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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Home Fires" by Gene Wolfe (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Order "Home Fires" HERE
Gene Wolfe at Wikipedia
Read FBC Review of The Sorcerer's House

INTRODUCTION: After last year's super fun The Sorcerer's House, I was very excited about the announcement for Home Fires, though the blurb below made me a bit unsure if we will get an entertaining mind-bender like last year or a mess like An Evil Guest which I found unreadable.

"Gene Wolfe takes us to a future North America at once familiar and utterly strange. A young man and woman, Skip and Chelle, fall in love in college and marry, but she is enlisted in the military, there is a war on, and she must serve her tour of duty before they can settle down. But the military is fighting a war with aliens in distant solar systems, and her months in the service will be years in relative time on Earth. Chelle returns to recuperate from severe injuries, after months of service, still a young woman but not necessarily the same person—while Skip is in his forties and a wealthy businessman, but eager for her return. Still in love (somewhat to his surprise and delight), they go on a Caribbean cruise to resume their marriage. Their vacation rapidly becomes a complex series of challenges, not the least of which are spies, aliens, and battles with pirates who capture the ship for ransom. There is no writer in SF like Gene Wolfe and no SF novel like Home Fires."

For anyone interested in collecting books, UK boutique PS Publishing has come up with some awesome-looking editions of both The Sorcerer's House and Home Fires and I have to include their cover of Home Fires here since it is much more suggestive than the bland US cover released for the general market, while in the US, Subterranean is also selling the PS editions in limited quantities.

"Home Fires" turned out to be a very entertaining mind-bender from Gene Wolfe that ultimately made full sense, though for a long while it kept me guessing while adding new twists every page.

The world building while scant in some ways, is sketched perfectly for the needs of the book since we get all the little details we need about this future Earth split into several not-so-friendly blocks - NAU, EU, Greater Eastasia, Third World - which faces a war in space with the mysterious Os over habitable planets with no real inkling about the technology involved. A familiar but also strange future in which the author drops his little bombshells - sometimes in a literal sense too - quite often.

The structure of the novel is also interesting - and not dissimilar with The Sorcerer's House except that here there is more conventional 3rd person action plus first person interludes rather than letters. The main storyline of the book is followed by interludes narrated - except once - by the main hero, Skip Grisom, a 49 year old managing partner of a succesful law firm who keeps telling us he wants only one thing - that his "contracta" - civil law wife - master-gunner Chelle Blue coming back a bit earlier from space due to injuries - earlier being relative as 20+ years have passed on Earth, while only several for her - stays with him, age difference and all.

So he has a plan to woo her including "resurrecting" her deceased mother Vanessa - whom actually Chelle has "divorced" before enlisting but to whom she turns when back on Earth as a familiar presence since after all Vanessa now still looks near the 40's she was when Chelle left Earth, while Skip at 49 is not instantly recognizable to his chagrin. The "wooing over" includes taking Chelle on a cruise, while dumping Susan, his secretary and longtime lover, in the process too, though of course things start going wrong soon, but Skip is nothing but inventive.

One of the narrative devices that confounded me in the beginning was that the introspective interludes in which we learn a lot about this future world and about Skip, are followed by forward jumps in the main action that pass over quite important happenings that are then mentioned. So, at least to start with, I was like: "Oh, this happened? When and how could I miss it?", only to realize that actually what we get now is everything we will know. So lots of space for misdirection, clues and disorientation, but done so well that the pages turn by themselves.

There is quite a lot of action with occasional
unforgettable moments are just. The main draw of the novel is Skip Grissom who is one of the most compelling and unusual for the sff genre characterized by "young guns and old mentors" - sfnal characters in recent memory, with Vanessa also stealing the show in all her appearances. Chelle remains mostly an enigma though we get to see a little of her "true self" at some point.

Adding to the above we have a remarkable secondary cast, including the aforementioned Susan, the handless beggar Achille - a refugee from Sharia law EU with hands cut for stealing - who attaches himself to Skip, various other returning comrades of Chelle, cruise ship officers, hijackers, Skip's junior partner Mick and more...

Home Fires has also a great ending - which in many ways it was the only one reasonable to boot - and you want to parse it carefully when reading it the first time, followed by an immediate reread to see what you missed earlier. The title has also an interesting connotation, being explicitly linked to the situation of Skip (remained on Earth to "keep the home fires" going) and Chelle (went to fight in space to preserve humanity at great costs for her and her loved ones - and here there is this nice touch too, of the reversal of the usual sex roles), but also to the quite unsettled situation on Earth that is glimpsed in the action of the novel and the reminiscences of Skip.

All in all, Home Fires (A+/A++) is another winner for Gene Wolfe and mind-bending sf-without-gadgets/superscience at its best.


redhead said...

I had a similar experience, 24 hours after finishing the book, I read the first 50 pages again, and suddenly things that I missed all made sense.

Wolfe definitely pulled a "Wolfe" with Home Fires, and I dug it, even though at times I had no idea what was going on.

Liviu, would you recommend Home Fires to first time Wolfe readers?

Liviu said...

Sure, it is both a great experience and an accessible book despite all the confounding that goes on; the Sun books are more hermetic and while they are deeper, they also may be harder going.

Unknown said...

I am a little more than 1/2 way done with the book and am extremely impressed with the writing.

I have never read Wolfe before and I consider this one of the top scifi/fan books that I've ever read. It's so different. It takes this genre to a different level.

It's a combination of speculative, mystery and action with a contemporary, clean style.

Twisty and page turning. I look forward to the end.

Liviu said...

If you like this to the end and want more Wolfe, i would suggest the Sorcerer's House next since that, while different in approach, topic,etc, is similar in "feel" as the latter Wolfe go


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