Book Review: A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

As perhaps is appropriate, I came to read A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolf in a very roundabout way.  I decided to buy Interlibrary Loan after seeing it in the bargain area at Barnes and Noble.  I was in a bit of reading funk as far as fiction so was looking for something different to shake things up. I then found out that it was the second book in a series.  So checked out A Borrowed Man from the library.

It is perhaps a hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, there are robots, and there are clones.

E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person. He is a clone who lives on a third-tier shelf in a public library, and his personality is an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human.

A wealthy patron, Colette Coldbrook, takes him from the library because he is the surviving personality of the author of Murder on Mars. A physical copy of that book was in the possession of her murdered father, and it contains an important secret, the key to immense family wealth. It is lost, and Colette is afraid of the police. She borrows Smithe to help her find the book and to find out what the secret is. And then the plot gets complicated.

I found it to be an odd book. I don’t have an history of reading Wolfe, however, so have nothing to judge it against or to give the style some context.

At some level it is just a mystery but there is the fact that the narrator is a re-clone of a murder mystery author from 100 years ago who can be checked out from the library. It has been a while since a mystery, let alone one with such a unique plot device. I think the main character’s style/voice threw me off. Perhaps I missed some symbolism and depth, but even though I felt like I found a rhythm in the second half of the story, it just didn’t really click for me.

I enjoyed the uniqueness of the character and setting, but as reviewers had noted, it seemed to get bogged down in places in ways that broke the momentum or pacing. I guess maybe I was looking for a mystery with a plot that pulled me forward rather than a literary puzzle or philosophical musings within a mystery set in the future.

In preparing to offer this review I checked out a few reviews and found that Wolf aficionados had a great deal more to say about the novel.

Publishers Weekly offered straightforward praise:

Wolfe (The Land Across) builds this SF noir into a strange, unsettling story, deceptively simple and old-fashioned in style and plot, but full of disturbing details that are intensified by the deadpan humor and matter-of-fact flatness of Smithe’s narrative voice.

If you are looking for a deep dive into the book, it would be hard to do better than James Wynn’s post at Ultan’s Library. This post not only offers detailed arguments and ideas about what is going on in the novel and why, it also makes me feel a little better for my reaction:

So, if A Borrowed Man is your first Wolfe novel and you finished it feeling as if Wolfe had written it in a coded language to some unknown reader—if it feels like you were supposed to know something that completely slipped through your education—well, let me introduce you to my shelves of Wolfe stories.

That is in fact exactly how I felt. So good to know it comes with the territory…

I also think he gets at one of the underlying themes of the novel:

As I mentioned, A Borrowed Man has been criticized for its failed futuristic world-building, in that, aside from the flying cars and recloning technology, it’s really not that different from life at the time of its publication in 2015. It seems to me that this is not evidence that the octogenarian author had fallen out of touch with modern technology but rather that, in the world of the novel, human technology has been stuck in the same place for a very long time. Following the discovery of scanning and recloning, humans ceased to thrive and populations began to decline. A society of reclones is a highly conservative one, one that prefers things to remain as they have been because that is the fundamental purpose of transhumanism and immortality: an aggressive assurance that the earlier generations will remain to influence the future.

That piece has lots and lots of spoilers so don’t read it if you want to approach reading the book fresh.  If this sort of thing interests you, read the book, then read Wynn’s take, then re-read the book.

Joan Gordon at The Los Angles Review of Books also offers much to think about, particularly if you have a deeper understanding of Wolf and his career. She echoes Wynn above:

That is how Wolfe portrays the “New America” — as a dying culture, in which “real humanity has retired.” The disabled and the poor (and immigrants like Smithe’s other sidekick Georges) are as disposable as books and clones in the impoverished future of “[o]ld ruined towns, and starved-looking children in rags.” Wolfe raises the ghost of the future we will inherit if we go on as we do. A Borrowed Man is a lonely book haunted only by metaphorical specters, a change from so many of his works (Peace, “The Haunted Boardinghouse” [1990], The Land Across [2013]).

If, like me, you haven’t read Wolf I wouldn’t start here.  If, however, you like books that are literary and metaphorical puzzles underneath genre (mystery, science fiction) than you might really enjoy this book even if it isn’t Wolf at his best (according to many of his fans).

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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