By Gene Wolfe
Following the fantasy of The Sorcerer’s House, Gene Wolfe has given us a near-future, stand-alone SF novel. Home Fires features Skip, a very successful lawyer in a somewhat dystopian North America awaiting the return of his young, beautiful wife (or “contracta”) Chelle from military service in another star system. She’s only slightly older than when she left thanks to relativistic effects, while he’s reached the marches of middle age. As a coming home gift, Skip pays for the resurrection of Chelle’s mother by having her stored personality implanted in the body of another, closely-matching woman. However, no sooner is she back among the living than someone tries to kill her, and things only get more tangled upon the cruise ship he’s booked them on. Hijackings, murders, suicide clubs and general mysterious skullduggery ensues.
The difficulty in reviewing Home Fires is the Babushka Doll structure of, not the narrative itself, but of the genre techniques and expectations of the narrative. Homes Fires is science fiction novel as romance novel as mystery novel as spy novel, and any given scene may be fulfilling the expectations of any of those genres. Chelle’s estranged mother is far from the only one who is not what she appears to be, and in the mystery novel tradition, a lot of interrogation ensues as Skip attempts not only to rekindle Chelle’s love, but also to figure out what’s going on and who’s behind it…and to stay alive long enough to find out.
Home Fires also exhibits a lot of Wolfe’s recent themes and techniques, namely:
- Characters who are other than what they appear
- A deeply honest, good-hearted and dependable protagonist always willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to others (Patera Silk, Horn)…
- Who is deeply in a love with a beautiful woman who may not be worthy of him (ditto)
- Secondary characters who keep turning up long after you thought they had exited the stage, many with their own hidden agendas
- A story revealed mostly by dialog
- Action that happens primarily off-screen
- An ending that’s impossible to predict until you finally get to it.
There’s also a voodoo priestess, some gun-running, a bomb, some (possible) spies, and the usual Wolfe trickery. There’s also a refreshing dollop of political incorrectness: One character has had his hands amputated for theft, and our protagonist remarks that it must have happened in the EU under Sharia.
The biggest drawback of this novel was just how talky the book gets. Certainly Wolfe has done wonders with telling stories mostly in dialog in other works, and the mystery novel (one of the genre forms he’s deploying) can tend to be dialog-heavy. But there’s an awful lot of “Tell me know how you knew that”/”OK, but tell me how you knew that I knew that” exchanges in the novel. Classic mystery novel technique, but a bit too much; the late middle of the book feels clotted with it.
Making up for it, Home Fires finishes strongly, with an ending as apt as it is unexpected. It leaves many of the lesser issues unresolved, but provides a very elegant solution to the main character’s greatest dilemma.