Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Home Fires by Gene Wolfe

There are things you can depend on from Gene Wolfe. The book will be told by a man (with very rare exceptions): one who knows more than he says, and is skilled at more things than he even knows. There will be long conversations that break off suddenly and never quite address the point you thought was at issue. There will be female characters who don't quite seem human: overly emotional, mercurial figures who sometimes are said to be loved by the hero and sometimes seem to be burdens to him. (Or, often, both.) That hero will never have any real emotions expressed through his actions. He may say that he has them, and you get to decide if you believe him.

You get to decide if you believe the hero about a lot of things in a Wolfe novel.

You will figure out much of what is going on by yourself -- not in the way of a mystery novel, exactly, but more in the way of a child moving into an unfamiliar new life situation, full of strange adults with agendas they will never explain to you. Events will happen swiftly and unexpectedly, and the plot you were anticipating will fail to happen, perhaps repeatedly. The ending will not necessarily be a dying fall, but you should prepare for one.

With that in mind, then, this is Home Fires, his novel from 2011. (I'm running behind: he's had two since then, The Land Across and A Borrowed Man.) It is both a hundred years or so in the future and a pastiche of the 1940s, as often in recent Wolfe books. Wolfe never stoops to an infodump, but we readers learn that this is a moderately dystopian world, possibly overpopulated, possibly post-Peak Oil and definitely run by corrupt hereditary politicians from top to bottom. In what is perhaps an echo of 1984, our main characters are from the North American Union and occasionally talk about the two other great powers in the world, the EU and Eurasia. (I am sorry to say this seems to be a EU as conceived by paranoid right-wingers; in a throwaway detail we learn that sharia law is practiced there. But all the pieces of this world seem to be horrible in their own ways, so that does not necessarily indicate Wolfe's personal politics circa 2010.)

A quaint, pulp-era interstellar war is raging, and has been for at least a few decades, between the nations of Earth and an alien race called the Os. Both races need the same kind of habitable world, and so infantry forces battle on the surfaces of those worlds, across the galaxy, to secure them for one race or the other. Neither force seems to use anything like armor (personal or tank), let alone unmanned devices. This war may not be precisely a stalemate, but it certainly doesn't seem like anyone is winning. Somehow, spying -- both among the supposedly-allied human nations and across the species barrier -- is really important and common.

(I pause for bemused laughter.)

The economy is similarly pulp-era, with no sign of automation even to the level we have it today. Our hero is the managing partner of a law firm, and has a secretary, who herself has an assistant. (There may be a global CEO or two who have two PAs these days, but that would be rare. And law firms have been getting leaner with the sharpest of razor blades for the last two decades.) But, for some reason Wolfe does not state, this administrative overstaffing on top of the pressures of a people-intensive galactic war have led to a massive oversupply of workers, so that there are thousands of applicants for each open positions, leaving poor job-seekers routinely out of luck for years at a time.

With Wolfe's modern novels, the reader has to tease out the background information that is pertinent to his plot from the background information that is not: Wolfe was born in 1931, and his worldbuilding more and more shows his age. Most of the things I've been mentioning for several paragraphs are unlikely and anachronistic, but they are not important. This is not a story about the interstellar war, or the unlikely economy, or the sail-powered globe-trotting ultra-luxury cruise liners that are nevertheless repeatedly attacked and conquered by murderous pirates.

No, it's a story of a marriage -- or, rather, of a contract, since this is a world where marriage is personal and religious, while contracts are the public things done at the courthouse with real legal power. (Once again, one scratches ones head and wonders if Wolfe deliberately made this world a pseudo-libertarian nightmare, or if those were just ideas he was toying with at the time. But speculating on Wolfe's motivations is never useful.)

Twenty years ago, two young people -- undergraduate Chelle and law student Skip -- made a binding promise to contract, as Chelle enlisted in that war. Due to the usual time-dilation effects of '70s-style interstellar wars, she's now about eighteen months older and at the end of her service, with scars physical and mental. But he lived all of those twenty-plus years, and is now, as I noted above, moderately rich and powerful, though his firm seems to be a small litigation boutique and his practice not particularly focused on things that would bring in a lot of money (class actions, if those even still exist in this world, or defending local legitimate businessmen who are always being accused of running some criminal enterprise or another).

I do need to note here, again, that Home Fires kept tossing details at me that I knew enough to look askance at. Wolfe novels are always tossing off seemingly-minor details like that, but it's less appealing when the reader knows how such things work in the current world and can't make the fictional world cohere given the facts stated.

Anyway, Skip goes to meet Chelle as she disembarks from the giant spaceship back from wherever. For no reason he tells us, or that makes much sense later on, he brought along her mother Vanessa -- whom Chelle divorced years before she even met Skip -- even though that meant hiring a company to decant Vanessa's stored memories (she's dead) into a borrowed body for the occasion. Vanessa is needy and manipulative and demanding, but it at first seems to have been a good idea, since Chelle doesn't even seem to notice that Vanessa is an entirely different person twenty years younger than she should be.

(No, Wolfe doesn't ever explain any of that. Or even, as far as I could see, give details that could build an explanation. In general, it does not pay to spend much mental energy working out motivations and mental models for Wolfe's female characters: they are flighty, unearthly creatures, outside the ken of men such as Wolfe and his readers.)

Skip and Chelle's relationship needs to be rekindled, obviously. (Both of them seem totally outwardly committed to that rekindling while simultaneously internally assuming that it won't work and working assiduously to ruin the relationship.) So they set off on a round-the-world year-long cruise to get to know each other again.

But Chelle has not yet gotten out of the habit of random casual sex with fellow soldiers. And Skip had a decade-plus affair with his assistant Susan -- he seems to be able to emotionally separate from that, if he was ever emotionally connected to a single thing in his life to begin with -- but it brings along other complications, because, as usual with Wolfe, women are crazy bitches.

I pause here to note that Susan and Chelle and Vanessa are all women. Just a note.

Oh, yeah, and remember the pirates? There are pirates.

And the people who rented Skip a new body for Vanessa want it back, because he tried to pull a lawyer trick to "save" her and he's apparently not as good a lawyer as he thinks he is.

So the story of a couple trying to find out if they still have anything in common turns into the usual Wolfean stew of gunfights, tense verbal negotiations that cut off suddenly, chapter-ending knockouts, and repeated kidnappings. This may all be a good thing, because, as Wolfe presents them, the answer to the question "Do Skip and Chelle have any future" is clearly "Oh hell no."

Three hundred pages later, the novel ends. The women still don't make much sense as human beings, and Skip is still a cold fish who has more skills than are plausible. But it was an interesting experience along the way, and Wolfe is never boring -- confusing sometimes, baffling occasionally, and quirky always, but never ever boring.

1 comment:

Marc said...

I won't respond to most of your reactions to the book, save that I do think all of the small details cohere to a sinister picture of Skip, who remains ignorant of his own true motivations. One important thing readers of wolfe should keep in mind is that he is a sincere dualist: a person is more than a body, and the soul is not limited in that way. Thus, Vanessa is recognizable in a different body ... but Skip is NOT recognizable in the same body to Chelle, for good narrative and epistemological reasons which are tied into the mystery . There is a reason Skip keeps forgetting that he has met the old white haired lean man with the cane several times on his trip who claims to be Chelle's long vanished father (who used to be a great fat man, according to Skip's descriptions), and a reason Skip's long cross examinations never yield satisfactory conclusions, but I don't want to hijack your review save to point out the dualism and spirituality which informs Wolfe's approach to identity. We are more than bodies, and Chelle failing to recognize Skip while recognizing her mother in a different body is the takeaway from that scene.

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