Home Fires

July 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm (Review) (, )

Gene Wolfe’s most recent novel is a science fiction mystery set in a future America. The novel is about Skip, a sympathetic, intelligent and wealthy lawyer, dealing with the return of his “contracta” (a secular term for wife), Chelle, from a military campaign in space. Chelle has experienced her time away as only a few months while it has been twenty-odd years for Skip. As he struggles to rekindle their relationship and keep up with youthful, violently energtic Chelle, it gradually becomes clear that several characters are not what they appear to be. The novel is taken over by Skip’s attempt to sort through the motivations and plots of the different characters, while at the same time fighting off attacks by pirates, terrorists and spies.

Home Fires should be a fast-paced novel with so much going on all at once, but it can actually feel a bit slow due to Skip’s meticulous and mostly passive style of investigation. It is remarked upon at one point that while Skip has always thought of himself as a man of action, he is actually not. Home Fires is a very dialogue-heavy book and most of the mysteries are examined through questions and answers rather than actions. This gets a little heavy-going, since Skip also needs to spend a considerable amount of time explaining to other characters what is going on. On the other hand, these explanations make it possible for the reader to keep up and are probably quite necessary in that regard.

While Home Fires is actually a fairly straight-forward story, at least compared to many other Wolfe novels, there is the risk of information overload at times and you do need to pay attention to keep track of all the different characters and their secrets. There are a few unresolved and ambiguous questions at the end of the novel, so the reader can work on his/her own interpretation and try to piece everything together from what Skip lays out in the open. In this way, Home Fires is very satisfying as a mystery novel and should be enjoyable for Wolfe fans, who are used to keeping a close eye on details and like to do some detective work themselves, as well as new Wolfe readers, who won’t feel lost.

While Home Fires is mainly focused on space travel, war with an alien species, the ability to record a person’s brain pattern and upload it into another body as well as replacing entire body parts, there is a subtle supernatural element present as well. Skip and Chelle make a visit to a voodoo priestess at one point, and the presence of a ghost is hinted at. Wolfe is excellent at genre-blending – Book of The New Sun is technically science fiction, but reads like fantasy, for example – and the futuristic setting and typical science fiction elements are smoothly combined with thriller-esque action, detective fiction and a subtle and psychological ghost story in Home Fires.

At the heart of many of the mysteries in Home Fires lie questions about identity and relationships. Several characters have hidden or unrealised identities and are misunderstood by one another. This is especially true of Skip and Chelle, and I particularly liked the final chapters which clears up quite a few things about why it keeps going wrong between them by shifting to Chelle’s point of view. Skip is not an unreliable narrator (often used by Wolfe in other stories), but he is naturally narrating the events from his own point of view and this makes him appear to the reader as the rational, reasonable partner with Chelle as the unpredictable, rather destructive one. The change of perspective really fleshes out Chelle and makes her actions suddenly much more understandable, while also making it clear that Skip has perhaps not been seeing everything as clearly as he thought. This is exactly the kind of writing I love Wolfe for, and if the beginning and middle of the novel suffered occasionally from information and dialogue overload, the ending makes up for it.


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