Tuesday, June 20, 2023

A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

Can we say that Late Gene Wolfe is problematic? I still haven't read everything - because an author is not "really" dead until you finish that last remaining book - but it feels like everything from at least Pirate Freedom, and maybe even "The Wizard Knight," are the works of a writer who resolutely refused to engage with the actual world, and circled further and further into his own obsessions and concerns.

Typing that out, I expect a lot of people will respond, "Oh, you mean like every other old, respected and far-too-comfortable Famous Writer?" And that's true: it's not an uncommon problem.

But Wolfe, I think, is an interesting case, since he's supposedly a SF writer, but his late books typically jettison actual SF rigor in favor of SFnal surfaces. They're set in impossible worlds, supposedly extrapolated but missing things already existing in the real world at the time he wrote, based on stereotyped or wrong-headed or anachronistic or just dumb ideas of human behavior and society, with backgrounds sketched at best in order to tell fairly straightforward post-thriller tales in which women are always the problem. For the last decade or two of his career, he wrote books that were less convoluted - in their plots, their telling, and their details - than previously, and set them in fairly bland retro-futures that frankly I never found believable.

This time I read A Borrowed Man, Wolfe's 2015 novel. I could also mention Pirate Freedom, An Evil Guest, The Sorcerer's House, and Home Fires. [1]

Women are always a problem in Wolfe's books: at his best, they're mysterious and interesting; at his worst, they're flighty, silly and tedious. No matter what the book, they never seem to be people the way men are people. More and more towards the end, they were the same kind of rich, gorgeous, unreliable femmes fatale - fourth-generation descendants of the Sternwood daughters. And Borrowed Man, as we get to the very end of Wolfe's career, has some musings from the narrator about women that would not be out of place from your Uncle Lou to his bowling buddies in 1956.

Borrowed Man is set in an indeterminate future, in a depopulated world, where the board has been tipped up, and everything is smaller, simpler, and more sedate in this New America where none of the place names are familiar. Wolfe never even hints about how this world came to be, but none of the concerns of the actual world of 2015 have anything to do with this future. Instead, it's a retro-30s world, with robot cars, ubiquitous "screens" that don't seem to have anything like social media on them, and vaguely corrupt cops who I keep picturing pushing their hats back on their heads. Let me be honest: it's not a future I believed we could have gotten to a century on from 2015, as the flap copy says. I'm dubious we could ever get to this world, but I'd give it a pass if we were assuming three or four hundred years had passed.

Our narrator - the typical Late Wolfean man, with an ingratiating aura, amazing powers of ratiocination and observation, and unexpected skills to tackle anything the plot throws at him - is E.A. Smithe. Or, rather, a "reclone" of Smithe, who was a moderately famous mystery novelist of the previous era.

One of the odder (and central) bits of worldbuilding here is that this world - which had some kind of massive population crash that, at the very, very best, saw seven or eight billion people die without having any children at the end of happy and fulfilled lives, but more likely involved most of them dying much, much earlier and in horrible ways - has the technology to create perfect clones, but only uses it for stupid pointless things.

So they don't create clone armies of workers as an underclass. They don't seem to clone beloved parents or spouses to reunite with them. They don't clone the great geniuses of the past to make them create new gewgaws and devices. They don't even seem to plan to clone themselves to extend their already notably longer lives.

No, they clone writers, and stick them in a library, where they're mostly ignored until their low circulation leads them to be burned. (Yes, killed: clones are not considered human, of course.) This is the premise of the novel, so the fact that it makes no sense is I suppose forgivable.

But it doesn't make any sense. At all. On any level. Libraries are not a major element of this society: physical books are barely read, and authors are not much more interesting. Interlibrary loan services are smaller, badly run, and vastly less professional than the one I know about in my own community right now. And yet libraries are substantially larger, with more complex operations than in our day - they have to house and feed what seem to be dozens of authors, in admittedly Spartan conditions, sure, but just think about adding that to your local library and think about how the budget would handle it.

Frankly, it seems like Wolfe had the idea "what if a library lended authors" and then just stuck it into the same kind of bland retro-future he'd been writing for a decade, and no one pointed out to him that the two things didn't mesh at all.

Anyway, Smithe is checked out by the requisite dame, Colette Coldbrook, the sole survivor and heir of a wealthy family: her father and brother have both recently died in unexpected ways, and a book by the original Smithe is apparently part of the mystery surrounding their deaths.

As usual in Late Wolfe, Smithe and Colette talk a lot about logistics and feelings and how women and men are completely different creatures and what they're going to do next and how to stymie potential listening devices and a whole lot of other things. It almost made me yearn for the days when conversations in Wolfe novels were elliptical and inevitably ended just before the most important question was answered because the end of chapter triggered a jump-cut to a completely different situation.

Smithe and Colette travel in air-cars and ground-cars. They go to the requisite palatial estate. They are menaced by thugs and separated. Smithe soldiers on alone, and finds other allies. Other thugs pop up - oddly, looking back, I don't think any of the individual thugs (many of whom are, or at least claim to be, police of various kinds) return in the book: they show up, stick around for their scenes, and they drop out of the narrative for good.

Smithe does help solve the mystery. His being Smithe isn't actually important to his help - it's much more that he's That Wolfe Guy - but c'est la vie. There is an unexpected, and utterly unexplained, SF element that crops up very late, and leads to philosophical implications that were much more Campbellian than I expected or enjoyed.

Wolfe was a smooth, professional writer. A Borrowed Man is a pleasure to read on a sentence and paragraph level, and it tells a moderately play-fair mystery in a mostly straightforward, engaging way. Objectively, it's vastly more accessible than works like "The Book of the New Sun" or The Fifth Head of Cerberus. But it's much lesser than Wolfe's best works, thinner and slighter, telling a second-hand story in a second-hand world with a second-hand moral.

And, in the name of all that's holy, this is the book that Wolfe wrote a sequel to in his last years. I still have that one to read; I might wait some time to do so.

[1] My first theory was related to Wolfe's longtime editor, David Hartwell, who I knew a bit in my SF days, respected a hell of a lot, and who died in 2016. But then I realized Wolfe's even longer-term agent - and, I think, first reader - Virginia Kidd died in 2003, and that seems much closer to the time of the change in Wolfe's work. I don't think the details will ever be known, but then we never know how much of a writer's work is "really" due to the influence of spouses and editors and agents.

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