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PS Publishing edition of "A Borrowed Man"

A Weird Mystery: James Wynn considers Gene Wolfe’s ‘A Borrowed Man’

Please note that the following piece, which sets out to discuss the plot of A Borrowed Man as well as describing and evaluating it, inevitably includes spoilers.


“Motivations. The reasons why people act. Motivations are always important, and I haven’t been thinking nearly enough about them.” ~ E. A. Smithe (A Borrowed Man (ABM), chapter 16, page 253 – this, and all other references, are to the Tor hardback first edition, October 2015.)

A Borrowed Man is about a young man with the face and memories of an old man, a writer who is prohibited from writing and is now an artefact on a library shelf. In short, Ern A. Smithe (just Smith with a silent “e”) is a proxy for Gene Wolfe himself (silent “e”, right?) as Wolfe considers his own legacy at the end of his life.

I can certainly sympathize with Smithe’s dissatisfaction at looking at his own face in the mirror. I have reached an age myself when the face in the mirror shows more clearly the face of the old man I will soon become than the face of the young man I am familiar with.

In Wolfe’s early career, his novels focused on the structure of story; later, on character. With A Borrowed Man, Wolfe seems interested in the nature of narrative voice, that is, the spoken voice of the character, as opposed to the voice of the writer or the inner voice of the narrator. Let me explain.

Smithe is a reclone — a body grown in the twenty-second century with the memories of a man who lived in the twenty-first. The body has been modified to look like the original Smithe at the most famous point in his career. His mind has been imprinted with E. A. Smithe’s memories.

As such, Smithe has no more legal rights and protections than any other reference work. If people do not consult him, eventually he will be physically destroyed, unless the library can find a bargain buyer. And, again, despite his appearance, as a reclone, he’s actually only a few years old, in the body of a young man altered to appear older.

1: Voices, Names and McGuffins

Smithe has been modified so that he can only speak in the formal, stilted way that his genetic original wrote prose. His thoughts are free but he is artificially disabled from saying them out loud. Only in writing can he express his thoughts —but he is prohibited from writing. As the novel’s narrator, though, he does it anyway after the library is closed. When Smithe’s prose in this book describes a woman’s “tits” or uses other crude vernacular, it is not a failed attempt by Wolfe the author to get a PG-13 rating on his story. He is demonstrating the difference between Smithe’s mental voice and his literary speaking voice, which is not capable of such expressions. Like the “e” at the end of his name, Smithe’s true voice is silent.

And he is not the only one. One of the confederates Smithe collects during his investigation, Georges Fevre, also has an unspoken letter at the end of both his names. His wife Mahala is mute – a physical defect that effectively makes her a wanted criminal in the novel’s eugenic dystopia – and her only voice is the one she generates with a speech synthesiser on her “screen” technology.

Wolfe seems to be conveying that “voice” – getting a character’s voice right— is more than having them use special words or accents. It’s also about extracting from them things they would never say, either because they wouldn’t talk that way or because they wouldn’t know to say them. But the unspoken is key.

I have theories about silent letters at the end of characters’ names, but let’s save them for later.

Regarding Ern A. Smithe’s name, John Clute has pointed out that “Ern” suggests that Smithe is an urn, a container for the remains of a dead man (Strange Horizons – Scores, 2 Nov 2015). But I propose that it is also a reference to the true genre of this story: it is a Weird Fiction Detective novel. As such, E. A. Smithe, as his name suggests, is a cut-out for and combination of Edgar Allan (“E. A.”) Poe and Clark Ashton Smith.

Poe is often credited with founding the modern detective genre with stories such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), recounting the cases of French sleuth C. Auguste Dupin. Poe also wrote weird fiction and poetry. His last complete poem was entitled “Annabel Lee”. It describes the narrator’s love for his dead sweetheart, the eponymous Annabel Lee. It is surely no coincidence that in A Borrowed Man, Smithe’s long-dead ex-wife, whom he still adores and whose reclones he encounters in the course of the novel, carries the evocative name of Arabella Lee.1

Weird fiction author C.A. Smith was a writer, like E. A. Smithe, whose prose was also highly distinct from the way he (or anybody) actually talked. In case anybody misses the connection between Smith and Smithe, Wolfe has the reclone of Ern’s ex-wife Arabella quote from a poem by Clark Ashton Smith in the final chapter of the novel. She describes him as “terribly morbid, but good.” (ABM, ch 18, p 285)

The McGuffin of this story is E. A. Smithe’s own novel, Murder On Mars, which the original Smithe supposedly wrote after his memories were scanned, so our protagonist has no direct knowledge of it. Like Wolfe’s most famous novel, The Book of the New Sun, Murder On Mars was originally intended as a short story. Additionally, Murder on Mars was published by a married couple who ran a small publishing house, who seem vaguely reminiscent of George and Jan O’Nale of Cheap Street Publications, who published a series of Wolfe editions.2 However, it could be that this reference is irrelevant to the plot if the book was never written by the original Smithe at all, but I’ll address that question later.

2: My Duty as a Reviewer

From this reader’s point of view, the novel drags in the middle. This is not a horrible problem because it’s a short novel – eighteen chapters. The culprit is Wolfe’s decision to convey most of the exposition through character conversations. But context is important: from his earliest stories onwards, Wolfe the writer always followed an inner taskmaster in his writing, building stories according to his own compulsions and following requirements that no one else asked of him. The well-being of us woeful readers was always a secondary consideration. So, if A Borrowed Man is your first Wolfe novel and you finished it feeling as if Wolfe had written it in a coded language to some unknown reader—if it feels like you were supposed to know something that completely slipped through your education—well, let me introduce you to my shelves of Wolfe stories.

In a 1971 review, Joanna Russ noted in Wolfe’s first novel, Operation Ares, his “interesting technique of presenting things obliquely; big events happen off-stage, and often the explanations for events will be given long after the events themselves”, and how this provides an “intense concentration on the present moment.” (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1971)  Almost fifty years later, we understand that Russ had already identified the very essence of Wolfe’s style. While fans of his earliest novels have lamented that the later Wolfe “didn’t write novels like he used to,” it’s important to note that, well, actually, yes he did. All that Russ noted in 1971 was present in The Book of the New Sun and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and it is present in A Borrowed Man as well. Although he might not have been writing the novels we wanted him to write, I doubt Wolfe would ever have internalized our complaint.

Still, it drags in the middle. As others have noted, driving the plot and exposition through dialog is not unprecedented. It’s the structure of detective novels from Dashiell Hammett3 to Elmore Leonard. Paragraphs that would be quoted by readers forever if they were written as Proustian asides are, instead, embedded in conversations. Wolfe has opted to convey most of the story from behind the unreliable voice masks of the narrator and secondary characters rather than through his famous emotional prose. As a writer, this is a smart choice on his part since it avoids his own authorial voice becoming open to parody as has happened to H. P. Lovecraft and others. Wolfe had a prolific writing career spanning over 50 years. He was going to try other things.

On the other hand, Sam Spade stories don’t take place in the future and don’t, therefore, have the requirements of world-building. So, unless it can someday be determined that the detailed scene of the recloned Smithe learning to drive a contemporary car actually contains a deep insight into the plot, moments like that pull the story down when the reader only wants to move on. Perhaps there were things worth cutting even in this little novel. This could have been a problem for writers like Wolfe and E. A. Smithe who weren’t “edited a lot.” (ABM, chapter 1, page 25)

Another problem is that Wolfe’s earlier and more acclaimed novels can be enjoyed at the surface level. There are unresolved mysteries upon close inspection, but there are few show-stoppers in the plot. This is not necessarily true in this novel. There are significant plot-mysteries – mysteries that are positively not authorial mistakes – that are obvious even upon a first reading and are without easy resolutions. This might make A Borrowed Man a harder sell for anyone but established fans who have arrived at this party with their own shovels in hand.

Speaking of world-building, although the novel takes place in the twenty-second century, the clones, robot/AI servants, and flying cars are the only notable advancements. Beyond these, it’s much like our current world – or even less advanced. The adroit use of a search engine is treated as an extraordinary skill. But it might be that this is intentional. I’ll address that in my theory “Reclones and Silent Letters.”

3: Theory 1 – Reclones and Silent Letters

Every named reclone in the library has an unvoiced letter at the end of one of their names: Smithe, Lee, and Millie.4 I don’t mean to argue that this is some legal rule for reclones in this world. This is a signal by the author along the same lines that he employs symbology, allusion, and the naming of characters throughout his body of work.

If that is the case, then we need to take note of the other characters who overtly follow the pattern: Georges Fevre (the first name pronounced zhorzh and the last, probably, fehver or fever) and the Carole women: Colette Carole Coldbrook, Joanne Rebecca Carole Coldbrook (Colette’s mother) and Alice Carole (Colette’s grandmother).

What if recloning is far more common than society acknowledges? What if the reason Earth’s population has decreased by six sevenths in a century and a half is that much of humanity has given up on having children and only wishes to give birth to themselves via recloning? This same world-wide population collapse is a feature of Wolfe’s story “The Doctor of Death Island”, which might be an important touchstone to this novel’s sequel Interlibrary Loan. Anyway, the Carole women all seem to be reclones and are appropriately named in birth order: Alice, Joanne Rebecca (Becky), and Colette, that is, A, B, C.

Note that a reclone does not need to look at all like the original. In fact, that normally would never happen. In a transhumanist world, why not improve your looks, intelligence, and other aptitudes if you can? Although we learn in the sequel that Smithe’s body was grown from the original’s DNA, it was altered to look middle-aged and library reclones have to be careful not to gain or lose too much weight and mar the illusion.

One of the most insightful and sad passages of the novel is Smithe’s assessment of humanity in this time in which he was… “brought back?” Smithe uses that term, but it is the wrong one given the sentiment of this story and Smithe’s repeated assessment of himself. Rather… “the time in which he was built.”

“This is full humanity’s retirement. I have sensed that ever since they brought me back, and now I understand what it is that I was sensing. […] I mean real humanity has retired. That’s what we’re seeing, the meaning of all the new places we’re being chauffeured through. They chipped flint and made fire and exterminated the short-faced bears with nothing but spears and clubs, even though those were probably the most dangerous animals real humanity has ever faced. They had children and more children, and those children spread out and did the same and more until real humans were everywhere. The Arctic5 was a waste of deadly cold, but they were there. There was no jungle so hot, so wet, so disease-ridden that they didn’t live in it. Some of them lived in caves of radioactive rock. The oldest died in their thirties, but they were born and grew up and gathered and hunted and died there anyway. (ABM, chapter 8, pages 112-113)

This is the state of the humanity Smithe encounters less than 200 years hence, a humanity that is relinquishing its claim to the future in favor of its artifices: reclones, AIs, and robots. The motive for recloning oneself would be the motive for most transhumanist movements:  immortality. But A Borrowed Man’s perspective on this is that it is a fool’s bargain. Smithe never seems under any delusion that he IS, in any real sense, a continuation of the original writer whose memories he carries, despite his casual use of language that implies he is.

This is a disparagement that Wolfe continues from his late novel Home Fires (2010), which includes a character whose brain has been modified for the same purpose as the library resources in A Borrowed Man. Near the end of that novel, the protagonist defines the procedure as damaging a person’s brain so that they think they are someone else. In one of his last major interviews, Wolfe took an indirect but damning swipe at transhumanist immortality in his praise of Algis Budry’s novels.

“The plot of Rogue Moon is striking: Budrys tells us that if you destroyed a man here and reconstituted him somewhere else, you’re fooling yourself if you think that the reconstituted man is the same as the original man. The man who goes into the matter transmitter is going to go dark; he’s going to die. You can create a new man with the memories of the dead man; but that doesn’t mean that the dead man is still alive. The dead man is dead.” (MIT Technology Review, July 25, 2014)

As I mentioned, A Borrowed Man has been criticized for its failed futuristic world-building, in that, aside from the flying cars and recloning technology, it’s really not that different from life at the time of its publication in 2015. It seems to me that this is not evidence that the octogenarian author had fallen out of touch with modern technology but rather that, in the world of the novel, human technology has been stuck in the same place for a very long time. Following the discovery of scanning and recloning, humans ceased to thrive and populations began to decline. A society of reclones is a highly conservative one, one that prefers things to remain as they have been because that is the fundamental purpose of transhumanism and immortality: an aggressive assurance that the earlier generations will remain to influence the future.

Aside from the unhealthiness of the practice and the attitudes behind it, Smithe’s twenty-second century has developed other concomitant injustices toward people not meeting standards of artificial perfection and toward the reclones themselves, who are legally relegated to the status of property. In a world where the standard is artificially designed perfection, it is not only actual physical defects that will face discrimination. Natural healthy human features will be seen as defects as well. Twenty-second century humanity is making true humanity illegal and disability a crime, as we see in the case of Mahala, who must live as a fugitive for being mute. At the same time, ostensibly, it holds reclones, who simulate true humanity, in contempt.

Smithe says that “full humans” can always quickly detect a reclone, but that is only true for library reclones, who talk with the stilted, artificial affectations of the written word – perhaps without the “ahs” and “ums” that characterize normal speech patterns. In the sequel, we’ll learn that library reclones do not have the perfectly symmetrical faces that are considered the default for “fully humans.” Reclones without these limitations would not be detectable, and some might not even comprehend what they were.

Georges Fevre likely does understand what he is. When Smithe confronts him with his past as “George Franklin”, Georges assures him, emphatically, that his former employers, the police, have no further interest in him:

“Believe me, they don’t want me. They’ve had me, and they’re through with me.” (ABM, chapter 15,  page 237)

I propose that he is so confident of this because they have murdered George Franklin. But before they did, however, George recloned himself. It is possible he even extended his reclone by adding additional memories from other people. If so, that is why Georges has knowledge and skills beyond those of a mere policeman. It seems that George Franklin did take steps to have his reclone look just like himself. If so, Georges might have been one of Franklin’s tools to commit his crimes and to generate alibis.

This also puts a speculative light on characters like the police officer, Payne (with a silent ‘e’), who tortured Smithe in the safehouse.

4: Theory 2 – The Coldbrook Family

Let’s stack another theory upon my reclone theory.

I have proposed that the Carole women, Colette, her mother and grandmother, are reclones. If so, does Colette know? She might, or she might have figured it out and realised that her memories of playing with Cob are those of her mother playing with Conrad Sr.

There are other ways to go at it as well.

There are suggestions that Cob is not Conrad’s natural son. The casual murder of Cob is a hint in itself. Smithe points out that the murder of a son by his father is the rarest of all homicides. Conrad Sr did not murder Cob to reclaim either the book or the money from the emeralds. He did not search Cob’s suitcase afterward. His motivation was something else, possibly a personal one. We’re in dicey territory here but it is a task that the author has explicitly set for us. As Smithe said, motivations are important.

If Cob is Conrad’s reclone, then a possible motive for making him, perhaps with the assistance of Alice Carole, would have been a desire for immortality. This would then resolve the question of why Conrad treats Cob with such coolness during his life and why, ultimately, he displays such cruelty over a reasonable and inconsequential mistake: Cob was constructed to be Conrad’s replacement. Conrad had even taken steps to make Cob handsome while he himself had been homely. Both the Coldbrook children were constructed to replace their “parents.” But, Conrad held his own replacement in envious contempt. So, perhaps when he saw Cob take his place prematurely, he murdered him. The plan wasn’t as appealing in reality as it was in abstract. He disposed of him casually, because in Conrad’s culture, Cob was not “fully human” anyway. Perhaps he had decided that he would marry Colette instead.

There are other possible motives of course.

This opens the question of whether Conrad also murdered Joanne Becky Coldbrook, Colette’s mother, as her death, too, is shrouded in mystery. Or it might have been Colette, the poisoner, who did it, as her supplanter.

There is no evidence of a previous version of Conrad Sr. The plan was for Junior to replace him upon his death and become “Senior”.  As Colette put it:

“My brother was Conrad, Junior, while my father was alive. When father died he dropped the Junior.” (ABM chapter 2, page 31)

The idea of a person constructing a reclone to take their own place would explain Conrad Jr’s nickname: Cob. Cob is a nickname for Jacob, a name of Hebrew origin that means “supplanter” (Strong’s Hebrew Concordance). The Jacob of Genesis was a younger twin. When his elder brother, Esau, was born, Jacob was grasping his heel. Esau sold his birthright to Jacob on a whim for a pot of beans, just as humanity in A Borrowed Man is selling away its future to reclones, AIs, and robots for a vain sort of immortality. And in the end, Jacob connived to steal away his brother’s paternal blessing, thereby earning Esau’s murderous resentment. This is, analogously, the story of Conrad and Cob, and of humanity and their things. Additionally, Colette and Cob’s “mother’s” middle name is Rebecca, the name of Esau and Jacob’s mother.

5: Theory 3 – The Second Book

One fact that is repeatedly verified in A Borrowed Man is that there is only one extant copy, in any form, of the E. A. Smithe novel Murder on Mars. There is not even a record of the book having been written. Smithe himself has no memory of writing the book although he confirms that it appears to be one he might have written. The one existing copy was owned by Conrad Coldbrook, but there is an extensive discussion at the beginning of the novel about how easy it would be to create new copy of a book. And, frankly, absent a time-travel angle to this story, there is a second book. We know this because when Smithe first enters the jungle planet via a window (from which egress is impossible), he casually exits through the door into the house. The door immediately locks behind him.

The operation of the door is carefully detailed over many pages. There are two locks to the steel door: one on the Earth side and one on the planet side. One side of the book opens the Earth side and the other opens the planet side. Upon unlocking the door, after two minutes, the door automatically locks again.

From this, we have to conclude that when Smithe first exits through the jungle door to the Coldbrook house, someone must have entered or exited the jungle planet less than two minutes before. Smithe had previously hidden the book, so someone had a spare key.

Conrad Sr was missing when Cob opened the safe and found the book inside. There is hardly another explanation other than that Conrad was at the jungle planet mining emeralds. We learn near the end of the novel that Conrad returned with emeralds and discovered the others missing because Cob had found and sold them. So Conrad Sr had to have another book while he was planetside.

Let’s consider some counter scenarios to a second book.

It seems that Cob and Colette knew quite well what was behind those doors. Cob had seen it. What if Cob had attempted to murder Conrad by some unknown means, thought he had succeeded, and Conrad had returned to murder him in turn? That would be why he ambushed him from the closet rather than saying, “Hi, Cob, I’m back.”

The problem is that any theory about Conrad’s missing period that does not include the room involves so many undetailed plot threads that it isn’t even satisfying. It is far better to conclude that Conrad was missing because he was mining emeralds behind the door.

Then again, even if Cob had seen the jungle planet from the window, Colette could not have known how to enter it because she had to enlist Smithe as a desperate solution.

So there is a second book, but it is not at all clear what happened to it.

Another possibility for the origin of the book, however, is that it was written by another Smithe reclone. This brings us to my next theory.

6: Theory 4 – A Second Smithe, a Second Colette

If another Smithe wrote the book, then it is possible that that other one is still running around. If that one isn’t still active, Colette might still be working with another Smithe to solve the mystery. In Interlibrary Loan, the existence of other E. A. Smithe copies is an important plot point.

An additional Smithe opens the story to the resolution of a number of puzzles, such as the one which arises when the writer arrives at the Coldbrook house with Georges and Mahala, and Colette seems to be there:

Inside the house, I heard Colette speak, then scream. (ABM, chapter 10, page 154)

A search of the house does not reveal Colette. But what if the second Colette was her mother, Joanne Rebecca? And what if the second Smithe were with her? And the place they disappeared to was the Jungle room, since they might have known the secret and had the other book?

With multiple Smithes running around, a natural option for an experienced Wolfe-reader is a time-travel solution. Although there is a sentence that seems to hint to this, it is in fact a false path. When Smithe refers to his choice of a hiding place for the book, he says:

Even though I could not be sure when I hid it, I felt certain now that Colette was not likely to look there; so I had picked the best place. (ABM, chapter 18, page 274)

Rearranging the sentence helps clarify Smithe’s meaning: “I felt certain that Colette was not likely to look there, even though I could not be sure [of that] when I hid it.”

Smithe is only saying that he guessed correctly in selecting his hiding place. He does not have an internal editor when he is writing his sentences as he does when he is speaking. He could have used one here.

7: Theory 5 – The Second Miner

Someone has been mining at the cave after Conrad Sr’s death. Again, we are told that Conrad returned with emeralds after his long absence. And why wouldn’t he return with emeralds after all the work he did to excavate them? But when Smithe arrives at the mine for the first time, there are seven emeralds and a rifle there. Conrad might leave his rifle at the cave, but he would have no reason to leave the emeralds. So who has been mining after his death? Is it the same person who used the second book just before Smithe climbed into the window?

The identity of the miner is a mystery but I do think we know what happened to this person. When Smithe, Georges, and Mahala entered the jungle planet and stirred up the native population (the “scarecrows”), they fled through the door and sealed it up from the Earth side because they did not yet understand that the door locked from both sides.

Hearing the commotion, the second miner left the rifle and emeralds, ran for the door and found their way barred.

Colette seems an unlikely candidate for the unknown miner since she enlisted Smithe to figure out the book door. Van Petten, as well, doesn’t learn about the room at all until the end.

Another reasonable theory, since this is a Wolfe story, is that the copy of Murder on Mars that Smithe retrieves from his driftwood hiding place was actually the second copy used by the mysterious miner. But that still leaves the mystery of why the second miner left his rifle behind to go wandering. Smithe doesn’t. So, the final resting place of the book remains a mystery. Perhaps the other Smithe picked up our Smithe’s book, thinking it was his own. Maybe he escaped? Maybe he set out to sea to explore this new world.

If the miners were Joanne Rebecca and the second Smithe, that resolves the loose ends around “Colette’s scream” but the untold story gets more complicated.

Maybe all this speculation about the second Smithe is a dead-end. Maybe the second miner is Dr K. Justin Roglich (“rogue-lich” as in “rogue corpse”, or even “rogue-like”) who might have been more involved in the construction of the jungle room passage than he lets on. It doesn’t seem credible that Conrad Sr, a minor executive, could have constructed all this from a germ of an idea by an academic.

8: Conclusion

Whether you can enjoy this story casually depends on how you approach it. The temptation will be to approach it as a futuristic detective story. Read that way, I do not think this book can be enjoyed without effort. Wolfe-critics (and, yes, Wolfe has his critics) damn him with faint praise as a creator of complicated puzzles. As a detective novel, this is not a puzzle, it’s a finger-trap, a story with huge portions of the plot for the reader to actively fill in.

Smithe looks like the ideal vehicle for a Thirties-style detective franchise: a 21st century outsider observing declining humanity just before the end. At the same time, for better or worse, he is among the inheritors of the post-human world. Living on a knife’s edge, he holds his world in contempt without ever considering the option to escape from it or defy its unjust conventions, just like classic noir detectives in their cities of corruption.

Smithe does the opposite of escaping. When faced with the possibility of his world infecting the virginal jungle planet or other planets, he burns down the portal, locking himself in with what is left of humanity.

Smithe’s solution can also be found as a world-building element in The Book of the New Sun when the Old Autarch explains to Severian why the Heirogrammates reverted humanity to primitivism and ended their interstellar travel. He says that when humanity had access to starships, they “brought all the old wars of Urth with them, and in the young suns kindled new ones.” (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter XXV, “The Mercy of Agia”)

Given the anti-transhumanist themes in A Borrowed Man, it is also interesting that the Old Autarch at this point describes the goals of the Ascian slaves of the Megatherian Erebus as wanting “the race to become a single individual, the same, duplicated to the end of number.” He describes this intention as natural as it is perverted because each of us wants “to carry all the race and its longings within himself.” (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter XXV, “The Mercy of Agia”)

Smithe is our guide to the plight of the tragic people and near-people of his quickly emptying world, yet the characters in this book are viewed from such a great distance – as Wolfe’s stories prefer to view such characters—that understanding why they are so interesting takes a great deal of work. They can only be enjoyed well after the book has closed. And, to be honest, I have enjoyed them a great deal after finishing the story.

Wolfe had a gift for creating memorable characters. With a few lines of dialog he made them recognizable and intriguing: Dr Marsch, Louis A. Gold, Hildegrin, Talos, Typhon, Remora, Quetzel, Jahlee, Gideon Chase. There are characters like that here as well but – and this was his choice – Wolfe has so obscured everything that motivates them that they can’t come to life without the vigorous participation of the reader.

In a Wolfe detective novel, the reader is the detective as much as the protagonist. Still, a detective novel that leaves major elements of the plot unresolved for the reader is problematic.

But as a Weird Fiction novel – and that’s what this novel is, like most of Wolfe’s novels – unexplained plot is expected. And that is how a first-time reader should approach this story, like something by Clark Ashton Smith or H. P. Lovecraft. Who cares that the horror of the alchemist investigator was “unnamable?”

At the end of the novel, Smithe will sit upon his shelf, confident that he has evaded the fire again. There will be time enough in subsequent reads to spin the story of the second Smithe, with the copy of his book on the jungle planet.


Editor’s Notes

1. Wolfe’s connection to Poe goes back a long way. As a boy, he attended Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School in Huston, Texas.

2. Other candidates would include UK husband and wife team Peter and Nicky Crowther of PS Publishing, who published limited editions of Wolfe’s works later in his career, including the special edition of A Borrowed Man whose slipcase and front cover appear at the head of this review.

3. In the world of A Borrowed Man and its sequel, Wolfe refers to the city of Niagra as the Continental capital and to the national law enforcement agency as the Continental Police. At one level, this seems to be an oblique reference to the political amalgamation of the USA and Canada, and possibly of Mexico too, into a single political entity covering the whole North American continent following the unspecified political and environmental catastrophe which precedes the events of the two books and has led to the ruined cities which Smithe witnesses during the road trips he makes in A Borrowed Man. At another level, however, it seems to be an invocation of Dashiell Hammett, who created the fictional detective “the Continental Op”, an operative of the equally fictitious Continental Detective Agency. The ruthless Continental Police detectives Smithe encounters in A Borrowed Man are definitely of the “hard boiled” variety.

4. Ultan’s Library’s editorial representative differs from the reviewer as to what constitutes a silent letter, preferring to regard the double “e” in “Lee” and the “ie” in “Millie” as diphthongs, that is, single sounds represented in each case by a combination of two vowels.

5. The published text actually has “artic” here, which is clearly a typographical error for “Arctic”.


Review: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Operation ARES’


A Curiously Conflicted Book: Craig Brewer reviews ‘Interlibrary Loan’

1 Comment

  1. Michael Andre-Driussi

    Good job! I especially like the “everybody’s ersatz” social snapshot, which moves into a territory I associate with Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs at their most paranoid. To be sure, Urth has khaibits and whatnot, but this time the hero is a property-class entity himself.

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