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Home Fires by Gene Wolfe

The mark of a good author is to be able to take a rather tired trope and breathe new life into it. I suppose I should not be surprised that Gene Wolfe can do it but, in Home Fires, he has not only contrived to reanimate some old favourites, but also to do so in one of his more accessible novels. Frankly, Wolfe can be heavy going. He tends to write rather dense prose. This level of complexity is sometimes matched by the subject matter. So, for example, The Shadow of the Torturer will remain a classic for decades to come. But there have been times when the reading effort required was not rewarded by the quality of the content.

Here, we have an inversion of one of his characteristic literary devices. Wolfe is particularly associated with the unreliable narrator, leaving it to the readers to puzzle out which of the possible variations of reality might be true. Yet in Home Fires, we have the epitome of rationality — an expert defence attorney, skilled in the art of cross-examination — surrounded by a crowd of people, all of whom may, to some extent, be unreliable. It’s therefore left to him to try puzzling out who each person actually is and what their motives may be for being there.

To make all this more challenging, Wolfe reuses the standard brain mapping/recording trope. In this future world, the technique may be used in a number of different ways. A person going into hospital or, say, a combat situation will be recorded. Depending on what happens, the recorded version may be replaced in the same body, or it could be transplanted into a different body. It’s also possible to edit the memories in recorded form so that, as transmitted to the body, key events may be erased. At the two extremes, this could be a therapeutic device intended to relieve a patient from post-traumatic stress or some other psychological disorder, or it could potentially create the perfect spy. Imagine you wipe the mind of a key person and insert the mind of a spy. . . In this novel, we also have the technique used for reanimation with a person employed by the reanimation company used to become the carrier — the body survives as the mind of the former occupant goes through a form of suicide and a second mind awakes to the news she died some years earlier and is now in a younger body. Of course, no-one ever manages to make an infallible machine when it comes to dealing with the human mind. The editing or wiping process may not be as complete as the manufacturers promise in their ads.

As a variation on this theme, let’s take a secondary “ghost in the machine” question. If you have the medical technology to graft a large enough portion of one dying person on to a wounded soldier, does anything of the previous owner of the body parts pass with the flesh and bones? It might, of course, depend on exactly which part of the body was replaced. Acquiring someone’s legs might not have the same effect as acquiring some of their brain.

Gene Wolfe shows his inclination

To add depth to this thoughtful exploration, the four central characters are father, mother, their daughter and her “nominal” husband. The daughter enlists to fight in the alien wars. Because of the time dilation effect, the short tour of duty is twenty years of Earth time. During her absence, her mother dies, her father becomes an enigmatic figure, and her husband becomes a highly successful defence lawyer with a long-term mistress. When the daughter is seriously wounded and rebuilt, she returns to Earth. Her husband has her mother reanimated as a Welcome Home gift. Her father observes events from a distance for the first half of the novel. So, as a good Catholic author, Wolfe assumes the nominal marriage will survive the twenty year hiatus. Our hero dutifully sheds his mistress and prepares to court his wife a second time on a sea cruise. But what of her parents? Does the wife’s reanimation in a younger body also resurrect her marriage? And, after twenty years, how should a daughter who divorced her parents before she left now relate to them on her return?

To make all this fun, the sea cruise turns into a murderous voyage as, first, pirates take over the ship and, then, various secret agents and spies make their presence felt. It seems some of the different Earth factions and the aliens have an interest in what our returning heroine may know following physical and mental reconstruction. To make matter even more exciting, the body now occupied by the mother’s mind also seems to be a target for murder — finding out who first occupied this body is therefore essential before the wife dies again.

Although this sounds like a seriously tangled web, it’s actually fascinating as our cool lawyer interrogates everyone and speculates on exactly who everyone is as the body count rises. Indeed, you have the sense Gene Wolfe was having fun when he wrote this. Dare I say, he actually made me smile several times. This is not an author cracking jokes, but it’s as close to it as Wolfe ever comes.

So, as we have the crackle of gunfire and explosions disrupting the quiet waters of the Caribbean, Home Fires contrives to produce an interesting discussion of what it means when two people make commitments to each other. For once, I can positively recommend a Wolfe book to almost everyone. Although this is set in a future where we are fighting aliens for the rights to occupy life-supporting planets, it’s simply an excuse for humans to engage in the usual spy/undercover agent roles on a sea cruise — with pirates taking over the ship, holding the passengers for ransom, and creating enough mayhem to keep us entertained. This is a vessel for a thoughtful exploration of ideas in a sea of confusion, told with a general sense of fun and followed by a more or less complete explanation of what’s happening as our heroic lawyer makes his best guesses.

For the review of another book by Gene Wolfe, see The Land Across.

This book was sent to me for review.

For the record, this book has been nominated as one of the 2012 John W Campbell Memorial Award Finalists.

  1. May 2, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    great review! I really enjoyed Home Fires. It was very Gene Wolfe, but at the same time very accessible, nearly to the point of his “The Sorcerer’s House” (probably his most accessible book). Accessible or no, I will admit that for a day or two after reading it, I really had no idea what the heck I’d just read.

    When I was describing this book to people, there are war veterans, and a lover’s romantic cruise, and his strange Mother-in-law, and pirates, and it feels like so much is going on. But this isn’t an action book. It’s just a book about a guy, whose trying to get to know his wife again after many years apart. It really is just lovely.

  2. May 3, 2011 at 1:02 am

    I think like many of Wolfe’s novels, we’re not supposed to be absolutely confident of what went on. In this case, it’s just the fun of watching Skip work it out while not completely turning into a shoot ’em dead hero too often. What makes it for me is his decision at the end. Now that’s commitment! 🙂

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