Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

2011: Home Fires (Wolfe, Gene)

Dreamlike: dissociative rather than ethereal (2/5)

Wolfe is notable for his evasive writing style with which he seems to skirt the plot he wants to write about and, instead, works around it with vagueness and nebulousness. This applies to his short stories and his novels. While the circumspect style is manageable is most of his short stories (Starwater Strains [2005]), it has been a wondrous circumnavigation for his novels: Nightside of the Long Sun (1993), the remainder of the Book of the Long Sun series, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1973).

In 2011, I was excited to hear of Gene Wolfe’s new novel, Home Fires, but I couldn’t buy it immediately; I had to wait two years, find it at a secondhand shop, then wait another year before it came up on my reading list. When I had to make yet another trans-Pacific flight, I chose Home Fires so I could sink into Wolfe’s elegant, lovely prose. Sadly, I couldn’t sink into as I was kept at aloft like an air balloon, soaring further and further away from the surface of the novel. Interesting premise… but a maze within.

Rear cover synopsis:
Gene Wolfe takes us to a future North America at once familiar and utterly strange. A young man and woman, Skip and Chelle, fall in love in college and marry, but she is enlisted in the military, there is a war on, and she must serve her tour of duty before they can settle down. But the military is fighting a war with aliens in distant solar systems, and her months in the service will be years in relative time on Earth. Chelle returns to recuperate from severe injuries, after months of service, still a young woman but not necessarily the same person—while Skip is in his forties and a wealthy businessman, but eager for her return.

Still in love (somewhat to his surprise and delight), they go on a Caribbean cruise to resume their marriage. Their vacation rapidly becomes a complex series of challenges, not the least of which are spies, aliens, and battles with pirates who capture the ship for ransom. There is no writer in SF like Gene Wolfe and no SF novel like Home Fires.”


For a reviewer who likes to write 1000-, 2000-, and 3000-word reviews, I surprise myself when I say that I have very little to add to the book’s own synopsis. The novel is just as jumbled as it says: “spies, aliens, and battles with pirates”.  There’s a whole lot going on, but one top of all that craziness there’s actually a mystery whodunit plot, but it doesn’t redeem the destruction which had already been wrought.

As the book’s synopsis says, a “contracted” partnership between Chelle (the contracta) and Skip (the contracto) enters an interesting phase as Chelle decides to enlist and be sent for duty far, far away. The effects of her few years of duty are at relativistic speeds, so time is dilated; therefore, time on Earth passes decades while only years have passed for Chelle.

Skip is eager to welcome home his contracta. He has been building an empire of money and law from his downtown practice where he is junior partner. With this financial asset benefiting him, he sees the perfect opportunity to give Chelle a unique gift when she returns; though Chelle’s mother (Vanessa) died years ago, Skip obtains her last brain scan that holds all her memories and then pays for the procedure that transfers them into a temporary but willing and walking body. When Chelle returns, she’ll have the chance to catch up with her mom, regardless of the fact that her physical appearance won’t be the same and that Chelle actually divorced her parents prior to enlisting.

On her arrival, Chelle somehow recognizes her mother yet not her contracto. Chelle’s mother makes blatant moves on Skip, but he continually deflects the unwanted flattery and stays eager for the reunion with Chelle. The relationship is tenuous; when you think it would be a passionate and romantic, but the reunion unfolds as professional, almost like a stable relationship between a naughty secretary and her respectable male boss (Skip also has a secretary as a mistress, so he’s used to this kind of relationship). In order to reunite, Skip books a luxurious cruise… but things go awry, as the synopsis points out.

First, though booked to be alone on the pleasure cruise, it turns out that Vanessa had somehow pulled some strings and became employed as the social director on board. This is only the first turn of events on the otherwise perfect-for-an-hour-or-two cruise: Chelle feels the need to buy a gun, the two befriend an armless man who hooks them up, they dance and buy a few guns; pirates storm the ship, guns go ablaze, Chelle goes missing, and ransom is demanded; people are interrogated, Skip’s contacts come to the rescue, Skip runs into his secretary/flame, and some people die while some people live.

That’s that in a nutshell.

In addition to the bizarre twists in an equally as bizarre story line, there is even more to complain about. I remember the Book of the Long Sun series to have eloquent passages of atmosphere and observation—a syrupy passage of beauty! Even Wolfe’s much earlier The Fifth Head of Cerberus had passages similar to this beauty. While dialogue has never been superfluous to Wolfe’s novels, it has always been satisfactory. Now in Home Fires, it feels like 80% of the novel is entirely dialogue… all talk, no walk. This results is a sluggish pace where every detail is discussed or hypothesizes but very little is actually done… not that the book is necessarily an action novel, but there’s just nothing to contrast the lethargic dialogue.

Matt Hilliard, from Strange Horizons, offers more on this odd facet of Home Fires:

When characters aren't talking, the narrative races at breakneck speed to get to the next conversation. There is a lot of action in the story, yet very little of it is described. Instead, we learn about events through allusions made in later conversations … These lacunae are also a tool that Wolfe uses to temporarily conceal the reasons why things happen until after the fact, and both the jumps forward in time and the unexpected events that follow them cement the novel's dreamlike feel.

And like Matt, I agree that the arch-theme of Home Fires is one of dysfunction. It’s obvious that Skip is disjointed one way or another, Chelle herself has a loose grip on reality, and the constant turn of events is unsettling; compound this with the endless dialogue and, indeed, it does have a “dreamlike feel” but it’s also frustrating—here “dreamlike” meaning dissociative rather than ethereal.

If the reader’s expectation for this novel rest with their prior experience with Wolfe’s work, the reader may be greatly disappointed. While reading, if you want to take one thing away from this novel’s experience, it will be that, somehow, all the bizarre aspects of the novel doesn’t feel all that odd… it just happens to be dissociative rather than ethereal.


  1. Since Wolfe is by far my favorite SF author, that's disappointing to hear -- I'll probably still buy/read it. Even the stories he writes that I don't like, few as they are, have some redeeming value.

  2. Very few of the Starwater Strains stories were below average... so you're right, there is always some merit to his stories (except "Empires of Foliage and Flower"). Home Fires, however, I had to wade knee-deep through - in the end, I understood why he used the narrative he did, but it just didn't entice me.

  3. Your review interests me. I believe Wolfe to be too aware, too intentional a writer to be ethereal for ethereal's sake. He was attempting something in this novel, and now I'm curious what it is - to puzzle it out (or at least connect the dots to create some plausible picture. ;)