Thursday, June 23, 2016
Gene Wolfe: A Borrowed Man, one of Wolfe's quirkiest novels
A Borrowed Man
Gene Wolfe, who regularly turns out quirky novels (who else would write a quartet featuring a trained and licensed torturer and executioner as the hero), has turned out another one: A Borrowed Man.
The narrator is E. A. Smithe, well, sort of E. A. Smithe anyway. He's a reclone of the deceased writer of the same name. He has been created and then filled with all the information found about E. A. Smithe. He is then sent to a library where he spends his days, on a shelf, of sorts, waiting for a patron who is doing research to appear and ask him questions about E. A. Smithe or his writings. (This gives new meaning to the job title of resource person.) If he is lucky, a patron may even borrow him from the library (even though it's quite expensive) for a short period of time. While the reclone is not considered a person, the patron who damages one has to pay a hefty fine, just like that for a book or other item borrowed from the library..
Being consulted and being borrowed from the library is very important because the life span of a reclone depends upon usage. Since space, as always at a library, is limited, those reclones who are not consulted or borrowed are eventually burned. And, he isn't the only E. A. Smithe reclone, for there are others in other libraries.
Our Smithe reclone, one day, is borrowed by a patron, Collette Coldbrook, for ten days. He is a bit disappointed because the fee is only 4700 for the period. He had hoped it would be higher, a sign of his value to the library. Eventually he finds out the reason for being "borrowed." To be brief, the real E. A. Smithe had written a book, according to Collette, in which a clue to a fortune may be hidden.
Collette Coldbrook is the daughter of a recently deceased financier who had built up a considerable fortune, the source of which is unknown. Collette had been told by her brother, Conrad, that a book written by Smithe holds a clue to the source of her father's fortune. A short time later, her brother was murdered by person or persons unknown. Collette reveals this to the reclone only after having gone to an out-of-the-way-place to avoid any possible listening devices.
This is a slow-paced thriller with the reclone and Collette hoping to find the hidden clue in the book before the unknown others get there first. She has no idea as to the identity of these others--it could be a band of criminals or even one of several government agencies, also curious about the source of her father's fortune.
The novel takes place in the future, maybe a century or more. The US government has obviously been replaced by another government. Moreover, the world's population is now around one billion. Wolfe does not explain just what led up to these changes or to the dramatic reduction in population.
And, as this is a novel by Gene Wolfe, the reader should prepared for several surprises along the way. All is not as it appears to be.
Looking for something a bit strange? Try this one.