Gene Wolfe’s Home Fires: rules just don’t apply here.
Posted February 2, 2011on:
Home Fires, by Gene Wolfe
Published: Jan 2011
Where I got it: Library
Why I read it: See post title
Skip has waited very patiently for his wife Chelle to return home from her interstellar military service. Thanks to relativity, it’s only been a few years for Chelle. But for Skip, it’s been over 20. Being informed that returning servicewomen most want to see their family, Skip contracts with a reanimation company to have Chelle’s late mother’s personality imprinted into the brain of another woman. Her name is Vanessa, and she and Skip instantly get off to a rough start, because as soon as Skip stops paying the daily fee, Vanessa will “die” again, and to make things worse, Chelle was never told her mother had died. Will Skip and Chelle be able to pick up right where they left off? What exactly is the state of their relationship? How will Chelle react Vanessa, who both is and isn’t her mother?
Shortly after Chelle’s return, she and Skip embark on a romantic Caribbean cruise. And then the rule breaking begins. Vanessa shows up as the cruise social director, but now she’s going by the name Virginia. The ship is attacked by pirates who hope to ransom the wealthy passengers, but thanks to Skip’s fast thinking and wealth, a team of mercenaries helps take the ship back. One of Skip’s employees from the law firm is with the mercenary team. There is talk of a suicide club. and cyborgs. and aliens that are referred to only as O’s. There’s an attempted murder. And a bomb. And a woman with mis-matched hands who may harbor a hidden personality, also a man with no hands. Skip has until the ship pulls into port to figure out what’s going on and prove himself to Chelle. It’s a little noir, a little Agatha Christie, a little PTSD, a little Vanilla Sky, and it all boils down to a guy trying to get through a rough patch with his wife.
And of course, in classic Wolfe fashion, no one is who or what they appear to be, and everyone has secrets. Some people are itching to get those secrets off their chests, others, not so much.
Home Fires is heavy on the dialog, which is a multi-leveled trick. Most, if not all of the world building and characterization is done through fast paced dialog. You’ll think these characters are inclined to tell each other the truth. They’re not. By telling the story mostly through conversations and keeping emotional descriptions skinny, Wolfe is subtlety inviting you to come to your own conclusions. To mix metaphors, he’s giving you just enough rope to get out exactly what you put in.
Not everyone is going to like this book. Home Fires definitely reads like a Wolfe, which means it’s slippery and kaleidoscopic and changes under your fingertips. You won’t feel in control of anything. At certain points you may not know what’s going on.You’ll have questions that won’t be answered. And that’s after you’ve finished reading it the first time. It’s not that Gene Wolfe breaks every rule, it’s that the rules just don’t apply to him.
Ever see the movie Memento? Home Fires and Wolfe’s The Sorcerer’s House both remind me a little of that movie, the feeling that things are happening in chronological order, but at the same time they are happening backwards. Again, with the rules not applying.
I’d like to tell you about a specific non-spoilery example of Wolfe’s world-building through dialog instead of exposition, because I immediately jumped to a conclusion, which of course turned out to be wrong, and then I felt like a character in the book.
Skip is a high flying attorney, and he has a secretary, who in turn has an assistant, who in turn has a helper. Skip’s law firm has what appears to be an old fashioned style “secretary pool”, and during a phone conversation the employees in the pool are referred to by first name only, as no one has bothered to learn their last names. My first thought was what kind of a sexist, almost Mad Men-esque future Earth is this? When did Gene Wolfe start writing like Heinlein (who you know I love), to whom female employees are all “girls” and usually helpless assistants? Wolfe is not having a Heinlein moment. This is a future Earth where there are too many people, and not enough jobs. Where companies (and not just Skip’s law firm) are compelled by government regulations to hire so many people, even if there is no work for that person to do. This is a future Earth where low unemployment is more important than efficiency, and where resources are so scarce that adults will do anything to get and keep a job, including sitting in a secretarial pool all day waiting for a memo to type.
Or at least that’s what I gleaned from snippets of dialog and other verbal interactions.
You know that old saying “you can never step in the same river twice”? Wolfe books are like that river. You can never read the same Wolfe book twice because it will never be the same book again, and you’ll never be the same person.