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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.
4 of 4 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.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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