Thursday, June 23, 2016

Gene Wolfe: A Borrowed Man, one of Wolfe's quirkiest novels

Gene Wolfe
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. 


  1. i liked this book quite a bit. it has seemed to me that Wolfe's later works have been a bit easier to follow than his "new sun" quartet was... the trilogy about the greek warrior and the couplet about the knight were almost pedestrian in comparison with the "sun" series, of which, of course, there have been more than one. it's been entertaining to follow Wolfe's career during the progress of my own life, seeing how his style has changed and how my reaction to his work has changed as well over the years... i think he passed on recently; i hope we'll see some of his work reissued or commented upon in the near future...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Actually it's much less complicated and imaginative than the Books of the New Sun, the Long Sun, and the Short Sun.

      Many of his novels are close to this one, with one basic issue being presented and then the focus shifts to the characters actions in relationship to that issue.

      As far as I can tell, he is still alive. A Borrowed Man was published in 2015.

    2. mea culpa; maybe i was thinking of Jack Vance, one of my personal favorites; i've collected everything he wrote, i think...

    3. Mudpuddle,

      Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories certainly fits in with Wolfe's Sun series, as does M John Harrison's Viriconium series.

  2. This sounds like an extended metaphor and metafiction on fiction. Does the name Borges ring a bell? What about Jasper Fforde? Now the real mystery is this: does my library have a copy?

    1. R.T.,

      How so?

      Yes, I've read both Borges and Fforde. I can see Borges, but not Fforde so much. However, I've only read one novel, the first, by Fforde so perhaps reading more might be necessary to see the relationship.

    2. Fred, my comparison is superficial, pointing only to fictions about fictions, and in Fforde's case -- if I recall correctly -- fictional characters within different fictions. But I could be misremembering (again).

    3. R.T.,

      Ah, OK, I can see where you are going. Yes, I see the connection here.

      One point I didn't bring up is that the original EA Smythe was married and divorced (I think). His ex was a poet who also had her reclones, but not in the same library. The Smythe reclone eventually meets up with her reclone and finds that the old magic is still there--a new angle on the love that survives death?

  3. Blurb from my library' site:
    "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"-- Provided by publisher.
    The final sentence is priceless!

  4. R.T.,

    Yes, it is.

    I'm also going to get it back from the library for a reread. I find my best strategy for Wolfe's books is to read it and put it aside for a short time and then do it again.