Tor, 2015, 300 p. Reviewed for Interzone 260, Sep-Oct 2015.
The author carved out a well-regarded space for himself in the 1980s and 90s as a purveyor of quality high fantasy as in the various books of the New, the Long and the Short Suns, essayed a novel take on the unreliable narrator in his Latro in the Mist novels, made the occasional foray into detective/murder stories such as Pandora by Holly Hollander, and has also published various stand-alone books each with his own distinctive stamp, but in his previous output hasn’t produced all that much in the way of straightforward SF. A Borrowed Man goes some way to altering that – but only some way – in that it has an impeccable Science Fictional premise in the shape of its narrator.
That narrator is Ern A Smithe, who is a reclone, having the consciousness of a long dead author housed in a new version of his body, as a resource on a shelf in a library. Not legally human, fixed so as not to sire children, he can be consulted or even borrowed, but if he is not, then he will eventually be discarded and burned. He thinks real humanity has retired. For this is a world much diminished in population, with inhabitants who advocate further reductions; and reclones stand out. In this future society people with disabilities are kept out of sight to avoid troubling the rest and what was the US is (to us) an unrecognisable set of fragment states. However, as well as the reclones, there is advanced tech aplenty, voice controlled cars and aircraft, robots of varying degrees of intelligence, but despite the ubiquity of screens, books still exist – and inter-library loans, for clones as well as books.
Smithe is checked out of Spice Grove Public Library by Colette Coldbrook, whose father and brother are dead and who is the heiress to the estate. Smithe’s original was the author of Murder on Mars, a book which formed the only contents of Conrad Coldbrook Snr’s safe and which holds a secret. Both the Coldbrook men have been murdered and Colette thinks Smithe might know what that secret is. He doesn’t, but he sets about finding out.
In what follows there is a degree of toing and froing across the country which, however, does not display many differences from at present; there are still for example bus stations and cross-country buses, on one of which Smithe takes up with a pair of misfits, Georges and Mahala, whose talents he makes use of.
The action keeps returning, though, to the Coldbrook house, where the murders took place. It is run by robots and has a mini nuclear reactor on one of the locked upper floors. There is also a door one step through which takes Smithe to an alien world, light years away, peopled by strange, stick-like creatures and with menacing things coming out of the sea. This shimmer of SF gloss, while it does contribute to the plot, seems at odds with the rest of the story which has much more in common with the hard-boiled thriller. For, if the streets Smithe walks down are not exactly mean, Wolfe has certainly not forgotten Chandler’s Law; the one about having a man come through the door with a gun, even if this gun does have a strange trumpet shape. Encounters with the police, and a confrontation with a man who is on his tail only heighten the film noir impression.
Frequently nowadays it can almost seem obligatory, but time was the SF detective story was a stunted beast; neither of the strands marrying well. In those terms A Borrowed Man just about falls on the right side of the line.
For an opening line, “Murder is not always such a terrible thing,” is quite arresting. It is a true enough indicator of what follows, especially in signposting the thriller nature of the book as a whole, but doesn’t quite deliver what it seems to promise, while still presaging Smithe’s sympathy for one of the murderers.
Notwithstanding the above, which can all be looked at as a species of excessive nit-picking, Wolfe writes like a dream. Smithe is an engaging and resourceful character and on the whole A Borrowed Man is immensely readable. It is all very cleverly done, and the plot is tied up without loose ends. As a detective story it works well and the SF elements are intriguing but while the “borrowed human” concept is an ingenious one it is not really fully developed, despite Smithe meeting, in various libraries, different copies of his one-time wife, poet Arabella Lee. There is, though, apparently a sequel in the works.
These comments did not appear in the published review:-
I’m not sure what to make of Smithe’s thought that, “Someone ought to do a study on how long a man can talk to a woman without having to lie.” And what strange mind set comes up with the thought, “We had no more business shooting them than a burglar has shooting the owner of the house that he is robbing”? How about no-one has any business shooting anyone? (Or burgling come to that.)
Pedant’s corner:- The USianism “throve”, hangar is quite often written as hanger, “none of the rest were” (none of the rest was,) no “open quote” mark when a chapter starts with a piece of dialogue, “I dropped it to floor” (to the floor,) boney for bony, “I’ll look for work when get there,” (when I get there,) were for where, “You known, I feel lighter here,” (You know,) “That the cleaning service,” (That’s the cleaning service.)