I love speculative fiction, and I love complicated books that make you think. Home Fires is both of these things. Imagine a cross between Paul Auster and William Gibson (the early years): that's Gene Wolfe's style here. So - if you don't like those authors or dislike reading half a book before you get a good grip on the story, this book is not for you. Home Fires is my first Gene Wolfe novel, but it won't be my last.
The story begins just as Skip is waiting for Chelle to return to Earth from her short tour of duty (that has taken twenty years in Earth-time). While he's been toiling away as a corporate lawyer, she's been fighting aliens on distant planets. He's understandably concerned about reuniting with his still-young wife as a man in his forties. Surprisingly, that is the least-strange situation in this book. Each odd occurrence is followed by yet another, even stranger incident. The narrative never settles. The story starts in the middle, fills in a few blanks with flashbacks, and barrels along while you hang on by your fingernails, hoping that Wolfe will clue you in before adding another layer of complication. It reads like a thriller written by a slightly demented philosopher.
As with most good speculative fiction, this imagined future is used to explore current ideas. In Home Fires, Wolfe explores two big questions: What is love and what is death? Most of the characters are in love, and a few of them are dead (No, not vampires, and not zombies--dead). These ideas sneak in while you're busy running alongside the story. Did I mention I love this kind of book?
Plenty of unlikely events are, thanks to the quality of the writing, entirely believable. But much of the plot hovers just on the edge of credulity, adding to the tension. If the book has a weakness, it is the characters. I was very interested in finding out what happens to them, but I didn't feel much of an emotional connection to them. Perhaps this is, in part, because the characters themselves are so disconnected from their own emotions that much of the book involves them figuring out how they feel about each other and themselves.
Home Fires ends with many satisfying answers, and some brand-new questions. I immediately wanted to read it again, to get a second look at some of the ideas I hadn't grasped fully when they first presented themselves. This strange, surprising book is clearly written by a master. Although definitely not a book for everyone, I think Home Fires is great fun, and well worth the work involved on the reader's part.
This review was originally published in March 2011, and has been updated for the January 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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