December 6, 2015

Review: A Borrowed Man

A Borrowed Man A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn't read Gene Wolfe before now, and while people more familiar with his backlist would probably suggest better places to start, this one is pretty damn good. Strictly from a craft point of view, the first pages let me know I was in the hands of a master: the simple but not simplistic prose, the smooth unveiling of backstory and worldbuilding without infodumps, the careful and subtle ratcheting up of tension which would occasionally explode in shocking bursts, only to fall back and start climbing up again. It's a quick read, but it's not a light one.

On the surface, this is a science fiction murder mystery, but it's so much more than that. There are layers upon layers to this story, and I think it would only benefit from rereads. Ernest A. Smithe is the titular "borrowed man," the "reclone" of a dead author imprinted with said author's memories. As a "library resource," he is owned by the library, basically a living piece of property without rights. Indeed one of the running themes of the story is his meditation on what he believes will eventually be his fate: when old library books are no longer in fashion and no one checks them out anymore, they are discarded. Only in his case, he will be burned. One of the (many) twists in the book's final chapter is the realization that Smithe has been manipulating events to escape this.

But the gradually unfolding history of this future Earth is also fascinating in its own right: Wolfe describes a world presumably after the coming upheavals of climate change, where the population has been reduced to one billion (by what method is never stated, which is a creepy background note), and humanity realizes it will probably never reach the neighboring planets, much less the stars. Smithe calls it "full humanity's retirement," and although discussion of that is a side point and takes up less than a page, it's still reverbating in my head. The entire book is like this: every so often in the narrative, Wolfe jumps out and gobsmacks you with a pure science-fictional idea. Another instance is when Smithe is riding on a bus and another man (full human) takes his seat, and after Smithe asks him to move and he doesn't, the reclone proceeds to beat the snot out of the full human, kicking him in the head several times for good measure. It's a shocking burst of violence that shows the danger lurking behind the reclone's bland, mild-mannered surface; this is an alien being here, and Wolfe doesn't let us forget it.

The murder mystery, while adequate and a suitable driver of the plot, takes second place to the background, ideas and worldbuilding. This book sneaks up on you, takes hold, and doesn't let go. I don't know if Gene Wolfe is the "it" author he used to be, but if there's any justice, this should be up for some awards.

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