Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Book Review | A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

It is perhaps a hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, there are robots, and there are clones.

E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person. He is a clone who lives on a third-tier shelf in a public library, and his personality is an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human.

A wealthy patron, Colette Coldbrook, takes him from the library because he is the surviving personality of the author of Murder on Mars. A physical copy of that book was in the possession of her murdered father, and it contains an important secret, the key to immense family wealth. It is lost, and Colette is afraid of the police. She borrows Smithe to help her find the book and to find out what the secret is. And then the plot gets complicated.


Gene Wolfe continues to play with the nature of narrators in his mostly notional new novel, a middling murder mystery explicated from the perspective of a posthumous author pretending to be a detective.

The story starts with Colette Coldbrook: sweetheart teacher, well-spoken socialite and, in the early parts of the narrative, something of a survivor. A year or so ago, she suddenly lost her mother; a little later, her father suffered a suspicious heart attack; and in the aftermath of that latter's passing, her beloved brother was straight-up strangled. She has no-one to turn to, now, and so many questions—not least about the unassuming book Conrad Coldbrook Junior found in Conrad Coldbrook Senior's safe.

Colette believes—with good reason, even—that Murder on Mars may be the key to understanding what happened to her family, and perhaps why, but beyond that, she doesn't have a clue what to do. The thought of reading this fictional fossil doesn't cross her ultra-modern mind for a minute. Instead, she does the other obvious thing: she rents out a so-called "reclone" of the author of the novel, E. A. Smithe, from her local library, and asks him to do the dirty work.

Now it might be that Smithe comes complete with most of his long-dead predecessor's memories, but he doesn't remember much about Murder on Mars—and to make matters worse, he's a copy of a crime writer rather than anything resembling a detective himself:
I was not the man I thought I was, the one whose name I used—whose name I still use right now, for that matter. I was somebody else, a kid who had been grown from that guy's DNA and loaded up with his memories, phony memories of things that never happened to me and never could happen to me. (p.36)
Thus, the investigation into the curious case of the Coldbrooks proceeds in frustrating fits and stuttering starts, regularly interrupted by Smithe's soul-searching and set back substantially when Colette is (apparently) kidnapped. "The more I thought about it the surer I got that there was something funny going on, but I could not even guess what it was." (p.106)

Despite his mounting doubts, Smithe eventually rededicates himself to the task at hand, largely because life in the library of Wolfe's morally abhorrent future milieu is such an awful prospect:
The world population is down to about one billion, but a lot of people want it lower still—a few hundred million. Reclones add to the population. Not a lot, but we're different and stand out. There's political pressure against recloning. To escape the pressure as much as possible, the libraries have to treat us like things, like books or tapes, and destroy us in some fashion when we're no longer useful. Burning is painful, but quick. They could starve us to death or see to it that we died of thirst. (p.95)
It's only when Smithe happens upon testimony suggesting that the skulduggery surrounding the Coldbrook killings has more to do with "the fundamental nature of space" (p.78) than it does Murder on Mars that a modicum of headway is made into A Borrowed Man's central dilemma, and from that point on, the unpicking of the mystery proceeds predictably—albeit with intermittent episodes which insinuate a narrative straight out of something by Stephen Baxter.

These threads are essentially irrelevant, however; and they aren't the only red herrings Wolfe waves around. In truth, too much of A Borrowed Man is meandering misdirection. Do away with these distractions, as the denouement does, and what's left seems so insubstantial I imagine most authors would struggle to structure a short story around the elements that actually matter.

That isn't to say Wolfe's latest lacks reasons to recommend it. That the novel's narrative voice—if not necessarily its aimless narrator—is far and away the most fascinating thing about the fiction is at least an intellectually interesting extension of the ideas the award-winning author has been worrying away at since The Book of the New Sun:
I wrote mysteries and crime fiction, you see; so many of my characters used a great deal of slang and made egregious grammatical errors. To prevent any confusion, between their conversations and my narration, I made the latter rather stiff and formal. [...] The authorities responsible for the creation of my reclones—of whom I myself am one—appear to have supposed that I habitually spoke in this style. (p.113)
Add to that metafictional flourish the text's setting, which is subtly rendered and tremendously unsettling, not least when we learn that "people who had really serious stuff wrong with them, like they were blind and could not be fixed, were tucked away out of sight so they would not ruin the view for the healthy and practically perfect fully humans." (p.167) Alas, like so much of A Borrowed Man, its world, however independently impressive, is effectively window dressing—diverting, but deceptive.


A Borrowed Man
by Gene Wolfe

US Publication: October 2015, Tor

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