Home Fires by Gene Wolfe
Reviewed by Matt Hilliard
20 April 2011
There are many science fiction novels about war, but far fewer about veterans. Although it's remembered as a war novel, Joe Haldeman's portrayal of veteran alienation in The Forever War (1974) is probably the best known example of the latter type. In that novel, many relativistic journeys meant the protagonist returned to Earth centuries after his birth only to find it unrecognizable. Gene Wolfe's latest novel, Home Fires, takes this theme but changes its perspective to that of someone who waits for his wife to return from war only to find she no longer recognizes him.
Young lovers Skip and Chelle get "contracted", as purely secular marriage is called in their society, but while Skip continues his career as a hotshot defense attorney, Chelle joins the military and goes to fight against aliens in another star system. Due to relativistic effects, she'll come back having aged just a few years, but twenty years will pass for Skip on Earth. They tell themselves this will be a good thing: upon her return, he'll be rich and she'll still be young and beautiful.
Home Fires begins when Skip, just short of fifty years old since Chelle's mission took longer than expected, gets word that she is back at last. It is obvious that time has changed Skip and war has changed Chelle, so Skip decides they should go on a long cruise and get to know each other again. What Skip intended as a time of quiet romance is instead a progression of increasingly wild scenarios: a hallucinatory visit to a Caribbean island, a back and forth battle with a group of armed hijackers, and the unmasking of a treasonous conspiracy. Skip and Chelle spend more time apart than together, and learn more about themselves than each other.
At the very beginning of Home Fires, Skip has difficulty distinguishing between his actual memories and false memories from a dream. After this explicit reference to dreams, the prose combines with Wolfe's typically labyrinthine storytelling to give the text a dreamlike quality. This quality was frequently observed in Wolfe's masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun (1983), but while the effect may be similar, in Home Fires it is achieved using the completely different style that has characterized the novels Wolfe has published since The Book of the Short Sun (2001). The prose is extremely lean, providing only a minimum of description. Although there are short first person interludes, the story is told mostly in a third person that is privy to Skip's thoughts but rarely takes advantage of this access. This style has the effect of focusing the reader's attention almost exclusively on dialogue. It's said that actions speak louder than words, but almost all the important actions in Home Fires have many different interpretations. Dialogue is therefore the best window into the characters' souls, and as a defense attorney, this is Skip's natural mode for interacting with the world.
Where the reader of The Book of the New Sun floats through a languid narrative littered with unknown but familiar words and Severian's philosophical meanderings, the third person sections of Home Fires are centered on conversations between characters. When characters aren't talking, the narrative races at breakneck speed to get to the next conversation. There is a lot of action in the story, yet very little of it is described. Instead, we learn about events through allusions made in later conversations. When the ship is hijacked, for example, we see Skip pick up a weapon and start to fight back with several other people. Then the narrative jumps to him hiding alone in a dark stateroom, using his cell phone to tell someone else what happened and how he got separated from the others. These lacunae are also a tool that Wolfe uses to temporarily conceal the reasons why things happen until after the fact, and both the jumps forward in time and the unexpected events that follow them cement the novel's dreamlike feel. Every few pages in Home Fires something bizarre happens, and although there is a reasonable explanation five (or more often fifty) pages later, by the time the reader has learned it some other strange thing has happened. By doing this, Wolfe is able to inspire moods associated with magical realism while depicting a completely rational world.
If little time is given to the action of the story, even less is devoted to worldbuilding. We learn about the novel's world through the smallest possible details. What emerges is a strange mishmash of popular tropes. Most notably, Home Fires is set in an energy-poor world reminiscent of Paolo Bacigalupi's fiction. Electricity is fiercely rationed, "bullet trains" reach the "incredible" speed of 70 kilometers per hour (twice as fast as a car, Skip notes), and ships of all sizes are powered by sails instead of engines. Politically, developed countries have merged into three Orwellian superstates controlling North America, Europe, and "Greater Eastasia" with the third world left in grinding poverty. Brains can be scanned, uploaded, and downloaded into other people's bodies, but this technology is rare and only available to the rich. One scene even has zombies in it, albeit in their traditional voodoo role as summoned creatures rather than the apocalyptic variety.
Does it make sense that, in an energy-starved future, humanity would be fighting an interstellar war with aliens for colony planets? Surely not, but because the novel's world is revealed in such tiny increments, there's not enough substance for us to attack it as unrealistic. People can write long screeds against Bacigalupi's depiction of springs as energy sources because even if he doesn't spell out precisely how they work he has provided plenty of information about their capabilities and limitations. In Home Fires, we're never shown a starship or given even the slightest indication how they accelerate to relativistic velocities, and, left to our own devices, can thus come up with tortured explanations for how these technologies can exist without making power on Earth cheap. Likewise, many readers will roll their eyes when a character mentions that the novel's European Union follows Sharia law, but this huge departure from present circumstances is mentioned exactly once and how it came to pass is left to the reader to decide. While the novel would have benefited from less outlandish scenery, all this information is so sparingly distributed that instead of sabotaging the narrative it is only a minor weakness.
If the details of the setting remain indistinct, the theme is clear: dysfunction. The North American Union, the only nation to be described in more than a few sentences, has police that are feared instead of respected, an overcomplicated law designed to privilege politicians and the very wealthy at the expense of the common people, and a Coast Guard that is so corrupt and untrustworthy that posting ads on the Internet for mercenaries is seen as a better option than calling them for help. This is a world where the individual has been crushed and every institution, whether public or private, is ruthlessly self-interested. The form of these institutions remains, so that while the characters still think that theoretically government should serve its citizens and companies should serve their customers, their actual function has twisted into something contradictory and even hostile to their original nature.
Under these conditions, much of what is today regarded as inevitable social progress has been undone. It's not that the clock has been turned literally back: women are clearly expected to work, and women like Chelle serve in combat roles within the military. But work is elusive due to enormous unemployment, and even when someone is lucky enough to get a job, the knowledge that they can be replaced by one of hundreds of similarly qualified workers means that all the power rests with the wealthy executives. Meanwhile, the expense of travel in an energy-constrained world has combined with global tensions to eradicate multiculturalism and leave people small-minded and parochial. Skip refers to Asians as "Orientals" and his reaction to speaking with one in the middle of the novel seems to indicate this is the first time he has ever done so.
This external dysfunction is mirrored in the lives and personalities of both Skip and Chelle. Chelle leaves Earth a confident young woman but returns from war shattered and uncertain. She is still beautiful, but now she suffers from constant anxiety about her body, which has been rebuilt after suffering grievous injuries. Even worse, she occasionally adopts the personality, memories, and identity of a different woman, leaving her to conclude that the war has destroyed her sanity.
Skip's problems are harder to see, submerged as they are beneath the narrative's bias. To Skip, his only problem is that Chelle might not love him, and this view permeates both his introspective first person narration and his dialogue in the third person sections. The picture of Skip that emerges, however, is of someone who is psychologically not much better off than Chelle. Presumably he was having doubts long before her return, but when Chelle initially fails to recognize his older face, Skip becomes convinced that he's no longer good enough for her. Physically he is far past his prime, of course, and socially Chelle now has far more in common with young male veterans, many of whom are single.
True, Skip is rich. But his wealth, the thing that was supposed to make him attractive, is compromised by how he attained it. Skip's internal monologues are full of criticism for the North American Union's oppressive legal system, but it is criticism that smacks of rationalization, for he is one of those who has benefited most from it. Although this is a science fiction novel, readers of fantasy will recognize Skip's position in the world from the way other characters treat him. To them, he is someone with power over reality. If they have money, he can sue them and take it. If they have freedom, he can accuse them of a crime and have them imprisoned. If an enemy threatens them, he can protect that enemy from any repercussions. People know what this power makes Skip capable of, but its nature is too arcane for them to be sure of its limitations. Most of all, he has acquired this power by making accommodations to it that suggest he can't possibly be a truly good person. His knowledge of the law makes him a sorcerer, in other words, not a wizard.
Even Skip's increasingly desperate attempts to resume his relationship with Chelle seem less about romance and more about self image. In the years of her absence, he built a respectable career and was in a long term relationship with another woman who is less attractive and closer to him in age. He is willing to leave all this behind to try to win Chelle's affections again, and if the genre tropes of the story, such as relativistic travel, were absent, this would be immediately recognizable as a typical male mid-life crisis. Skip is trying to convince himself that despite all the evidence he is still the same man he was when he was in his twenties, not someone closer to death than birth.
Readers of Gene Wolfe's other fiction will recognize how all of this revolves around his typical concerns of identity and death. When they meet again Skip and Chelle are different people than they were when they last saw each other, and virtually everything else in the novel either comments on or contrasts with this. The planet where Chelle fought is called "Johanna" whenever it is mentioned in dialogue, but Wolfe slips a single hint to the reader that the real name is "Gehenna", suggesting that Chelle has metaphorically come back from the dead. The other personality she carries in her mind (in another of Wolfe's linguistic tricks Chelle is pronounced "Shell") is that of a soldier who did die yet perhaps has returned as well. To try to impress Chelle before meeting her again, Skip pays to have the scans of her dead mother's brain "downloaded" into a live volunteer, and the resulting woman is Chelle's mother, back from the dead . . . but in another woman's body, and perhaps carrying traces of that woman's mind as well. When this old deceased woman, reborn into middle age, attempts to regain the affections of her former husband, who is now an old man, it serves as an unflattering contrast to Skip and Chelle's own relationship.
Although he often seems nearly convinced they will fail, Skip never questions whether his efforts to rebuild his relationship with Chelle are a good idea. She, for her part, frequently asks this question, but never quite closes the door either. Both of them want to believe that love really does conquer all. Completely mismatched romantic partners are another common element in Wolfe's novels, and while the power of love to bring people together is made clear, it's always ambiguous whether it's enough to keep them together. In the end, Home Fires leaves this for the reader to decide.
Like all of Gene Wolfe's novels, Home Fires is unusual, complex, and a constant challenge to the reader, but it is more successful than much of his recent work at balancing accessibility and depth. There are still plenty of allusions, hints, and minor mysteries that are only detectable on a second reading, but unlike Wolfe's recent An Evil Guest (2008) and The Sorcerer's House (2010) the true novel does not lie hidden beneath an obfuscating surface narrative that requires rereading to properly excavate. Readers completely unfamiliar with Gene Wolfe would probably be better off starting with his best-known work, like The Book of the New Sun, Soldier in the Mist (1986), or The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), but for those interested in going farther, Home Fires is probably the best introduction to the novels he has written in the last decade.