A Borrowed Man: a new science fiction novel from Gene Wolfe, the celebrated author of the Book of the New Sun series.
It is perhaps a hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, there are robots, and there are clones.
E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person. He is a clone who lives on a third-tier shelf in a public library, and his personality is an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human. A wealthy patron, Colette Coldbrook, takes him from the library because he is the surviving personality of the author of Murder on Mars. A physical copy of that book was in the possession of her murdered father, and it contains an important secret, the key to immense family wealth. It is lost, and Colette is afraid of the police. She borrows Smithe to help her find the book and to find out what the secret is. And then the plot gets complicated.
What are you getting here?
First off, this is an entertaining Chandleresque detective story in the classic mould, albeit with a futuristic setting. Everything is present and correct and beautifully executed: there are mysteries to be solved, witnesses to be interviewed, thuggish cops to be outwitted and even a gorgeous femme fatale. There are clues to be found and followed and, at the end of the book, the detective hero gives us a thoroughly logical and satisfying solution to the puzzle.
On that basis alone, this is well worth listening to.
But, as always with Wolfe, there is a lot more going on. This is a science fiction novel and there are big ideas lurking around corners and surprising technological marvels to be encountered.
And, as if that were not enough, there are deeply disturbing issues moving quietly beneath the bright surface of the story which give this novel a haunting and memorable depth.
The young hero, E. A. Smithe, is a human recloned from the cells of a dead mystery novelist, programmed with his forebear's memories and sculpted to look like his former self as an older man. He has been sterilised and his brain has been hacked so that, whatever his thoughts, he can only speak in the stilted language of the author's expository prose. Worst of all, he is now a property rather than a person and is owned by a public library which literally keeps him on a shelf, where he may be consulted or even taken out and borrowed. And he is not allowed to write.
How Smithe gets round these barriers and survives in a brutal and dystopian society where he theoretically cannot own anything and is legally regarded as less than human forms the narrative and emotional core of the novel.
This is the future as seen from the bottom of the pile, John Steinbeck as much as Raymond Chandler, as good as either and thoroughly and distinctively Gene Wolfe.
The narrator for this audio edition has a tough challenge in that he has to capture both the artificiality of the hero's speech and the colloquialism of his thoughts. As you can see from their reviews on Amazon.com, some listeners have been dissatisfied with his efforts, but while it was undoubtedly strange at first, this listener soon got used to the reader's deliberately stilted diction and thoroughly enjoyed the audio experience.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
The idea of a borrowed man, and with it the speculative premise that drives this story, are certainly worthy of Wolfe's genius. The protagonist and first-person narrator admits from the outset that, in fact as in law, he is not fully human. The story bears this judgment out in various interesting and poignant ways, but despite the limitations built into him, he's a very appealing character. His story has a good arc, too, though it suffers from a number of the sorts of continuity errors that drive me to distraction.
The narrator's intensity level ranges from breathless fascination to near panic, and listening to him for any length of time is exhausting. All of the character voices are equally over the top, either stentorian or histrionic. Chill out, dude.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
Gene Wolfe becomes a different writer depending on the story he wants to tell. Here he wants to involve us in a Mystery set in a Science Fiction universe. The mystery starts out as “what happened to the money” and then becomes “who done it?” The SF element is flying cars and androids who think they are Mystery writers and poets. The android Mystery writer Ernest Smithe character is wonderful, just wonderful. Pay close attention to the contrast between his gritty pulp crime-novel thoughts and his third person Mystery writer speech pattern. Wolfe makes this internal war of words inside Smithe’s head an on-going gag throughout the novel and is very enjoyable to follow. Smithe—being an android reconstruction of a famous Mystery writer—should behave just like the real Ernest Smithe would have; the fact that he does not, provides much of the intrigue in the book. Just when you think you have Ern figured out, he will do something surprising. Trying to explain his motivations kept my interest level high throughout the novel.
I did a Power Read™ on this new Gene Wolfe novel using the Kindle version. I use this term to indicate reading the text of the book while listening to the audiobook. I can recommend this as the best way to assimilate a new novel. It provides two discrete information pathways into the brain occurring in parallel. It is akin to reading the book twice. I find that I read faster than the narrator speaks so my mind has time to process the material just before I hear the narrator speaking the same words into my ear. This does two things: First, it forces me to slow down and look at each word—vitally important in a Gene Wolfe book. Secondly, hearing the narrator forces me to process the words through the auditory part of my brain and merge then with what I am reading. Often the narrator will employ a slightly different pronunciation of a word causing that particular word to receive an extra measure of mental attention. This method does require a great seal of concentration but every time I have done this I have had a fantastic experience and was able to comprehend the book being read for the first time as if I had read it twice.
Kevin T. Collins is the narrator and seems to me to be a poor choice for the material. He read much too slowly for my taste and I found his exaggeratedly precise diction to be more of a curse than a blessing. But there were some blessings. I can honestly compliment Collins for his accurate reading of the text. In one place one of the character names is misspelled and Collins reads the misspelled name verbatim. This level of accuracy does help with proof-reading, and I did manage to find several slight discrepancies between the Kindle version and the Audible, thanks in part to Collin’s precision. His reading is so earnest as to be distracting. He does speak in a slightly different voice for some of the different characters and these help in differentiating the speaker. This book seems to be written in a sort of tongue-in-cheek style and could really benefit from a more dramatic performance. The only way I can recommend Collins’ narration is to read along with the text while listening. Listening alone to this book would detract from the overall experience. All the sarcasm and Mystery writer voice-over grittiness is completely absent from Collins’ narration. You would get more of the true feel of the book by reading it than by listening to Collins read it to you.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
Clones that aren't considered human, not allowed to marry or have personal lives. Was very surprised at the ending. It was a tad tedious with the stilted talking of the borrowed man although I understand the premise behind it. I Would love a sequel. I intend to listen again in the future.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
Great story, but sadly it's narrated by Kevin T Collins. The reverb is terrible, his reading is stilted and as usual he mispronounces names and basic english words. If I had known he was the narrator I would not have purchased this, but as a big Gene Wolfe fan, I didn't look beforehand.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I can't really give a fair review of the story because I found the narrator so irritating that I didn't make it past the 4th chapter. He over enunciates everything and inserts awkward pauses after every 3 or 4 words. It was somewhat like listening to someone read something in a language they were just learning. It was so distracting that I couldn't even follow the story. I might try this one again in print, but there's no way I can finish the audible version.
5 of 7 people found this review helpful
Generally I love Gene Wolfe, but maybe I've grown out of him. Normally I feel her had an uncanny sense of how technology reveals the monsters hiding in our humanity - or visa versa, but this felt more like a short story packed or to fill a novel. The motives of the characters flail wildly between obvious and completely disjointed from the story.
When all was said and done I was left thinking that there were some nifty ideas presented, but they were never played with to any degree to that made the predictable storyline seem worth it.
Part murder mystery, part classic gene wolf, part critique of modern society, class and identity in society.
just wow! I'm liking this blend of wolfe's style with the detective story.Voice acting was a little wooden and lacking emotion but it didnt bother me after a while. still, i may have enjoyed reading it more. This is my favorite of his books so far.
E.A. Smithe is a reclone--a clone of, in his case, a dead mystery writer, with the writer's recorded personality and memories uploaded to him. He's not a legal person, but a piece of property, specifically the property of a local library. He lives on a "shelf"--a three-walled room--at the library, and patrons can consult or borrow him.
Which is what Colette Coldbrook does.
She's trying to find the secret she believes must be hidden in the book her brother found in their father's safe--Murder on Mars by (the original) E.A. Smithe. Her father had gone from midlevel executive to widely respected financial genius--but where his original capital came from remains mysterious. Now he's dead, and her brother was murdered, apparently for the book, and Colette wants to find answers.
The story she tells is confusing, but she really is being pursued by quite dangerous people. The current E.A. Smithe has lived a very sheltered life, but he has his original's memories of writing--and researching murder mysteries, and despite a mild, professorial manner, he's not easily intimidated or confused.
And he's very, very observant.
He also has his own agenda--remaining valuable enough that he won't be deaccessioned and disposed of.
Calling this a nicely intricate tale will be recognized as an understatement by anyone familiar with Wolfe's work, and his use of the English language remains as beautiful as ever. The plot moves, and the characters, not just Smithe himself but Colette, the friends Smithe finds, and others along the way are developed and interesting. You'll be confused until the end, and you'll enjoy the ride.
I received a free copy of the audiobook from Audible in exchange for an honest review.
4.5 out of 5
Smithe is a clone, he is a clone of a long-deceased mystery writer. This is a story about him, and that writer… If I tell you much more it’ll give away too much!
Kevin T. Collins is a tour de force again in this novel. His narration is the reason I liked the book as much as I did. Another wonderful job done by him and the Audible Studios crew. Quality is as you would expect, flawless with no issues or qualms.
I love Sci-Fi, and I can take-or-leave Mystery books, but when they are weaved together like Wolfe has accomplished with A Borrowed Man, I love the both of them equally. The story was one of those “whats around the next corner” page-turners that you just don’t see anymore. Well, I can’t really call it a page turner when I listened to the audiobook, but still I couldn’t put my headphones down and found myself staying up late a few nights so that I could finish this.
Due to the mystery nature of this book, I cannot reveal much out about the story because it will give too much away, just know that almost all of your questions throughout will be answered by the time the novel finishes.
I don’t know how I had never heard of Gene Wolfe before, but I can tell you I will think of him more now. I will definitely be checking into some of his older books and adding them to my to be read piles.