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Home Fires by Gene Wolfe
Edited by David Hartwell
Cover Artist: Photo: Brandon Herman / Photolibrary / Corbis
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765328182
Date: 18 January 2011 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Gene Wolfe Fan Site / Show Official Info /

In Home Fires, Gene Wolfe returns to Science Fiction after a prolonged absence. After a string of fantasy novels, Wolfe's newest book includes such undeniably SF tropes as interstellar war, relativistic spaceflight, and brain scans that preserve the minds of the dead. Wolfe gives his own spin to these time honored ideas, creating a novel that investigates his perennial themes of identity and how we make sense of our relationships to one another. The prose style and themes are as intriguing as ever, but for the first time reading a Gene Wolfe novel I found the ideas feeling familiar. Wolfe reuses many features of his own earlier novels here, and at times this started to feel repetitious. While still an excellent read, much more sophisticated and entertaining than most SF I have read, this latest novel raises the worry that Wolfe's fecund imagination might be running dry.

The story is told from the point of view of Skip Grison, a wealthy middle aged lawyer. When he was just finishing college Skip married the love of his life, Chelle Blue. However, she chose to enlist in the military to fight the alien O, and this involved traveling on a relativistic spaceship, so that in the few years of her tour of duty twenty years passed on earth. At the start of the book, Chelle returns to earth. Skip hopes desperately to retain her love, but worries that the gap in their ages and experiences will make them strangers to each other. Given that this is a Gene Wolfe book, they are not given the chance to peacefully negotiate their relationship; instead, through a series of plot twists too intricate to summarize here, Skip and Chelle find themselves facing well armed cruise-ship hijackers, alien spies, and suicide cults.

One of the elements that felt overly familiar to me was the main character, Skip. Skip shares many characteristics of other recent Wolfe protagonists. He is highly competent, self-deprecating, a natural leader who others follow automatically in a crisis, with somewhat flattened affect and keen analytic mind. I felt that Skip's narrative voice was instantly familiar, which was a disappointment since Wolfe's earlier protagonists had far more distinctive voices. There were also some rather libertarian musings about the law that I failed to see the relevance of, and found somewhat trite.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy reading Home Fires. Wolfe creates a fascinating, tangled plotline, with a spare but captivating prose style. He still tests the reader's attention to detail more thoroughly than any other author I have read, a feature of his writing that may annoy some readers but that I love. The best feature of the novel, to my mind, is the relationship between Chelle and Skip. At times, it is tempting to see this relationship in terms of a storybook romance, but as the book goes on it becomes clear that both Skip and Chelle are in many ways deeply damaged people, and it becomes very unclear if their relationship is healthy for either party. At the same time, the love they feel for each other is clearly genuine. This relationship develops in detail and nuance throughout the book, and it makes for some fascinating characterization.

Home Fires is a good read, far smarter and more accomplished than most writers could ever accomplish. Nonetheless, as a new Gene Wolfe book I found it vaguely disappointing. It just doesn't feel as original as most of Wolfe's books do, and I can't help but worry that Wolfe is running out of new tricks. I wouldn't say this is the best place to start if you've never read Wolfe before. Judged purely on its own merits, rather than in comparison to Wolfe's other works, this is clearly an impressive and interesting novel. Its worth a read, especially for those who like smart, subtle SF and are willing to pay close attention to what they are reading.

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