like noir. I like detective stories set in gritty cities where a shoe-leather, trenchcoat guy who knows people and knows the city plays against power (mob or city hall) and figures out the guilty party (even if that party is his client). Yeah, it’s a great genre.
A Borrowed Man, by Gene Wolfe, attempts to use a scifi setting to update this mythical misty figure. This time it’s in the far future in a depopulated, exhausted (but seemingly verdant) Earth. The Borrowed Man in question is author E.A. Smithe, who seemingly penned many scifi classics including Mission to Mars. Now he’s long dead, but cloning being what it is, he’s been brought back as a “resource” for the local library. He lives “in the stacks” (some sorts of three-walled tiny apartment). Library patrons can check him out if they wish, so simply sit at a table and “consult”. But the future is like now, few people read or care about the past. And Smithe has the burden of needing to be used – otherwise he, as nothing but property, can be “burned”.
And this is when a beautiful woman comes in and checks him out. She asks all sorts of interesting questions about books and how information can be secreted inside them. And this leads to our first interesting factoid – her rich father is dead and inside his safe was nothing at all save so a single book – Mission to Mars.
This, of course, sets off a frightening chain of events as Smithe, with no rights as a human, has to figure out what is going on and why his book (of all others) was in the dead man’s safe. Now, I’d like to say that this became a tale of lovers on the run, of power and corruption and death and greed as is so much a part of noir. But it isn’t. Really, there is the details of her father’s house, the deliberate search, the introduction of a couple of characters who, outside of being useful gophers, don’t seem to bring much to the tale. No, the fire just isn’t there. Smithe has some interesting adventures (and I will admit that the final secret was interesting, yet inexplicable in its origin). A second-class citizen would be doubly endangered in such a world but Smithe doesn’t seem too concerned. Even getting the shit beaten out of him leaves him disinterested.
The setting really doesn’t help the noir-tale either. It’s hard to imagine a world falling back into nature with small cities with bus stations and beat cops and jewelry stores and downtown shopping. It just seems too 50’s in this sparse future world. All good conflicts require pressure (the pressure of gritty big cities in this case) but it just isn’t there.
It’s a good book all in all, just not a great one. And (if you are like me and have a friend send it to you for free) then read it. I’m lukewarm on this one, I’m afraid.