A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Home Fires’

Whatever their other flaws, these latter-day Gene Wolfe books are far easier to read than the overlaid, multi-character, multi-dialect series of the Nineties and early Two Thousands. In the case of Home Fires, that’s only up to a point.
The book is closer to hard SF than anything Wolfe has written since his unregarded debut novel, Operation ARES. It’s set in a recognisable American setting, recognisable in being populated by familiar figures acting in ways that are recognisable to us, but in a future removed from us by a great gulf of time. It’s told mainly from the point of view of Skip Grisom (and that’s his real name), a middle-aged lawyer, who lives and practices in South Boswatch, which is part of the NAU or Northern American Union.
In a 1984-esque set-up, the world is now made-up of three great power-blocs, the NAU, the EU (hah-hah!) and Greater Eastlandia, who are engaged in a non-shooting war with each other. There is also the SAU, which is apparently negligible, being at war with itself.
The planet as a whole is engaged in an interplanetary war with aliens known as the Os (who do not directly appear), the two protagonists constantly on the search for habitable planets and fighting to be first to find, take and keep them.
At home, the NAU appears to suffer from over-population, massive unemployment, increased stratification of society, and, in the NAU at least, a much more draconian penal system in which there is an imperative to find accused people guilty and sentence them to execution so as to reduce the population. Nice world to live in, I don’t think.
The beauty of it is is that Wolfe’s world-building is deliberately sketchy and offhand. It hews to the refusal to ‘As you know’. Grisom lives in this future and refers to things in it as givens, in passing, just as we do not constantly tell our friends, neighbours, colleagues and loved ones that, for instance, Britain is a Monarchy, or that our governing body is called Parliament. The effect is impressionistic, avoiding detail that would bog the story down, and giving us a skeleton on which to build our own flesh.
Grisom is a very successful attorney, intelligent, astute, combative, instinctively given to analysis and cross-examination over the least little thing, a professional skill now turned into a lifelong habit. Twenty-three years ago, he and his girlfriend Chelle Sea Blue (pronounced Shell, and implied to be short for Shelley) were poor students. They came to a deal: he would build up a successful legal career and become rich, or at least well-off, and she would join the army, fight off-planet and, when rotated out of combat, due to time-dilation and FTL flight, she would return, still young and beautiful. They became contractors: a legal binding relationship that sits beside and has virtually replaced marriage.
Twenty-three years have passed on Earth for Grisom, three on the planet Johanna, or Gehenna as Grisom at one point miss(?)-calls it. Now she’s due back.
Grisom’s still very much in love with Chelle, but he’s equally aware that he is old compared to her, flabby, balding and off-putting physically. Though she left joking about returning a young contracta with a rich (sugar daddy) contracto, Grisom from the very first moment sees himself as bound to lose her. He isn’t attractive enough and, to put in with a crudeness Wolfe never uses, he’s too old to fuck her as often as her appetite will demand.
Nevertheless, he prepares for a wonderful life with her, a penthouse flat for them to live in, a long sea cruise on which to rediscover themselves and, as a special gift, Chelle’s mother, Vanessa Henessey.
There are complications that require explaining. Firstly, Chelle divorced her mother (and her father, Charles Blue) before enlisting. Secondly, Vanessa died five years after Chelle left Earth. This is another part of Wolfe’s future, Reanimation. Essentially, because everyone gets regularly and routinely brain-scanned, a person can be brought back from death by erasing the brain-patterns of a willing volunteer, and scanning a dead person onto their brain.
Vanessa Hennesey believes herself in every respect to be Vanessa Henessey. That her physical body once had an existence of its own (as one Edith Erkhardt) is merely an intellectual concept. But not to people who had dealings with Edith Erkhardt and attempt to kill her body.
Chelle isn’t aware of the truth abut her mother. She believes implicitly that that’s her, and the fact she hasn’t aged anything like enough years is down to her mother having been in space, inferredly as an Earth spy.
There’s a second complication, for Chelle is not wholly Chelle. She was caught in an explosion, seriously wounded, had to be rebuilt. Part of her is surviving tissue from someone called Jane Sims: Chelle talks in her sleep about Jane’s former lover, Don. Jane was a physicist, and some people believe that they can extract from Chelle secrets that Jane possessed.
One other thing: Grisom has not been faithful to his contracta (and it’s a stone-cold certainty that Chelle hasn’t been faithful to her contracto, though whether the concept of fidelity is as important in a marital-substitute relationship is a point on which Wolfe offers no clues). For the last nine years he has been having it off with his confidential secretary Susan Clerkin, who’s now in her mid-thirties, deeply in love with Grison and faced with the Damoclean sword of being dumped as soon as Chelle gets back ceasing to be a theoretical future.
That’s a lot of set-up, and this just covers the principal issues. Grisom and Chelle go on their cruise and, despite Chelle’s enthusiasm for his body, despite his fears, she quickly gets into a blazing row with him over her misimpression about Vanessa’s youth, and gets drunk and fucks someone of her own age in their stateroom.
Then they make up after discovering that Vanessa is no longer missing, feared dead, but has transmuted herself into Virginia Healey, Social Director on their cruise ship.
The book then transforms itself into its second phase, where it becomes a fast-paced action thriller. Grisom, Chelle and Virginia travel to meet a voodoo queen, who supplied the two women with guns. They return to find the ship has sailed early, and when they catch up with it, learn that this is because it has been hi-jacked (shades of Iain Banks’ Canal Dreams). Grisom becomes an unlikely leader in the fight back that eventually reclaims control of the ship This section too is sketchy, and the narrative continuity is disturbed by periods when Grisom is asleep, or unconscious.
At the end of this phase, Grisom is wounded in the head and unconscious for three days. Once he recovers, he starts cross-examining everyone he can speak to, reconstructing details of what happened whilst he was out, and indeed everything that he’s not personally seen. One of these things is that Chelle has hopped into bed with Mick Tooley, Grisom’s junior associate, a very resourceful lawyer, and another element of this partially-seen world given that successful young lawyers with a future ahead of them progress thanks to their ability to go all Die Hard Bruce Willis.
This, however, is where the book runs out of momentum and, indeed, collapses under its own weight. Everybody’s got secrets, things they’re not telling about, and Grisom’s determined to come up with explanations for everything. The last third of the book is not much more than a string of cross-examinations and speculations, until instead of the story growing clearer and more lucid, it is buried under skeins of conspiracy.
I’ve not yet mentioned one aspect of the book’s literary structure. It alternates between full-length chapters in the third person, built upon Grisom’s viewpoint, and brief interludes, headed ‘Reflections’, that are Grisom’s internal responses and thoughts about what the most recent events may involve.
But in the penultimate chapter, back in the NAU, showing off the penthouse home they’re not, after all, going to occupy, Grisom tells Chelle the truth about Vanessa. It provokes fury and revulsion and the end. The last chapter and the last Reflection are seen from Chelle, who has run off to Mick Tooley, and who reveals that her relationship with Skip was never one of love. It undermines everything the story has been about, and it impliedly places Grisom on a par with the parents Shelley Baines divorced.
And it doesn’t answer or divert the last twist, as Grisom joins the Army, as an attorney in the Judge Advocate’s Department. He’s going off-planet now. By the time he gets back, he and Chelle will be roughly the same age again…
This review has been substantially longer than many of my more recent Gene Wolfe essays, and yet there is an incredible amount of detail that I have left out. The story is, in myriad ways, much more complex than I have made it out to be, to the point where some of its connections begin to stretch plausibility. It is a good, impressionistic sketch of a future society relatable to ourselves but differing into uncountable ways, made up of constructions we put in place ourselves. It is a fast, impressionistic action thriller. But it is weighted down by a complicated and increasingly dull over-extended coda that burdens it with minutiae alien to the temper of the rest of the novel, and far too full of Wolfe’s Analytical Man, building true scenarios out of gossamer evidence and being conspicuously clever whilst claiming to be ignorant, and that is what relegates this book to the ranks of the final, fading works.