Title: Home Fires
Author: Gene Wolfe
For every artist, to remain relevant, it becomes necessary to reinvent themselves, even if what they were before was popular or well-praised. Look at Picasso. His earlier paintings were surprisingly traditional, then he went though his “blue” period, and shortly thereafter became the biggest name in cubism. He didn’t stop there or rest on his laurels; instead he gave up the cube for the squiggly line, and his later works recall cartoons in their simplicity, but are highly profound (see Guernica). Or look at Bob Dylan. From a folk purist, he went electric, then country, then made religious music… and now he makes Muddy Waters-inspired blues. Gene Wolfe, who’s had a long and celebrated career in sci-fi and fantasy, is another artist who has reinvented himself.
He’s most famous for his series The Book of the New Sun, and a few spin-offs. In those novels, his writing is incredibly dense, full of archaisms and neologisms, and are somewhat forbidding to casual sci-fi/fantasy readers. In Home Fires, as well as a few of his other more recent offerings, the style is the obverse; instead of long paragraphs packed with content, Wolfe has chosen to tell stories primarily through dialogue.
The problem is, with the story so reliant on dialogue, long stretches are hard to follow.
The story revolves around a man reuniting with a lost love and embarking on a cruise together. As this is Wolfe, it’s not by any means a sugary novel. The reason why the couple have been apart for so long is because she had been fighting in an interstellar space-war. The book hardly follows her fighting career though; it’s about the ones that were left behind by the soldiers. This is very clever if you ask me. Wolfe takes the usual formula of people leaving earth to go on crazy adventures and spins it around. What would usually make up the falling-action in an action-packed sci-fi novel makes up the heart of this novel.
The cruise ship is attacked by hijackers, allowing the couple to test their newly reforged bond. Unfortunately, this is where the book becomes, as I said before, hard to follow. There are numerous instances of characters disappearing and reappearing, or becoming kidnapped then escaping, and after a while I couldn’t much keep up with what the characters were even doing (kind of like in the awful Pirates of The Caribean sequels). The beginning and end of Home Fires is quite good: the middle is, well, middling.
If you’re able to put up with a convoluted plot, you’ll be rewarded though with some of Wolfe’s philosophical musings. Similar to Philip K. Dick, Wolfe is interested in exactly what creates identity, and what makes one individual unique from another. He blurs the lines by employing characters like a deceased woman brought back to life in another person’s body, as well as an android who is, by all appearances, human.
Odds are, if you’re already a fan of Wolfe, you will have already bought this book, or plan to buy it, and nothing any critic says will dissuade you. If you’re not yet a fan of Wolfe, I’d sooner recommend you read an earlier novella by him called The Fifth Head of Cerberus. That’s the most thought provoking sci-fi book I’ve read apart from Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.
If you’re into fantasy, sci-fi, and other weird stuff, here’s some of my other book reviews that may interest you.
If you read Home Fires by Gene Wolfe, what was your opinion of it?