Home Fires, the new book by Gene Wolfe, starts with a simple premise. A man awaits the imminent return of his true love from a stint in the military. Will she still love him? But of course, it’s more complicated than that. The beloved in question, Mastergunner Chelle Sea Blue, has been deployed in a far-off star system battling against an alien race called the Os. Thanks to the math of faster-than-light travel, a little more than two years will have passed for Chelle when she returns. For protagonist Skip Grison, the man awaiting her return, it’s been more than 20. Despite the decades, Skip’s love is undiminished, but will Chelle still be interested in a late-40s model of Skip? And what exactly is the perfect gift for a returning war hero? A cruise is a good start. Perhaps a reanimated version of her deceased mom?
Though the presence of interstellar travel, alien foes and reincarnation-capable brain scanning technology—among other things—clearly mark Home Fires as science fiction, Wolfe’s latest novel is more akin to classic detective fiction in pace and presentation. After the initial setup and the return of Chelle, Skip Grison finds himself trying to answer an expanding cascade of questions regarding Chelle, her “mother” and a multiplying cast of characters, all the while also trying to survive hostile hijackers, double agents and a woman scorned. Add whole swatches of back-and-forth dialogue largely uninterrupted by narrative exposition, and the feel of Home Fires is more Hammet than Bova.
Though by no means unprecedented, combining the two genres brings with it additional challenges. On one hand, in speculative fiction, the author must anticipate the reader’s need to get his or her bearings. How are things different? The same? What are the rules? Answer these questions too quickly or too completely, and you risk leaving the reader bored. Too slowly, and you may leave the reader disoriented or impatient. In either case, the book risks going unread. Add to this balancing act the demands placed on the reader from within the story by the mystery genre—like Skip Grison, the reader must try to figure out exactly what’s going on—and that fine line one must walk in speculative fiction is made finer, still.
But this is Gene Wolfe, an acclaimed master of speculative fiction. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before—and done well. As a result, pages turn, chapters fly by, and though the ending of Home Fires leaves plenty of unanswered questions—itself a hallmark of Wolfe’s fiction—most readers will only put this book down after it’s been finished. Or reread.