Gene Wolfe is famous for science fiction and fantasy novels that do a minimal amount of hand-holding. He often dispenses world-building details via brief bits of dialogue or narrative asides that readers may not even realize are important until much later. His plots can become almost impenetrably dense, as incident piles atop incident, and his characters are rarely spelled out in easy-to-digest chunks of text. Wolfe expects his readers to do the work, and when he’s on his game, there’s nothing like reading one of his books in either genre. His prose is vivid, his characters well-conceived, and his plots inspired. Unfortunately, when his books don’t work, they can feel like messy jumbles, like first drafts an editor was too terrified to rip apart.
Home Fires, his latest, awkwardly splits the difference. Wolfe’s central idea and central relationship are outstanding, but they aren’t enough to carry the entire book, so he starts tossing new twists out at dizzying speed. Some work, some fall flat. A strong beginning and ending are enough to save the novel, ultimately, but it’s a near thing.
Home Fires’ central characters are Skip Grison and Chelle Sea Blue, a young couple who fell in love in their mid-20s and “contracted,” the version of marriage that exists in Wolfe’s near-future world. (The words “husband” and “wife” are replaced by “contracto” and “contracta,” respectively.) Chelle is set to join the army, to fly off to the furthest reaches of space to fight the alien Os for the few habitable worlds either race has been able to find. Earth has banded together to fight the Os, but elements within humanity work against other humans on behalf of the Os, while the few remaining super-countries (including a North American union named Canam and a European Union ruled by sharia law) are trying to undercut each other all the same. Wolfe’s world is nasty and brutish, not a dystopia just yet, but well on its way toward becoming one.
Chelle’s army stint means she will be away for what appears as months to her, but will be 20 years to Skip. She pitches this as the best of both worlds: She’ll come back to a rich contracto, and he’ll have a contracta who’s still young and beautiful. But the plan inevitably begins to fray. So Skip and Chelle decide to take a cruise around the world, on a giant ship where there are more crew members than passengers, and the ship still uses sails. And here, the narrative begins to fall apart, as hijackers invade, explosions rip through the boat, and Skip tries to puzzle out just who wants whom dead. (At one point, an important character has been kidnapped, and Skip and various ship personnel stand around with a minor character discussing how the cruise line will provide restitution.)
And yet the center of the book is so good that it will likely be enough for most readers, and most Wolfe fans. Chelle and Skip’s relationship is vividly drawn, and every time Wolfe skews away from it, the book falls apart a little more. Similarly well drawn: Chelle’s mother, Vanessa, a woman who was dead until Skip brought her back at considerable expense, the better to greet her long-lost daughter. Home Fires is too busy here and there, but when it focuses on these ideas of how it can be possible to know someone you haven’t seen for decades, it grows deeply poignant.