A Borrowed Man

  • by Gene Wolfe
  • Narrated by Kevin T. Collins
  • 9 hrs and 32 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

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.


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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.
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- Doug D. Eigsti

Great Gene Wolfe Concept, Distracting Narration

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.
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- Alex Levine

Book Details

  • Release Date: 10-20-2015
  • Publisher: Audible Studios