Before Chelle left Earth to fight in the war against the alien Os, she contracted (entered into a civil marriage) with Skip. If she returned, more than twenty years would have passed for Skip but only a few years for her: Skip would be a successful, rich lawyer, and she’d be his beautiful, young contracta. Fast forward to the start of Home Fires, the latest novel by all-round genius Gene Wolfe: Skip is indeed a rich, successful partner in his law firm, and Chelle returns to Earth, still young and beautiful but physically and mentally affected by war’s traumatic experiences. To help welcome his contracta home, Skip sets up a meeting with her estranged and (more importantly) dead mother, arranging to have her brain scan uploaded into a new body. When Skip and Chelle go on a cruise to rekindle their relationship, Chelle’s mother shows up on the ship under an assumed name, and a complicated plot involving mistaken identities, spies, hijackers and cyborgs gets underway…
Home Fires is a good novel, but falls far short of what Gene Wolfe is capable of at his best. Part of the problem is that the vast majority of the story is told from the perspective of Skip Grissom, and Skip happens to be the least interesting component of this tale. A successful lawyer, he approaches his renewed relationship with Chelle and their wild adventures on the cruise in a very rational, almost distant way. Because of his cerebral approach and understated way of describing things, it feels as if there’s a filter between the reader and the novel’s events that mutes much of their impact, unfortunately making Home Fires more bland than it could have been. Here’s a story in which a traumatized soldier returns home from interstellar war, her mother is improbably returned to life, their cruise ship gets hijacked, numerous other wild adventures occur — and it occasionally feels as if you’re reading a deposition rather than the exciting SF story this could have been.
This is partly because Home Fires is filled with puzzles within puzzles, and you never quite know or understand everything that’s going on. Large chunks of dialogue consist of Skip or someone else patiently explaining how they figured out one particular mystery — why someone did something, or what someone else’s real identity may be, and so on. You can almost imagine the lawyer pacing back and forth, deliberately leading the members of the jury through his reasoning as he makes his case. As a result, the story sometimes feels too contrived: everything keeps getting explained after the fact, giving you the feeling you missed too much before and need the brilliant lawyer to unwrap it for you. Fortunately, Gene Wolfe softens the impact of this cross-examination style by following each chapter by a shorter “Reflections” sub-chapter featuring Skip’s private thoughts, which adds a more personal touch to the novel.
Home Fires has a complex and interesting plot that expands in scope as more details are revealed. As is usually the case with Gene Wolfe, he offers more hints than explicit descriptions of his characters and especially his novel’s setting, in this case a resource-depleted future Earth split into at least three large political entities. Wolfe is also a master at forcing his readers to dig a little deeper to realize how poignant some of the issues and events of his stories are. If you take a step back (or as the case may be, a step forward) to consider Home Fires a bit more deeply, you’ll see that there’s a lot of emotion roiling under the apparent calmness of the narration. Unfortunately, this technique didn’t work as well for me this time as it did with past novels by this author, leading me to rank Home Fires towards the bottom of Gene Wolfe’s impressive bibliography.
Regardless, even a minor Gene Wolfe is still a major event. As usual, there’s a lot of food for discussion here, and enough hidden or implied material to fill a much larger novel than Home Fires’ relatively modest 300 pages. Despite not working 100% for me, it still had my head spinning several times and kept me considering and re-considering elements of the story for days. Wolfe’s most recent novels have all ranged from good to great, but I can’t help but hope that, with his next work, he’ll reach the truly mind-bending ranges of his older classics again.
It’s almost an axiom that a Gene Wolfe novel will raise questions about life, death, memory, psychology and identity. It also goes almost without saying that there will be a feeling of events happening behind the scenes, of which the characters themselves are even unaware. In these respects, Home Fires is indisputably a Gene Wolfe novel.
Published in 2010, Home Fires follows a successful 47-year-old criminal lawyer, Skip Grison, in a North America that is different from ours but frighteningly easy to envision. Grison’s fiancé or “contracta” is due back from outer space as the book opens. Chelle Blue is a soldier, a master-gunner in an interstellar war. She has been fighting for two years in her time; more than twenty years in earth time. Therefore, she is about twenty-five years old to Skip’s forty-seven. Skip fears that she will no longer love him because he is an old man, and in fact she does not recognize him when she disembarks from the military shuttle.
Soon, though, Chelle has accepted Skip and they are planning a cruise as a way to get reunited. Skip brought along a surprise for Chelle, her mother Vanessa — or, at least, a woman with a strong physical resemblance to Vanessa, who has most of Vanessa’s memories.
Early in the book it becomes clear that Chelle has changed in many ways. She was wounded in battle and is self-conscious about her body, undressing in the dark to shield Skip from her scars. Vanessa’s problems seem more immediate, though, because she thinks someone is trying to kill her. At first Skip suspects Reanimation, the company that downloaded Vanessa’s final brain scan into the body of a willing employee. Reanimation wants to reclaim their employee, though, not kill her. Chelle, meanwhile, has started writing I am Jane Sims with her left hand.
Before these issues can be thoroughly explained, the cruise ship Rani is hijacked. Two-thirds of the book is something I can only describe as a leisurely action adventure. Skip emerges as a natural leader but he has a lot of meetings, where people talk their plans out in a methodical, logical manner. Skip is a defense attorney who is famous for his ability to cross-examine people; most of this story is presented through dialogue, but it still seems odd to have the rescue group made up of passengers sitting around one of the staterooms, calmly discussing their plan. The important thing here is that Chelle is at risk and Skip morphs into an adventure hero to save her, at one point leaping over a railing, firing a submachine gun into a group of hijackers. This behavior surprises him, but it gratifies him too because it changes his image of himself.
Between the third-person point of view, Wolfe intersperses Skip’s (and later Chelle’s) first-person meditations. From the first page, Skip has worried that he is an old man. Chelle’s original plan was that she would return to a rich contracto, and he would get a beautiful young contracta. The plan has worked but isn’t satisfying either of them. Skip is wealthy, but Chelle is uncomfortable about how he makes his money. Chelle is still beautiful to Skip, but she sees herself as damaged. Because she has the thoughts and impulses of another woman, she also worries that she is mentally ill. Enforced separation and questions about who is trying to kill whom come between the two and heighten the suspense.
The book includes hijackers, interplanetary spies, earth-based spies, double agents and suicide rings. Vanessa, who is also called Virginia, may be at risk for what she knows, or the people trying to murder her may have confused her with the employee whose body she is using. Chelle may be Chelle, or she may be Jane. We never see the aliens, the Os (that seems to be both singular and plural) with whom we are at war, but we meet their spies… or maybe we do.
It is not accidental that when Chelle leaves the ship on one of the tropical islands to buy a gun, she and Skip end up at a native religious ceremony that involves calling the spirits of the dead; and it’s no coincidence that Vanessa shows up at the end of it. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that, even though Chelle has referred to the planet where she was wounded as “Johanna,” at the end of the book it’s called Gehenna. Like most Wolfe books, hints and clues, and vital information, are still being provided at the end of the book.
I want to spend a few minutes discussing the women characters here. As much as people love Gene Wolfe, some do complain about his women characters. There are three women involved in the plot here: Chelle, Vanessa, and Susan, Skip’s secretary. Chelle is a warrior, physically and emotionally strong, and impulsive. Wolfe tries to give her a soldier’s bad language, but it reads awkwardly. What is appealing about her is her emotional honesty and her fearlessness. Vanessa, who is in a more vulnerable position, is also a compelling character, maybe because of her commitment to protecting her daughter. This makes her likable and also intriguing, since this is not how Chelle remembers her mother. Part of the difficulty with Vanessa is that her dialogue and actions seem dated. She could fit right into any 1940s noir detective novel; she would also be right at home in Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. Susan is a disappointment. I think Wolfe gave her authentic motivations; I just think the relationship, and her reactions, were not original or very deep.
While I don’t think Susan or her relationship with Skip is compelling, Skip’s meditation on the nature of an employer and an assistant is poignant. Skip thinks that for eight years, on the job they have had the identity of “Skipandsusan,” a strong observation in a book playing with the nature of identity.
What works brilliantly is the economy with which Wolfe sketches in the details of Earth. From the first few pages, I know that even though Skip is rich and privileged, his tap water has a faint smell of sewage, and his lights flicker from time to time. This tells me volumes about life in the North American union where he lives, without paragraphs of exposition.
Like every Wolfe novel I’ve read, I will have to read this again, and even then I probably won’t feel confident that I really understood what was going on. In the meantime, I continue to think about the nature of life, death, love and what constitutes identity.