A Borrowed Man
by Gene Wolfe
Cover Artist: Design by FORT
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765381149
Date: 20 October 2015 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Gene Wolfe has always been one of the most inventive and literary science fiction writers of our day. A Borrowed Man shows this quality in its unusual premise and a story that will interest both mystery and science fiction readers. In the future world depicted in A Borrowed Man, writers are cloned (with the original's memories) and kept on shelves in local libraries. These library reclones are considered property, with few rights, and library patrons can borrow them exactly the way today we borrow library books. Reclones that are not borrowed are eventually burned. In the background, this somewhat dystopian future has intelligent robots and flying hovercabs, but the population has drastically dropped to about a billion people (not counting reclones) and there are hints of a tired humanity and corrupt society.
The novel's hero, E.A. Smithe, is the reclone of a mystery writer who is programmed to speak in the highly formal English that the original used in writing exposition. The book opens when Colette Coldbrook, heir to the family fortune, checks Smithe out of the library in order to find a secret hidden in a book written by the original Smithe. Colette tells him that when her brother checked the family's safe after their father died, the only thing in it was this book. The brother was murdered the next day. Smithe cannot remember anything unusual about writing the book but is willing to put his mystery skills to help Colette. They go to her apartment but are surprised when the building lets two men in (despite the lock's programming) who demand the book, claiming it was stolen from them. Smithe and Collette escape with the book to the large Coldbrook home where they continue to investigate, discovering two locked rooms. After the two talk with an astrophysicist her father consulted, Colette disappears. With no patron, Smithe turns himself in at the local library to be sent to his home library.
At the library, two more men, apparently police, are waiting to check him out. One threatens him with harm if he does not cooperate (although as a reclone he has no choice) and the two interrogate and assault him. Smithe manages to escape, but then faces the difficult task of trying to solve Colette's disappearance and the deaths of her father and brother in a society where reclones are property. Naturally, in true mystery fashion, Smithe cannot tell who to trust and who is lying to him, while in turn he must keep secret his status as a reclone.
The book successfully balances the science fiction and mystery aspects. Smithe being a reclone is vital to the plot and a reason why he cannot just go to the police. The secret hidden behind the doors is a genuine science fiction idea. At the same time, the book offers clues and shows Smithe pursuing leads and solving the case.
In the canon of Gene Wolfe's work, this is a light entertainment, not the complex tapestry of his New Sun series. Although the novel is complete in itself, with a satisfying ending, Wolfe has said he is working on a sequel, Interlibrary Loan. This book is an ideal introduction to Wolfe and could serve to acquaint readers of science fiction with the mystery genre and vice versa. Some fans of Wolfe may be a bit disappointed with the fairly conventional plot, but the central idea of library reclones and the many Wolfe touches hidden away in the background could only come from this author.