Book Review: Home Fries by Gene Wolfe

Cover for novel Home Fires by Gene Wolfe, image of cruise ship in the dark

Home Fires by Gene Wolfe is a…Gene Wolfe book.

I’m not sure how to describe either the book or my experience of reading it in any other way. (Long-time Gene Wolfe readers, please note that this is my first time through.) Inability to describe a Gene Wolfe book is par for the course, though. Gene Wolfe was a unique writer, who either confused you as a reader (in a bad way) or confused you as a reader (in a good way). I fall into the latter category.

While Gene Wolfe’s books often present puzzles for the reader to solve–and by all appearances, he plays fair with  readers–mainly the point of reading a Gene Wolfe book is to chew on ideas.

Unlike a lot of writers, Gene Wolfe books doesn’t require that you agree with his ideas or even his point of view. His intention wasn’t to change your mind or really even present a rip-roaring yarn.

Instead, he’s writing science fiction in the purest sense: what if…

Even his fantasy novels are like this. Questions to be gnawed at, nibbled around, meditated upon, debated, spun off into your own creative works. 

The setup for Home Fires: a young couple seeking their fortunes splits up, one of them traveling the stars at faster-than-light speeds as a warrior fighting against an alien race; the other staying at home to become a wealthy lawyer. The younger of the pair returns, only three years having passed for her, while twenty-three have passed for the lawyer. They try to reconnect over the course of a cruise–or they try to do something, at the very least. As with all Gene Wolfe books, everything is both exactly as it seems, and nothing like it seems.

Right after I finished the book went went: that was lovely, and I have no idea what it was all about.

For context, I read in an interview somewhere that one of Gene Wolfe’s main concerns as an author was about freedom versus, well, everything else. It sounded like he completely against all types of autocracy. Plus from same interview I gathered that to him that his books weren’t necessarily puzzles to be unfolded, but just little fictional notebooks of whatever ideas he was playing with at the moment.

Here in Home Fires, I think the ideas he was playing with were the process of loving someone as they are, rather than as who you want them to be. Humanity is a mess, each individual a patchwork of conflicting desires, memories, irrationalities, inconsistencies, names, identities. Every day, Wolfe says, we wake up as a new person, only loosely assembled out of the pieces of yesterday.

So what are the consequences of that? If we’re all, individually, ships of Theseus, with so many parts replaced over the years that it cannot be said that we’re at all the same people we once were, then who are we collectively? As couples, as friends, as employers, as businesses, as nations, as a species? And is that worth preserving?

There are a number of plot questions I haven’t resolved to my own satisfaction yet; I’d like answers but after a bunch of nosing around online I don’t think I’ll get them. Mostly, though, I want to know: just how unreliable a narrator is our narrator?

I may not be smart enough to find out. But I’ve been reading Wolfe for a while, so I’m used to that.

The other question, the important one, I think he hangs on a delicate thread: if all the above is true, if humanity is a mess, if the world is a mess, if everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, why not hope?

I’m a sucker for hope.

Here’s the passage I particularly liked, I think both key to the overall questions of the book as well as its plot threads in general:

We sleep, and believe we wake with the minds we carried into bed with us, bearing them as a bride borne in her groom’s arms, the lifted, the treasured, the threshold flier; so we believe.

But we do not. That weary mind has been dispersed in sleep, its myriad parts left behind on the tracks, lying upon the infinite concrete ties between endless, gleaming steel rails.

We wake, and compose for ourselves a new mind (if some other does not compose it for us), a mind compounded of such parts of the old one as we can discover, and of dreams, and of odd snatches of memory–something read long, long ago, possibly something sprung into thought from a tele listing, the skewed description of a better presentation, the show as it existed in Platonic space. From such trifles as these and more we construct a new mind and call it our own.

And yet the personhood, the soul remains. A roommate I had one year woke up each morning as a beast, woke roaring, shouting, and fighting. Fighting air, for the most part, for I soon learned to absent myself before his autocall, or to jump back if circumstances forced me to wake him myself; there is such a beast in all of us–no, several such beasts.

Chelle told me once that she woke each morning as a child, though strictly speaking it was untrue. It was most often true, I think, when she had been drinking and she was awakened an hour or two later, still somewhat drunk. She was small and guilty then, weeping for misbehavior she knew not of, a child like so many accustomed to being blamed and punished, quite often severely, for an act done or a word spoken in purest innocence. Thus I, who had met her at the university, came to know the child she had once been, and in truth to love and dread that child.

I think this might be my favorite of his works to date. My experience wasn’t a gentle passage through the story; I had to put the book down a few dozen times because I could not figure out what was going on or even who was in the room at times. I can’t recommend it to everyone.

But it moves me nevertheless.

New Gene Wolfe reader? Check out Neil Gaiman’s advice on how to read a Gene  Wolfe book…

Or check out one of my mindbending novels inspired by Gene Wolfe’s fiction (and Frankenstein, and a lot of SF/horror classics), The House without a Summer.

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