Default vs Doctrine

The simple reason for monarchy and other forms of personal rule recurring so often in speculative fiction is just that: simplicity.  One guy is in charge because he was born that way, or might as well have been.  He’s got some ministers of varying degrees of goodness and competence, and if someone wants to rearrange the org chart, the have a simple objective: the king.

Taking things a little further, history and political theory have much to say about the merits of a benevolent dictatorship  — Plato’s philosopher-kings, or the enlightened monarchs of the Renaissance.  Indeed the principal drawback — succession — ready-makes the story: the noble protagonist must assume his rightful place in order to assure the continuance of Good.  And not every story need concern itself with the mechanics of government.  A.E. van Vogt, for instance, just didn’t give much thought to the subject other than “someone in charge lives in a big castle”.  Tolkien, antiquarian that he was, had philosophical and aesthetic reasons to recall the kings of yore in his stories, though his imitators again probably didn’t give the issue too much thought.  Kings ruled in the Hyborian Age of Robert Howard; the Conan stories both intending to portray a vanished mythical age and not conducive to arguments before the Althing.

Some authors really do have a low opinion of the common man.  The Deep State antics of the “good guys” in E.E. Smith’s Triplanetary make the quick-shooting interstellar police of Araminta look like the Warren Court.  Other times the author simply wants to make a point about the relationship between government, technology, and context.  Frank Herbert’s Dune portrays feudalism as an effective solution to the governance of multiple planets bound by poor communication, something Poul Anderson also did a few years prior in The High Crusade.  However, the Future History & Gaean Reach settings of Heinlein & Vance respectively don’t indulge in either default or doctrinaire monarchy.  Both, in fact, deal pretty extensively with the mechanics of governance & social class.  Yet both exult in swift, sure enforcement of extrajudicial justice.

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In the service of the Queen

Escaping the Clutches of Civilization

The glorification of summary personal justice reflects a wish to escape civilization to conquer and settle a frontier.  This latter impulse is particularly American, and in fact for a long time largely defined “American”.  After the census of 1890 famously declared an end to the American frontier, the country spent several generations ruminating, reliving, and glorifying the legacy of its frontier settlement, most visibly via the genre of the Western, although it influenced early science fiction as well, with authors viewing space exploration literally as a final (and hopefully infinite) frontier.

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This, but IN SPACE.

Space would provide an escape from oppressive attempts to render society “legible” to control and taxation, attempts made easier not merely by technology but by population density and sheer age.  Authors like Heinlein and Frank Herbert even posited a eugenic effect: frontier settlement selected for adventure and individualism; old sedentary societies selected for conformity and stagnation.

Migration is a sorting device, a forced Darwinian selection, under which superior stock goes to the stars while culls stay home and die.
This is true even for those forcibly transported (as in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth centuries), save that the sorting then takes place on the new planet. In a raw frontier weaklings and misfits die; strong stock survives. Even those who migrate voluntarily still go through this second drastic special selection.

Even authors who shied away from eugenic arguments, like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, suggested space settlement would at least spread humanity’s eggs around several baskets.

The swift, community-sanctioned and personally-dispensed justice required by the comparatively lawless frontier definitely appealed to anyone who felt the courts of settled regions to be slow, unfair, or unjust.  Some of this might be naive, but to confuse it with authoritarianism or bloodlust badly misses the mark.

The Best of Both Worlds

Heinlein and Vance both took advantage of their authorial prerogative to eliminate the uglier aspects of American frontier settlement — in neither the Future History nor the Gaean Reach settings do settlers need to exterminate natives, institute repressive militarized governments, or participate in the flesh trade in order to survive and prosper.  (Vance does show more cynicism here than Heinlein.)  And prosperity comes easily enough — unlike the hand-to-mouth ranchers of Elmer Kelton’s Westerns, the settlers of the future want for very little.  Lazarus Long decries the precarity of his existence while living in an opulent Roman villa with his harem on a virgin planet; the backwater Mircea’s Wisp of Araminta Station provides recognizably modern First World conditions to most of its inhabitants, while the government has just enough reach to keep things from getting out of hand without Glawen Clattuc having to spend the rest of the trilogy giving sworn statements and depositions about a police shooting at a remote monastery.

Volunteer Posse

Not what they had in mind

Swift summary justice is not one of the aspects of frontier living that Vance or Heinlein eliminate when creating their worlds.  Cutting the red tape on law enforcement isn’t an ugly aspect of the lawless frontier but one of its benefits.  Even when the heroes do bother to try their enemies’ crimes in court, the proceedings run far more smoothly than their real-world counterparts.  The trial portrayed in Araminta Station runs about a page.

In any case, the portrayal of summary justice in Vance’s Cadwal Chronicles, like that of Heinlein in his future history, reflects a desire to escape from oppression rather than to extend it — along with an understanding that such an escape means dispensing with certain aspects of civilization.  A severance made all the easier by suspicions about whether settled definitions of due process really equated to ideal justice.