Borrowed Man Series
by Gene Wolfe
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 27, 2015
Edits & Addendum on May 21, 2020
A Borrowed Man / Interlibrary Loan
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Out of thirty Gene Wolfe novels I've read twenty-four. This is only the second time I've been disappointed. A re-read of A Borrowed Man is probably in order, since I know that the surface of a Wolfe story is usually not even half of what's going on, but on first look this one seems to be a fairly simple mystery story. There are multiple SF elements, but none are explored to their fullest extent, which is the most frustrating part. Several characters come and go quickly, others are around longer, and you expect them to be more relevant to the plot, yet they also disappear without a satisfactory explanation. There are minor hints throughout concerning the world's situation; lower population (about one billion), advanced technologies (flying cars, robot servants), miniature nuclear power plants for home use, etc. All of these cry out for further exploration, but Wolfe doesn't go there.
The title character isn't really a man in the strictest sense, at least not fully human by legal standards. E. A. Smithe is a clone of a mystery author of the previous century. He lives on a shelf in a library, and can be consulted by researchers or fans of his work, can even be checked out for short periods of time. One thing he can't do is write more stories, although it was never explained how that restriction was controlled. Yet he is the one telling the story, so either he has figured out a way to circumvent that restriction, or else he is just reciting the events to someone else at a later date. If a cloned author is not consulted or checked out frequently, the library might try to sell them to an interested patron, or else destroy them. Even though Smithe is not a legal human, he still has human emotions and does not want that to be his fate, so he is overjoyed when a local school teacher checks him out for the maximum period of ten days.
Colette Coldbrook needs his help in unravelling a mystery that surrounds the deaths of her father and brother. A major clue is one of Smithe's novels, Murder on Mars, a copy of which was found in her father's safe. She is convinced it contains information concerning her father's mysterious financial dealings, as well as his very frequent disappearances over the years. Smithe does not remember the book, and speculates it could have been written sometime after the author was cloned but before his death. It is possible it was written by someone else, maybe even Colette's father, and it might be the only copy in existence, because searches for other copies for comparison return no results. This is just one of many things not explained. Did the real Smithe write the book or not? If so, why does his clone not remember it? Why is there no record of it in any library or internet archive? At least Smithe does figure out why it was important to Mr. Coldbrook, we do learn the man's secrets, then those secrets are destroyed. By Smithe.
There were several times I told myself the only reason I kept reading was because it was Wolfe. That's also the only reason I'll ever re-read it, although if that doesn't reveal any hidden clues I'll be doubly frustrated. If you eliminate the SF elements, and read it as a straight mystery, it's entertaining enough, although still frustrating. It reminded me of a lot of movies or TV shows when you know a character has a lot of information, but when questioned about it they reply, "I can't tell you yet, I need more information." Several things are said that contradict previous statements, but Smithe lets it go. That eventually makes sense because he is gathering clues, and he doesn't want to tip off anyone he suspects, which might put himself or someone else in danger. In the end, he solves the case but lets the perpetrator go for reasons of his own. Of course, I won't reveal any of that. If you are a mystery fan, you'll probably like it for those elements. If you're more of an SF fan, but think Wolfe is usually too convoluted and cryptic, this one might be more satisfying for you. If, like me, you revel in his more complex narratives, I'd say give it a pass.
EDIT: I did re-read this due to the follow-up book reviewed below. I have no need to edit any of the above comments.
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Over a year after his passing, I am still saddened about Gene Wolfe's death. He's one of my all-time favorites, so it makes me doubly sad that I have to report the posthumously published Interlibrary Loan, possibly the last we will see from him, is a disappointment. To be published next month, June 30, 2020, I read an advance e-ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. It is a sequel to the book reviewed above, A Borrowed Man, which was slighly disappointing too, but not as much as this. I don't know if Wolfe had completed his manuscript or whether someone edited/finished it, but if the latter is the case I'm even more disappointed. Unless the ending was intended to be a cliffhanger, with another book to be published later, I'd rather they had not bothered. Could the ARC I read be missing a chapter or two?
I did re-read A Borrowed Man earlier this week, but my opinion of it didn't change. It was a decent mystery, and the reason cloned author Ern A. Smithe was checked out of the library made sense, since it was possible one of his books held clues to unravel the mystery. This time Smithe, along with two cloned women authors, one of cookbooks the other romances, are requested by patrons of another library. Throughout the book, which is narrated by Smithe, he is frequently vague about his thoughts and theories, skirting around issues and clues, which is a common Wolfe tactic, but if the ARC I read was complete, several of those issues are left unresolved. It is possible Wolfe trusted the reader to fill in the blanks, and if so maybe I'll re-read it one of these days, but at this time I'd say it's unlikely. A major question I have right now is whether there is a connection between Dr. Barry Fevre, whom he investigates here, and Georges Fevre who aided his investigations in the first book. I don't think so, since it was implied Georges had changed his name following his discharge from a police force. So why duplicate a character name, and why never comment about it? There does seem to be a connection between this investigation and the previous one, due to the discovery of yet another [REDACTED], but it's not definitive. Other questions: did Dr. Fevre have a brother, was it Dr. Fevre that was killed or was it his brother, or were neither killed and that scenario misdirection? How and why did Rose and Audrey lose their memory of Smithe? What was in the green box, and what powers did it possess?
Since I am an avid Wolfe fan, if another book is forthcoming, either in this series or otherwise, I will probably read it eventually. If it is in this series I might even re-read the first two. But I have a few of his other novels I haven't read yet, and some story collections I haven't completed, so it's likely I'll turn to those and forget about these. I can give A Borrowed Man a reserved recommendation, but not Interlibrary Loan. I'd say leave it on the shelf.
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