Gene Wolfe has won every major science fiction and fantasy award there is, including several lifetime achievement awards, though he is not without his critics (more on that in a bit). Best known for The Book of the New Sun (1980-83), Wolfe writes speculative fiction with a literary bent. His works are linguistically challenging and rich with allegory—Ursula K. Le Guin called him the Herman Melville of the genre. Of late he has abandoned messianic epics for more playful novels like this one, but A Borrowed Man is nevertheless unmistakably a Wolfe novel, for both good and ill.
In A Borrowed Man, Wolfe tries his hand at writing a detective novel, but a characteristically bizarre one. Set in the 22nd Century, the novel’s narrator, Ern A. Smithe, is a “borrowed man,” a cloned 21st-Century mystery writer who can be checked out of a library full of cloned writers.
Reclones are considered property, not people. A writer who is not regularly checked out gets discarded, a process involving an incinerator, so Smithe is pleased to be checked out by Colette Coldbrooke. Colette’s father is missing and her brother recently died under suspicious circumstances. She believes a clue to these mysteries is hidden in a book that was written by the original Smithe and hopes the recloned version can help her find it.
While Colette is alluring, Smithe’s heart belongs to his ex-wife Arabella Lee. A minor poet in her own time, she now lives on, like Smithe, as a reclone—or, more accurately, reclones. For there are multiple copies of both of them, and Smithe encounters more than one Arabella over the course of the novel. Their relationship remains as tumultuous now as it was in life.
Smithe’s voice is distinctive. During the cloning process, he was made to replicate the diction of his novels, which makes it impossible for him to speak informally. He informs his readers that the book we are reading was largely dictated, although he occasionally typed manually in order to get around this formality of language programmed into his speech.
A Borrowed Man matches the style of Wolfe’s earlier work. The book is heavy on dialogue, and so it moves along at a steady clip. Events that occur in the novel’s present will often be later analyzed through dialogue or narration, so that a scene’s full significance—or even just what exactly happened—won’t immediately be clear. This adds a layer of complexity and rewards close reading.
But not all of Wolfe’s trademarks are positive. The female characters in A Borrowed Man, as in most of Wolfe’s novels, are far less interesting and complex than their male counterparts. Although the book takes place in the 22nd Century, women—if they aren’t mute—speak like they’re in a black-and-white movie. At one point, Colette says without irony, “We women lie and lie, because we’re good at it.” She later laments, “And I’m just a woman.” When she is beaten, stripped naked and bound, she shares the fate of many a Wolfe heroine.
And although Smithe supposedly lived in the 21st Century, he seems more at home in the 1950s. He regularly makes generalities about women, such as his remarks upon their “reputation for curiosity.” At one point, he says, apropos of nothing, “Girls actually look sexier when you cannot see the whole breast,” which is an insight that must be directed to an audience that has never heard of Victoria’s Secret.
In the book’s most cringe-worthy scene, Smithe and a male driver discuss whether Smithe had crossed a line when, in their original lives, he had spanked Arabella. Despite her claims that the spanking was unwanted and “very, very hard,” the driver concludes, “That don’t count.” Neither, apparently, does a woman’s opinion.
It is a shame that, for all of his talents and half-a-century of novel-writing experience, Wolfe struggles to write female characters. And though he is capable of imagining truly fantastic worlds, the position of women in those worlds never changes. In 2015, this flaw is so distracting that it drowns the interesting things A Borrowed Man has to say—likely influenced by Wolfe’s Catholic faith—about important issues like slavery, population control, disability, pornography and resource depletion. But like Ern A. Smithe, Gene Wolfe is sadly a writer living outside of his own time.