Free Live Free: No rent, but you’ll have to pay in brain cells

Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe science fiction book reviewsFree Live Free by Gene Wolfe science fiction book reviewsFree Live Free by Gene Wolfe

First of all, let me lay a few cards on the table: Gene Wolfe is my favorite science-fiction author and might be my favorite author, period. I’d give something like fifteen of his books five-star reviews; the only other author who comes close to that is Jack Vance.

Free Live Free (1984) is one of his two books that I just. Don’t. Get. (Castleview is the other.) I’ve read it at least three times, I’ve puzzled over the explanatory synopsis of one character’s actions at the end (I believe the publisher insisted on its inclusion), I’ve read a couple of essays commenting on it, and I still have no clear idea how most of the story connects to what happens at the end. In that sense this story is actually a spiritual cousin to anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Wolf’s Rain — how the climax relates to the building action, and even exactly what happens at the climax, is not easy to understand, even on a re-reading. So, this is likely to be a pretty frustrating book, and it’s just as well to go into it prepared for that.

On the other hand, a lot of what happens along the way is quite interesting in its own right. The protagonists have been invited by the mysterious Ben Free to live in his Chicago home rent-free — hence the title — on the condition that they help him prevent the city fathers from tearing the house down. The four tenants who take him up on the offer are under significant-to-severe financial stress, which Gene Wolfe depicts with impressive attention to detail and to great emotional effect. (You may never be so relieved to see somebody successfully sell a buck-fifty’s worth of toys.) The tenants are an odd lot — Jim, a private eye; Ozzie, a traveling salesman; Candy, a torch singer and part-time prostitute; and Madame Serpentina, a self-proclaimed witch who believes Ben Free is actually a wizard. Free claims nothing of the sort, but he is mysterious and he does mention to all his new “renters” that there’s something extremely valuable — a “gizmo” — in the house that he can’t find, and he needs to delay the house’s demolition until he does.

So, our heroes (?) set out to prevent the house’s demolition, and make enough money to get by, and find Ben Free’s “gizmo” — and pretty soon things start to get really, really strange. (The reader may feel it appropriate, for more than one reason, that much of the later action takes place in a lunatic asylum.)

The story has deliberate echoes of The Wizard of Oz (for example, in addition to our witch and wizard, the five main characters include a Tik-Tok, a Cowardly Lion, and…maaaaaybe a Dorothy?) at several points. I have felt each time I’ve read the story that knowing this should help me figure out what’s going on, but it hasn’t really.

If you’re not quite sure what the take-home is, well, neither am I. If you like Gene Wolfe, you should give Free Live Free a try. If you don’t like Gene Wolfe, you will almost certainly not like this. If you have never read anything by Gene Wolfe, please don’t start here — I’d recommend The Wizard Knight, or a book of his short stories.

Published in 1984. “Free Live Free,” said the newspaper ad, and the out-of-work detective Jim Stubb, the occultist Madame Serpentina, the salesman Ozzie Barnes, and the overweight prostitute Candy Garth are brought together to live for a time in Free’s old house, a house scheduled for demolition to make way for a highway. Free drops mysterious hints of his exile from his homeland, and of the lost key to his return. And so when demolition occurs and Free disappears, the four make a pact to continue the search, which ultimately takes them far beyond their wildest dreams. This is character-driven science fiction at its best by a writer whom, at the time of its first publication, the Chicago Sun-Times called “science fiction’s best genuine novelist.”

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Unbeknownst to all, including himself, NATHAN OKERLUND has been preparing for the role of "reviewer of fantasy novels" since he first read Watership Down thirty-odd years ago. He is especially fond of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman, and books that have to be read twice to be understood at all, but will happily read anything which does not actually attempt to escape the nightstand. When not occupied with the fantastic he takes brains apart to see how they work, as a postdoctoral fellow studying neurodegeneration, and supports his wife and daughter in their daily heroics.

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  1. I find it curious, Nathan, that we are both neuroscientists and both list Jack Vance and Gene Wolf as favorite authors… what is going on there?

    • I thought we weren’t going to mention the hive mind, Kat. ;)

      (Amusingly, I am pretty sure that we have given exactly the same number of stars to the books we’ve both reviewed for the site. I know that’s right for the Patternus books, at least.)

  2. Nathan, we definitely need to have an anime chat sometime, because there are so few people out there who have seen Wolf’s Rain!

  3. I have never understood this book. It was the most baffling of his works to me until I read THE LAND ACROSS. And reading your review, I’ve decided that I under THE LAND ACROSS much better.

    • Have you read CASTLEVIEW, Marion? That’s the one that really makes my head spin. THE LAND ACROSS I found relatively accessible, at least on the first level of analysis. I make no claims for the mysteries.

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