The Book of the Short Sun

The Book of the Short Sun

The Book of the Short Sun is a trilogy by Gene Wolfe, comprising On Blue's Waters (1999), In Green's Jungles (2000), and Return to the Whorl (2001). It is the sequel to Wolfe's tetralogy The Book of the Long Sun, and has connections to The Book of the New Sun. Collectively, these books are sometimes called Wolfe's "Solar Cycle." Books two and three were nominated for Locus Awards in 2001[1] and 2002.[2]


Plot introduction

The story, which is told by a narrator who identifies himself as Horn (the ostensible author of The Book of the Long Sun), is an account of a search "on three worlds" for Silk, the hero of the Long Sun cycle. However, the narrator's adventures continue as he writes, so that the manuscript is both a memoir of his past and a journal of his present. As the story progresses, the narrator's identity becomes increasingly complex and elusive. The writing style changes with each book, and the story is highly nonlinear, with narrative threads from different times told in parallel and story events related out of order as the narrator remembers or confronts them. As with many of Wolfe's novels, the narrator and the circumstances under which the book is being written are essential to understanding the story.


Most of the story takes place in a star system with two habitable planets, Blue and Green (named for their appearance as seen from space). The human inhabitants arrived in the system after several centuries on an O'Neill-style generation starship called the Whorl, which is still in orbit, where some of the events take place. The "Short Sun" of the title is an ordinary star, and is named thus in contrast with the "Long Sun" the narrator grew up with, running along the axis of the Whorl.

  • Blue, where most of the story is set, is an Earthlike world with vast oceans. Its previous inhabitants, an eight-limbed race variously called "The Neighbors" or the "Vanished People", abandoned the planet in the distant past, leaving only ruins, though they are still spotted on occasion. Widely-separated cities have sprung up around the colonists' various landing points, including New Viron, Pajarocu, Gaon, Han, Blanko, and Dorp.
  • Green is an inhospitable jungle world, hot and dark and frightening, but beautiful also, with "capes of moss and trickling waters". The native inhabitants are the inhumi. In their natural form, they are something like giant reptilian leeches, and like leeches they feed on blood, but they can alter the shape of their bodies well enough to fly or mimic human form. They are somehow able to travel between Green, Blue and the Whorl in order to hunt human beings.
  • The Whorl is a dilapidated generation starship, run by uploaded rulers that have set themselves up as gods. At the time of The Book of the Short Sun, the remaining gods are attempting to drive the colonists out of the ship and down onto one of the two planets, by sending giant "godlings" to encourage them to leave. It is believed that turning off the Long Sun that runs down the middle of the Whorl is further to driving the colonists out, though this is explained in Return to the Whorl as being a method of mitigating the heat buildup caused by damaged cooling structures in the Whorl, and that Crew and Cargo were both attempting repairs on the Whorl including clearing out tunnels which allowed for cooling air to circulate through the Whorl and hopefully allow constant running of the Long Sun again.

Collapse of the Neighbor's Civilization

The inhumi are blamed throughout the novels for the collapse of the Neighbors' civilization. This is assumed most of the time to be by predation and conquest. In Green's Jungles it is revealed that the structures left by their civilization on Green are much more intact than those on Blue, though the Neighbors originated on Blue. This is explained later in that the Neighbors' civilization collapsed first on Blue, then on Green, even though Green is the source of the inhumi. That mystery is then explained in that the Neighbors on Green eventually came to control the inhumi and used them to war with the Neighbors on Blue, and this was the means of destruction of their civilization. The Rajan sets his inhumi free and cites this as the reason, that if he were to follow this example of using the inhumi as weapons on an ongoing basis to attack and destroy other human cities or dominate them, that this would fundamentally alter and destroy the human's society as it did to the Neighbors. In Return to the Whorl, the Rajan further states that the Neighbors' civilization was not able to withstand the shock that exposure to the inhumi brought them (pp 236), and that though many fled Blue and Green, they brought inhumi with them.

Convergence with The Book of the New Sun

Some of the characters also visit the "Red Sun Whorl" of The Book of the New Sun. The events of that series, it is made clear, commence just as the events of this one are ending.

Inhumi and Interplanetary Travel

The inhumi are found on the Whorl before major colonization takes place of Blue and Green, one major character, Patera Quezal, being a member of this race. At the end of The Book of the Long Sun, it is clear that they are present on Blue in small numbers and on Green in large numbers.

On Blue's Waters states that during the time of conjunction (once every six years) of Blue and Green that inhumi presence is much greater than at any other time.

Their ability to travel to these places is first illustrated by descriptions of beliefs, and then theories, then through actions related in the story, and finally an explanation is given in the third novel of the series.

The Theories

The Rajan states a theory (pp. 180–181) that Patera Quezal may not have been the only inhumi on the Whorl, but one of many possibly, and indicates three theories that would explain the ability of inhumi to travel between the two planets and the Whorl. He also makes his difficulties with the three theories known, that he does not necessarily support them and that they do not explain everything.

The First Theory

  • "by extreme effort, they could jump out of the sea of air surrounding the whorl they wished to leave, taking aim at the whorl to which they wished to go. Their aim would not have to be precise, since they would fall toward the whorl they were trying to reach as soon as they neared it [...] light objects fall much more slowly than heavy ones, something that anyone can see by dropping a feather [...] The heat that troubles the landers must present no great problem to the inhumi."

The Rajan then states that this did not explain the presence of inhumu on the Whorl, and concludes that "Even then, I realized that other explanations were possible and might be correct."

For the most part, humans believed the first theory, and the inhuma Jahlee in Return to the Whorl made statements in support of this, claiming to have trained at higher and higher elevations for her leap between the planets, however never in the stories are inhumi actually shown to travel by this means.

The argument against this theory being true lies throughout the books:

  • The theory is stated using an explanation that is demonstrably false (that an animal not strong enough to carry large objects in flight (as is shown in the novels) through wing flapping can achieve escape velocity from an Earth sized planet, and as well is not affected by friction or acceleration falling through a gravity well because light objects do not fall as fast as heavy objects).
  • The inhuma Fava dies by freezing when exposed to winter cold. Winter temperatures are much warmer than temperatures in the upper atmosphere, or interplanetary space.
  • The inhuma Jahlee who claims to have trained for interplanetary travel in the upper atmosphere is unable to withstand a winter night, in shelter, with a fire, needing extra fuel for her fire in some cases, and in another case needs to use the Rajan for warmth and has to abandon her bed, both of which contradict an ability to survive in the upper atmosphere or through interplanetary space. As well, inhumi throughout the novels are repeatedly stated and shown as manipulative, deceptive, and strongly desire to keep their secrets from humans (to the point of attacking or threatening to attack the protagonist). Throughout the novels inhumu are described as a type of reptile, scaled, and have difficulty dealing with cold temperatures.
  • At no time in any of the novels of The Book of the Long Sun, or The Book of the Short Sun, are inhumi actually shown to travel between planets in this way, only the claim is made by inhumu and the general "common knowledge" belief of the people is stated.

The Second Theory

  • "The landers were intended to return to the Whorl for more colonists. Patera Quetzal could have boarded a much earlier lander that did so, a lander who's departure was unknown to the Crew..."

At the end of On Blue's Waters, inhumi are shown to control a lander through cooperation with humans, and use it to travel between Green and Blue during the time of conjunction. They use this lander and with the humans in Pajarocu to kidnap other humans and bring them back to Green, using a return to the Whorl as a cover story to lure humans to Pajarocu for the trip. The inhumu Krait seeks to find Pajarocu for voyage on this lander, with the cover story of wanting to hunt in the Whorl, with knowledge that it was controlled by inhumi and bound for Green. Thus at least one lander is in use to ferry inhumi between Blue and Green, as well as bring captive humans, but does not substantiate their presence on the Whorl pre-colonization (68 years before the events of the novels). The lander-transit theory is then demonstrated to be true, though the Rajan was theorizing in regards to travel to the Whorl, this lander is used to travel between Blue and Green during conjunction and is the only means of transit shown taken by inhumi in the novels.

The Third Theory

  • "A third possibility (I thought) was that a group of inhumi had built a lander of their own, in which they had traveled to the Whorl, and that after arriving they had separated to hunt.

Inhumi throughout The Book of the Short Sun are stated to be unable to use tools, and lack the nervous system development to coordinate fine motor skills. Krait states he is unable to fire Horn's slug gun, though he has bartered for it, he calls it useless to him. Fava has been able to learn to write, but writes in a childish scrawl which is surprising to the Rajan in that it represented a high degree of fine motor control for an inhuma to even perform this task. The lack of manual dexterity makes it difficult for inhumi to have any sort of technology based society of their own. The Rajan immediately states the argument against the third theory: "[...] we knew frighteningly little about them. They did not appear to make weapons for themselves, or to build houses or boats, or any such thing—but appearances may be deceiving."

Explanation from Return to the Whorl

Return to the Whorl finally advances an explanation for the interplanetary travel of the inhumi is given which is mostly exclusive of the theories advanced in On Blue's Waters. First (pp. 232) the Neighbor Windcloud states that he had visited the Whorl, "I was one of those who boarded your whorl when it neared our sun".

The Neighbors exhibit an ability to live in a different phase to the humans and inhumi in the novels, they can be seen by looking through the Rajan's ring, or when they wish to be seen on Blue or Green, and are able to send Horn's spirit through the void to join with Silk in Silk's body and take up residence there. They travel at will between these phases and demonstrate these powers without any explanation given in the books.

Page 235 and 236 finally offer the reader a full explanation. Vadsig comments on wanting to go to the Whorl to see where her people came from, and states, "There the Vanished People went? [...] To greet us it was?" The Rajan (who advanced the previous three theories) now gives an explanation: "You might put it so, but they were sensible enough to find out a good deal about us -- and infect us with inhumi --". This answers the question of how inhumi got to the Whorl, which was by being brought by the Neighbors deliberately to infect humanity. The Neighbors, once infected with inhumi were unable to separate them from their own society, implying this is a permanent condition: "Many had left these whorls already, fleeing the inhumi, but taking the inhumi with them."

The rationale for the Neighbors' actions is provided next:

"It was a small price to pay for two whorls, and it enabled the Neighbors to gauge much more accurately the differences between our race and their own."

The Rajan first explains to Vadsig that she can never see herself, she can only see her own reflection in a mirror. Thus if she were to compare her beauty to another woman's, she should not look at that woman, but at that woman's reflection in a mirror, and that images were distorted, making this a fair comparison. The Rajan then says: "That is what the Neighbors did. Knowing what their own inhumi were like, they gave us ours so they might compare the two. I wish I know what they concluded, though I know what they did." They gave the worlds of Green and Blue to humanity approximately 68 years after exposing them to the inhumi.

Plot summary

On Blue's Waters

As the book opens, the narrator, apparently Horn, is the Rajan of Gaon on Blue, acting as a sort of judge and mayor. He is attempting to set down how his adventure began: he was approached by the leaders of New Viron, who had received a letter from the "Men of PAJAROCU", a distant city, stating that they had a working lander and would be returning to the Whorl. Horn was asked to find them and go with them, in search of Caldé Silk, who (it was hoped) would bring order to the lawlessness and chaos of New Viron. In pursuit of this quest, he set off in a small boat toward the western continent he called Shadelow, joined, eventually, by Seawrack, Babbie, Sinew, and Krait. That narrative thread ends when he has reached Pajarocu and boarded the lander.

In alternating chapters, more or less, the Rajan of Gaon describes his current situation: the war his city is fighting against Han, a nearby city, his de facto imprisonment in Gaon, and his extensive dealings with inhumi and a critical secret he learned about them. He eventually escapes from Gaon with the help of one of his concubines, Evensong, and ends the first book in the wilderness.

In Green's Jungles

The book opens as the narrator is approaching the city of Blanko, where he is taken in by Inclito and his family. Small mysteries are related and solved in stories shared by the members of the household, and the narrator (now called Incanto, to conceal his identity) elliptically relates his tragic adventures on Green after the Pajarocu lander was diverted there. It is during these stories that he first discovers a strange thing: the inhumi, when he is near, can send spirits to distant places in (near) physical form, just as the Vanished People apparently can. In this way, Incanto and his companions explore Green and the original Red Sun Whorl.

Blanko, too, is swept up in war, and Incanto again aids them in their fight, discovering that his son Hide, who does not recognize him, is fighting alongside them while searching the world for his missing father. When the book ends, he, Hide, and his new "daughter" Jahlee (an inhuma) have left Blanko, and are on the road back to New Viron; the ending of the parallel story on Green is left uncertain.

Return to the Whorl

Return to the Whorl alternates between the narrator's first-person adventures on his way home and a third-person account of his travels on the Whorl, which he visited after Green. This third-person story is ostensibly penned by Hide, Hoof, Daisy, and Vadsig. Near the end, there is a section written by Hoof alone, and the very last pages are written by Daisy.

On the Whorl, the Long Sun has been blown out temporarily, and the world is in near-total darkness. The narrator encounters Pig and Hound, and with them travels to the ruins of Blood's mansion (where Mucor appears to them), and then to Old Viron. In the Caldé's Palace, he finds Maytera Marble's half-finished daughter Olivine, who donates one of her eyes for her mother; the narrator will eventually echo this gift by donating one of his own to Pig at the West Pole. The leadership of Old Viron, threatened by his reappearance, arranges with Hari Mau of Gaon to have him returned to Blue — at which point the narrative connects with the opening of On Blue's Waters.

For much of the first-person account, the narrator is imprisoned on Blue in a town called Dorp on trumped-up charges, and must use his various powers to foment a revolution against the unjust judges who rule the town. In the course of this effort, he again visits the Red Sun Whorl, where he meets a young Severian and inspires him to write a book. Once free, he returns to Lizard and New Viron, where the final riddle of his identity is solved, and helps defend against a massive attack of inhumi during Hide's wedding. When the book ends, he and his companions (Nettle, Seawrack, Oreb, and Marble) have apparently returned finally to the Whorl, which then departs for the stars.


  • The narrator, who names himself Horn, although he has other names at other times. He is charged by the leadership of his home town of New Viron to find Caldé Silk and return with him.
  • Nettle, Horn's wife, who with him ostensibly wrote The Book of the Long Sun, the story of Silk. They have settled on the island of Lizard, where they have a paper-making business.
  • Hoof and Hide, their twin sons, who are, with their future wives, the ostensible compilers and editors of The Book of the Short Sun.
  • Sinew, their eldest son, who has a jealous and adversarial relationship with his father.
  • Maytera Marble, a "chem" (sentient robot) from The Book of the Long Sun. She has gone blind, and asks Horn to find her an eye when he returns to the Whorl.
  • Mucor, also from The Book of the Long Sun, who lives with Maytera Marble on a small island and has the reputation of being a witch. She has the ability to project her consciousness across, apparently, any distance.
  • Krait, an inhumu who journeys with Horn for a time in the first book.
  • Seawrack, a mysterious and beautiful one-armed woman who was raised beneath the sea. She also travels with Horn.
  • Oreb, Silk's pet bird, a night chough, who was also a character in The Book of the Long Sun. Oreb can speak, but only in utterances of two syllables: "Good Silk! Fish heads!"
  • Babbie, Mucor's pet hus, whom she sends to travel with Horn. Hus are native to Blue; they are something like intelligent eight-legged boars, with sharp, curving tusks.
  • Pig, a blind man of giant stature who is walking to the West Pole of the Whorl to have his sight restored. He speaks with a thick accent: "Out with it" becomes "H'out wi' h'it." His true name is unknown.
  • Hound, a shopkeeper who lives on the Whorl and travels with Pig and the narrator for a time. He lives in Endroad with his wife, Tansy, where they sell lanterns, nails, tack, and so on.
  • Hari Mau, a leader in Gaon, where On Blue's Waters opens.
  • Jahlee, an inhuma the narrator strikes a deal with in Gaon. Later, he passes her off as his daughter.
  • Inclito, an important man in Blanko, with whom the narrator stays for most of In Green's Jungles. He lives with his mother, Salica, his daughter Mora, and Mora's friend Fava.
  • Beroep, Aanvagen, and Vadsig of Dorp, in whose household the narrator is imprisoned for much of Return to the Whorl.
  • Wijzer, a captain from Dorp who initially points Horn in the direction of Pajarocu.
  • Caldé Bison and Mint, characters from The Book of the Long Sun who, in Silk's absence, are the leadership of Old Viron on the Whorl.
  • Patera Remora, from The Book of the Long Sun, the Prolocutor of New Viron.
  • Daisy, Hoof's eventual wife, who writes the last pages of the story.


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