A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘A Borrowed Man’


The most recent of Gene Wolfe’s novels, A Borrowed Man, published in 2015, is another first-person narrative, tending towards the incapable writer approach of which I complained last time. This is told by Ernie A Smithe, a reclone. The difference between reclones and clones is never explained, but as set out in the book, they appear to operate on a similar basis as Vanessa Hennesy in Home Fires, save that the reclones are grown before having a brain scan impressed upon them.
Reclones appear to only be writers. They have no individual legal status in a society that has all but foregone paper books. In effect, the reclone is the book, and is stored in a Library from which they can be checked out. Literally, they live on shelves, in small and spartanly-appointed ‘apartments’.
Ernie, or the original, flesh and blood Ernie, was a writer of mystery stories, unsuccessful in life, his books all but disappeared. He rarely gets borrowed, but then not many reclones do get borrowed, and it seems he is on the path towards eventual withdrawal from circulation which, just like an unwanted physical book, involves burning.
The world of the book is very different to ours, and as usual Wolfe makes few direct references to the distinctions. According to the book jacket, the story takes place in the Twenty-Second century, and humanity, at least in the equivalent of America, lives in towns of presumably smaller size, whilst the cities are ruined and abandoned.
We’re told that the Earth’s population is now about a billion, as opposed to the 57.7 billion of 2019, but that people still believe that to be too high and want to reduce it to half that size (Wolfe, a devout Catholic, makes no outward sign of disturbance at this). Reclones do not count in this number: they are property, not people. They are forbidden possessions, any form of independent life and, worst of all, given they are all writers, they are barred from writing: mental regulators prevent them from doing so.
Ern, or Ernie or Smithe, however you call him, exists 137 years after the life of his original. ‘He’ was once married to, then divorced from, poet Arabella Lee, who he still loves, and two contrastingly-behaving reclones of whom he meets during the story. Which starts with Ernie being borrowed by Collette Coldbrook, an attractive young woman with violet eyes to die for. She’s the daughter of financial wizard Conrad Coldbrook Senior, who has recently died naturally, and the sister of Conrad Coldbrook Junior, who has even more recently died unnaturally. The only thing in Conrad Senior’s highly secure safe, when it was opened, was a copy of (original) Ernie’s book, ‘Murder on Mars’.
Collette wants Ernie, as a former writer of mystery fiction, to unravel the secret the book contains or represents. There are other parties interested in the secret, and at various points Collette and Ernie are attacked in Collette’s apartment and stripped naked, Collette is abducted, and Ernie borrowed by a pair named Payne and Fish, who beat him for all manner of answers about the Coldbrook family.
When it comes to Ernie’s book, it appears that not only may no other copy of it exist, but that it’s existence has been wiped completely from all consultable records.
Once Collette is apparently abducted – though this turns out to actually be taken into custody by Dane van Patten, another official ‘tough guy’ whose role is less cop than Tax Collector – Ernie obligingly checks himself back into the nearest library, before being sent back to his home Library. Payne and Fish borrow him, out for all manner of information on the Coldbrook family.
Ernie eventually escapes, and goes on the run, so to speak, picking up a couple of drifters along the way, Georges (a pseudonym for a former Police Captain) and his mute companion, Mahala who, if taken, will be committed to an institute because she cannot speak: apparently, the world requires protection from the sight of imperfect people.
Ernie takes them to the Coldbrook family home where, without ever taking them properly into his confidence, he uses their skills to investigate the murder mystery. In an awkward twist, the mystery turns out to be that Conrad Senior has discovered or created a spacial portal to a distant planet, which he keeps in an upstairs room, where he has discovered an emerald mine. It’s simultaneously a stretch to incorporate such a notion, impeccably SF though it may be, into a dystopic future-Earth milieu, and actually a bit banal.
Unfortunately, and especially once Ernie, Georges and Mahala get together, there are yet more and more pages of conversations assessing means, motives and evidence for and against theories about what other people have done, or may have done. I was tired of it in The Land Across and my receptivity to it has not increased in A Borrowed Man, which is also a rather more lightweight, and shorter piece of fiction than its predecessor.
Along the way, and typically without attention being drawn to it, it becomes apparent that Conrad Coldbrook, Junior died before Senior, and not after, as Collette had led Ernie to believe. The book’s ending has Ernie explaining whodunnit, not to the cast in the Library, but to the murderess on her own: Junior thought Senior dead and went into his Laboratory, the angry Senior strangled Junior in front of Collette, who then poisoned him.
In order that this reveal not be exposed to the authorities, all Collette has to do is check Ernie out for a couple of days, once a year. That way, he’ll be kept indefinitely, and not burned. And so it ends.
A Borrowed Man was Wolfe’s 31st and, it appears, last novel. Soon after it came out, his Wikipedia entry was referring to a sequel, Interlibrary Loan, for publication in 2016, but that disappeared a very long time ago. A couple of years back, I heard that Wolfe was writing it, but not for publication. There are no new references to it online.
Gene Wolfe is now 87. He’s undergone quadruple bypass heart surgery, and lost his wife of sixty years, Rosemary, first to Alzheimer’s then to death. It does not appear that he will write anything more.
What we have is good enough for any one man’s lifetime. If some of the books towards the end are weak in comparison with his major works, if I’ve been critical of books that, for various reasons have not worked for me, everything Wolfe has written is worthy of investigation. He is at the least intriguing, and even in the weakest book, there are hidden puzzles for the reader to tease out, puzzles that Wolfe will take with him, unconfirmed, when we lose one of the greatest writers we have had.

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