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Home Fires by Gene Wolfe

01/08/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy Home Fires in the USA - or Buy Home Fires in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 287 page hardback. Price: $24.99 (US), $28.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2818-2.

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There seems to be a current vogue for using the major wars of the 20th century as a background for fantasy. Connie Willis in ‘Blackout’ has used the WWII while the narrator of Richard Matheson’s ‘Other Kingdoms’ experienced trench warfare in the battlefields of the Great War. It would be a mistake, therefore, to imagine that a book with the title ‘Home Fires’ would make use of the same source material. Titles can be misleading at the same time as being highly appropriate.

The setting is a far future Earth. Skip Grison is a successful and wealthy lawyer. He has just been told that the woman he loves, that he contracted with (a replacement for marriage) twenty years ago, is on her way home. Chelle joined the army and was shipped out to a distant planet to fight an alien race. Due to the time dilation of space travel, she has lived only two years to Skip’s twenty. She was badly injured and fixed using spare parts from other soldiers who were killed in the conflict. Skip is now looking forward to meeting his contracta with mixed feelings. He knows he still loves her but will she want the old man he sees himself as. He has also been warned that she will have been psychologically damaged by her experiences.

First, Skip has to decide what present a girl would most like in her situation. The solution is her mother, Vanessa, however, she has been dead for a number of years. Not an insurmountable problem as all her memories were recorded before her death. A company that specialises in data transfer is able transfer the memories to the brain of a woman willing to rent out her body for as long as Skip is willing to pay. To help Chelle adjust to her new situation and to discover whether she and Skip wish to stay together, they go on a cruise. While they are planning this, Vanessa is recognised and attacked. She disappears, to turn up again working on the cruise ship. While on shore seeing the sites, the ship gets hi-jacked by pirates. The story degenerates into a comicbook romp packed with spies, sexual shenanigans, kidnappings and mayhem. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Two things are going on in this book. First, there is the human examination of what happens when one partner is left behind (‘keeping the home fires burning’) while the other goes off into a conflict situation. The returnee has two problems to face, the trauma of their experiences and the false memories of the person they are returning to. The stay at home partner has to accept that the person who went away is not necessarily the same as the one who has returned. This is the relationship that Skip and Chelle have to resolve.

The book is also a homage to all those adventure stories of our youth and which are perpetuated in films, comics and computer games. There is a reversal of roles with Chelle as the action woman, trained for all situations, the female James Bond. Skip is the civilian dragged into the action and finding strengths he didn’t know he possessed. Achille is the wild card – you don’t know where he will turn up next. He is a handless beggar who knows the right people to buy guns from and who attaches himself to the party as they go in pursuit of the hi-jacked cruise liner.

It is hard to keep track of all the SF tropes that creep in to this novel. In other hands, it would look like a collection of clichés. The difference is that Wolfe knows what he is doing and gets away with it. This is a book that should be bought, read and enjoyed without reservation.

Pauline Morgan

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This book has 54 votes in the sci-fi charts

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