Home Fires by Gene Wolfe: those who dwell in Hell also keep them burning

This is not a book review but a comment on a certain artistic tool or trick or conceit I have noticed in a writer I greatly admire.

I have been reading HOME FIRES by Gene Wolfe and was fascinated to discover a theme, or, rather, an artistic conceit of great subtlety and power which the author there uses. It is one which I hesitate to tell those who have not noticed it, for fear of spoiling the effect; but it is also one which I suspect every Wolfe reader but myself has noticed long since.

Many have noted and commented upon the conceit of the ‘unreliable narrator’ which Wolfe uses so well and which so many authors use so poorly. This is the conceit where the narrator does not tell the whole truth, and it is up to the reader to notice the narrator’s blind spots, errors, and discontinuities so as to recognize the narrator’s particular neurosis or bias or coign of vantage. It is, to say the least, a very difficult artistic trick to pull off, requiring the meticulous attention to detail we expect of detective story writers, and requiring a readership to do the detective work without the narrator’s (other than inadvertent) aid.  The author has to draw the reader’s awareness to the negative spaces of what the narrator does not say, unspoken assumptions of which the narrator is unaware.

An example from Wolfe might be Horn’s dwelling upon the murderous malice of his son in the book ON BLUE’S WATERS: it takes the reader a while to realize that nothing the son says or does justifies Horn’s attitude.

Science fiction, moreso than any genre wearing the horse-blinders of modern realism, can explore the conceit of the unreliable narrator simply because science fiction stories are allowed to put up for question and exploration axiomatic assumptions about the plot and setting which mainstream literature cannot. A man in a mainstream story might not be who he thinks he is because of amnesia or brainwashing: a man in a science fiction story might not be who he thinks he is because his brain information has been transferred into another body.  Hence, in a science fiction story, the unreliable narrator might actually think he is, for example, a man seeking the promised messiah without realizing that benevolent aliens transferred his dying soul into that messiah’s body, so that he himself is who he seeks in vain: and the reader must deduce that the first-person narrator in book three is not the same person as the first-person narrator in book one, even if he thinks he is.

But the conceit of the unreliable narrator is not the conceit I noticed when reading HOME FIRES. I noticed something else even more unreliable, even more subtle, and, under Gene Wolfe’s masterful pen, even more striking and perilous.

I first notice this conceit with Gene Wolfe’s first famous and perhaps most famous short story, ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus.’

As in HOME FIRES, Wolfe focuses the reader’s attention on the central mystery of the identity of the unreliable narrator Number Five, and leaves the reader to piece together the clues to discover such things as the narrator’s name, and his relationship with the man he thinks is his father, or the machine he thinks is his tutor. The society there has a high degree of genetic technology, and we discover the father runs a bordello, and that the father and the narrator are twins, or, rather, clones of a line of clones reaching back five generations to the machine-remnant of the original man’s memories. But for reasons he cannot fathom (although, perhaps, the reader can) he destroys himself in the person of his father and recreates himself in the person of his own son and murderer, committing an endless cycle of inter-generational suicide. And he cannot discover why he makes no progress, conquers nothing, achieves nothing.

But the true horror of the society in which Number Five lives and moves and has his being is never emphasized, indeed, almost not mentioned. For example, there is a hint that the women of the bordello are genetically tampered with to satisfy the sexual tastes of the house’s clients, wholesome or un-. It is mentioned in passing that parents in Sainte Croix sell their daughters. It is almost not mentioned that the four-armed freak whom Number Five strangles to death is his twin brother, merely one sold like an animal and chained as a guard dog, created by the genetic science of the father, who is another doppelganger of the narrator.

The spiritual and physical slavery and the brutal inhumanity of the city in which he lives is as invisible to Number Five as water is to a fish in a fishbowl: so deftly does the author paint the colors of a society that has lost its soul to dehumanizing transhumanism that the unwary reader (such as the child I was when I first read this tale) will not even see it.

HOME FIRES concerns a wealthy man whose contractual beloved, a soldiergirl, returns from a tour of military duty among the stars. Relativistic time dilation has kept her young while he has aged. Seeking a gift worthy of her homecoming, he purchases the girl’s mother, and has this mother’s memory and personality downloaded into the body of a younger woman (whom he has also purchased) to greet the daughter for a merry family reunion. And he books passage aboard an expensive pleasure cruise clippership. Complications arise as the soldiergirl turns out to be a download occupying yet another young woman’s body, whose memories are perhaps not entirely suppressed. The cruise ship is attacked by pirates; murderers seek the mother’s life; other mysteries abound. The society described is so remarkably corrupt, that the lawyers must debate or threaten or bribe the coast guard to rescue the ship from pirates, which the coast guard is reluctant to do for fear of lawsuit from the pirates.

As is the norm for this day and age, the wealthy man has love affairs more or less permanent with his secretary, with the purchased mother-download, and every other woman in his life, and meanwhile the soldiergirl copulates with various men in her military unit or aboard the cruise ship, and every other man in his life — and all the while the two lovers, the wealthy man and the soldiergirl, profess their undying contractual love for each other. At one point, the mother mentions an ancient ritualized form of love-contract called ‘marriage.’

Neither the author nor the narrator ever draws attention to the background of the society’s attitude toward love and marriage, towards the assumptions made by all the characters and never questioned by them. Indeed, between the murder mystery and the pirate attack and the confusion of memories of various downloaded individuals, so much sound and fury is taking place in the foreground, that this background detail and theme is likely to be overlooked.

The author never says a word, but the society described is one where every single human relationship has become mingled with a sexual relationship. No woman is hired as a secretary without expecting to copulate with her boss, nor a cruise director with her clients, nor a military officer with her men.

The author never says a word, but each character talks as if the social myth, the shared societal assumption, is that all such relationships are voluntary and produce no other bond or responsibility or relationship. A man is expected to couple with both the mother and the daughter, without either expressing the least surprise or jealousy.

The author never says a word, but each character acts according to the normal human logic of jealousy and possession. It is painful to watch the characters torture themselves trying to live down to a standard of orgiastic indifference to each to each other, to act as if sex means nothing, when, by their actions and reactions, it is perfectly clear love means everything.

One cannot share one’s body without sharing one’s soul. To drive this point painfully home, the author places the narrative in the middle of a world where the technology for transferring souls from body to body exists. As with the sex act, one person intimately enters into another, and, once intermingled, they cannot be sundered without amputation: even though the social myth treats these chimeras of wrong souls inside the wrong body as if they are merely the person they pretend to be.

In ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ Gene Wolfe deftly portrays a society that has fallen symbolically into Hell, having entered the house guarded by that wolf, where treating one’s own sons and daughters as commodities and as the raw material for genetic experiments has produced an eerie stillness. The characters play out the same pointless tragedy one generation to the next, because they are as frozen  by their loss of their human  nature as the souls depicting in the ninth and final Circle of Dante’s Inferno, buried to the neck in ice but still gnawing on each other.

Likewise here in HOME FIRES, the characters are adrift in their lives as in their rudderless clippership, having lost their souls, floating as helplessly as those tormented by the stormwinds of anchorless lust of the first Circle of Dante.

Since I live in a society where marriage exists in name only, where divorce is commonplace and abortion considered a civic right rather than an abomination of Moloch, it is almost impossible for me to see the waters in which the characters in HOME FIRES drift.

They live in all the books Robert Heinlein described in his later period, when he stopped writing juveniles and started writing seniles. They live according to the philosophy of Playboy magazine. Their social code forces them to each and all pretend that they are not jealous when betrayed, do not seek permanence in matters of love, that they are atomized and isolated individuals who can copulate with each other without sharing anything with each other: sex at arm’s length.

We ourselves in modern America have already drifted too close to the world of HOME FIRES to see the true horror and the true emptiness of a world where all love is sexual, all sex is profane and selfish, and the sacrament of marriage desecrated so entirely that it is forgotten.

As with all Gene Wolfe books and short stories, there is of course a lot more going on in ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ and HOME FIRES than I have mentioned here. Both are worth reading. For the science fiction fan, however, ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ is essential reading. Had Gene Wolfe just written it and nothing else, the short story would be as justly famous as ‘Flowers for Algernon’ or ‘The Cold Equations.’

I have no name for this conceit or technique, and, to a degree, every author who writes from a point of view not his own employs it: but never have I seen it used to such good effect, and so chillingly, as under the pen of Gene Wolfe. Call it unreliable moral narrative, where the author drops no hint that the narrator’s moral assumptions are untrue. Everything takes place within the moral system of the narrator and from his viewpoint, and so the vices peculiar to his culture, which he and all his neighbors accept as normal, are invisible to him.

It requires an effort of the imagination and conscience to reflect on the narrator’s acts and see how wicked and cruel he has made his life: and effort we, perhaps, would not find to be without value in reflecting on our own lives.




  1. Comment by TJIC:

    > Robert Heinlein … stopped writing juveniles and started writing seniles.

    Oh, snap!

    Nicely constructed sentence.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I claim no credit for the waggishness: the witticism of calling the Dean of SF’s post-NUMBER OF THE BEAST books ‘seniles’ is not mine.

      • Comment by Sean Michael:

        Dear Mr. Wright:

        In my opinion, the last interesting novel Heinlein wrote was PROBABLY (I stress it like that because it’s been many years since I last read it) THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. And even that book was marred by his wearisome obsession with promiscuous and/or kinky sex.

        Btw, what did you think of Heinlein’s DOUBLE STAR? One of his better novels, I thought.

        Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  2. Comment by KokoroGnosis:

    I’ve said before that Home Fires is one of the most gently dystopic works I’ve ever read. Your typical work of dystopic fiction is about the dystopia; Winston rails against his society, Logan runs away from it, etc. That’s totally not the case in Home Fires. There are just hints here and there about runaway Sharia law, power shortages, etc.

    I never really saw much of the unreliable narrator in Home Fires until now (possibly since most of it is in third person instead of first). Like you pointed out, characters in it accept and pretend that everything is normal and hunky dory the whole time. Interesting and enlightening. Thanks, John :) It’ll be good to think about on the reread.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      My essay is less than clear. Maybe I should add a paragraph to explain. I am not claiming Mr Wolfe is using the ‘Unreliable Narrator’ technique in HOME FIRES: I am claiming that in HOME FIRE and in ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ he uses a new technique, let us call it, ‘unreliable moral narrative’ where the author drops no hint that the narrator’s moral assumptions are untrue. Everything takes place within the moral system of the narrator and from his viewpoint, and so the vices peculiar to his culture, which he and all his neighbors accept as normal, are invisible to him.

  3. Comment by Pierce O.:

    The author never says a word, but each character acts according to the normal human logic of jealousy and possession. It is painful to watch the characters torture themselves trying to live down to a standard of orgiastic indifference to each to each other, to act as if sex means nothing, when, by their actions and reactions, it is perfectly clear love means everything.

    Reminds me of this: http://xkcd.com/592/

  4. Ping from SF Signal:

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  5. Ping from Underrating Gene Wolfe | John C. Wright's Journal:

    […] The previous post was written as a reply to a wisecrack I overheard as a Sci-Fi convention, so, for reasons of completeness, let me mention those events and thought which provoked my meditation on HOME FIRES and ‘Fifth Head.’ […]

  6. Comment by lotdw:

    Oh man, that was awesome. Gene Wolfe is one of my all-time favorite writers, and it’s so hard to find exegesis on him that’s both accurate and clear. (I read one recently that claimed New Sun was an apologia for torture, which is about the usual level of Wolfe criticism.)

    I think I began to notice the trick in New Sun, just by the way everything was slightly (or sometimes more than slightly) gross, but where it really hit home was in his ‘easiest’ work, the Long Sun books, which actually has as its central theme the rejection of what had been the accepted moral narrative of the society by a priest of that system. I’ll have to check out Home Fires.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      In my first draft of this essay, I mentioned the torture in New Sun as one of the examples, like the gene-engineered slavery in ‘Cerberus’ or the casual infidelity in HOME FIRES as an immorality invisible to the perpetrators, but I left it out, because of Severians shame over being a torturer, the society’s hatred of it, and Severians own apologia for the practice in CLAW OF THE CONCILIATOR, which shows that he has pondered the issue.

      So the moral problem of torture is not invisible, so I did not use it as an example.

      For a reviewer to say that the New Sun books are an apologia for torture betrays a shallowness to which I grope to find any comparison. It is like calling Wagner’s Ring operas a jingle about jewelry.

  7. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright

    Interesting essay about Gene Wolfe, although I can’t honestly say I read his works as carefully as you obviously have. I do agree that your suggestions about the “unreliable moral narrative” or chief viewpoint character does help to make it easier to grasp what Wolfe has been trying to do.

    I admit i found the expanded version of THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS especially tough reading. But your essay helps to understand why the scoiety in that book is so ghsstly. I suggest hower, that the very name of the city in that book, Sainte Croix, is possibly a hint from Wolfe of either a far better past and even, perhaps, offers some hope for the future. It does mean, after all, “Holy Cross.” A reminder from Wolfe that no matter how depraved and corrupt we become, we should not despair of the providence, grace, and mercy of God?

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  8. Comment by marcaramini:

    An excellent look at it. However, I just wanted to point out that Skip is also an unreliable narrator in the traditional sense. p 53: “I have forgotten the old man’s name … the jeans and the blue rubber soled shoes from East Asia.” … p 160: “Let’s leave the Os out of this. They don’t think the way we do, and they don’t do any wiping. Greater East Asia does a lot of it. They send in spies who’ve forgotten they’re spies, people who do certain things when the time comes without knowing why they do them.”

    On page 282 Skip’s hired investigator, Zygmunt, dies mysteriously, murdered off screen, his body found and two women disappeared. On page 285, Skip brings up something crazy that doesn’t fit in anywhere, with people whose names we have never heard of. “Ellen Woodward had a rifle … Connell a pistol Ellen had to explain to him, and Auciello a kitchen knife … Ellen’s bullet took their leader in the face as he aimed at me, and we won.”

    that has nothing to do with the rest of the novel. I think that group is a sleeper EastAsian cell, and they have just performed the murder we heard about on page 282 – it is the sleeper EastAsian Spy Skip who kills his own investigator. He forgets the old man’s name in the shop because their relationship is something different. Skip himself might not suspect the truth. Thus, he leaves, wanting to ensure that Chelle is safe even against him.

  9. Comment by simplemind:

    Okay I know this is an old post. I just found this blog. So happy to make your acquaintance. I have commenced buying you work based solely upon your logic, expression, and virtue. God how I long for more like you to appear. PS Love Gene Wolfe too. Also I don’t think its an accident that the title “Home Fires”, unscrambles to “Sir Fem Hoe” Although typically “Ho” is the spelling you see when the modern word is written out.

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