Gene Wolfe talks dystopian futures, and the chances of star-drive in our lifetime

A one-in-200 chance that an interstellar drive will be developed soon? Gene Wolfe thinks it's possible. The author discussed that and much, much more in an interview about his new novel, Home Fires.

No one else writes like Gene Wolfe. Perhaps most famous for his four-part Book of the New Sun — which Neil Gaiman called "the best SF novel of the last century" — the onetime industrial engineer and editor crafts stories that seem to hint at dozens of things left unsaid. His prose can be simultaneously baroque and perfectly clear, demanding deeper engagement from readers than most fantasy and science-fiction literature does — and supplying commensurate rewards.

Wolfe's new novel, Home Fires, is maybe a little less heady than some of his previous outings. It tells the story of Skip Grison, an attorney living in the North American Union of the near future, on an Earth where there are too many people and too few resources, and continental super-powers are in constant conflict. There's also an interstellar war going on, with aliens called the Os (pronounced "oss") — at the start of the book, Skip's wife, Chelle, is just coming home from a tour of duty out in space.

It's only been a few years for her, but Skip is now a middle-aged man. And although that was the plan — for him to stay behind and make a fortune, with which to keep his beautiful, still-young bride comfortable — actually reinstating their romance proves to be a challenge. Skip signs them up for a Caribbean cruise, and pays for Chelle's mother — deceased, but with her consciousness downloaded into a borrowed body — to accompany them.

And then things get pretty weird, with espionage, voodoo, pirates, and cyborgs. The action is interspersed with Skip's reflections on what's going on around him, and it's all rendered in a voice that might remind you of a more poignant Robert Heinlein from an alternate dimension. On one level, it's an adventure story and a romance — but this is Gene Wolfe, so expect it to set off some subtle but serious perturbations in your brain and soul, too.

On the phone last month from his home in Barrington, Illinois, Gene talked to us about Home Fires, Barbie dolls and Amazons, and the chances of seeing interstellar space flight in our lifetimes.

Gene Wolfe talks dystopian futures, and the chances of star-drive in our lifetime

io9: Home Fires seems a bit more straightforward than some of your other work.

Gene Wolfe: That's true.

It made me a little suspicious. I wasn't sure if it really was, or if I was missing something even more subtle than usual for your work.

I think it's straightforward. I have written a number of straightforward books — it's not like this is a new departure for me. The Knight is straightforward.

Well, it's got a very dream-like sensibility.

Well, it's fantasy, where Home Fires is science fiction. Two different breeds of dogs: Fantasy is a collie, and science fiction is a German shepherd.

Any reason you're picking those two breeds?

No! I just tried to think of two breeds that embodied the ideas. I could have said a borzoi, but you might not know what a borzoi is.

I don't, in fact.

A Russian wolfhound. It's a very fancy-looking greyhound — a greyhound that's been to Tiffany's.

Let me get this out of the way: I'm a little daunted speaking to you. Honestly, I don't always understand what's going on in your work. Is that a fairly common reaction?

I think so. There are people who feel that they understand everything, and don't. And there are those who understand everything, of course. But I think the reaction you're talking about is probably pretty common.

Well, since you say Home Fires is pretty straightforward, let's start there. What was the impetus for this particular story? It seems like you'd done a lot more fantasy than science fiction lately, between The Wizard Knight and The Sorcerer's House.

Gene Wolfe talks dystopian futures, and the chances of star-drive in our lifetime

Well, I wanted to get away from fantasy for a while — not that I have anything against it, but I don't want to get into a rut. I had written The Sorcerer's House, and An Evil Guest — that is really kind of a split between science fiction and fantasy; I would call it mostly fantasy, but there's no magic, no elves, none of the usual trappings. Anyway, I wanted to get down and write something that was more Analog-y. And it occurred to me that I could set up this situation in which a returning female soldier was now biologically and psychologically much, much younger than the man she had married before she was sent off to fight in space. And so I took it from there. Just that situation — I liked the idea of the female soldier, because that's something we're seeing more and more of.

I wrote Soldier of the Mist and its sequels, all of them laid in the ancient world at about the time of the Persian Wars, so I had done a good deal of research on the Amazons, who are very interesting and great fun to research, because science has tried so hard to deny their existence. I'll never forget reading an article — this was in Scientific American years ago — about archaeological digging in what used to be Thrace. The author said with a perfectly straight face, "We have found no evidence of the existence of the Amazons, although we have found the graves of a number of heavily armed women?" Don't you love that? That's so sweet. And it turns out that they found some Amazon graves in Britain, because when the Romans had troops in what's now England, they were hiring a lot of mercenaries; and apparently some of the mercenaries they hired were Amazons, and some of the Amazons died while they were in England. I get tickled by this sort of stuff, so the female-soldier thing appealed to me.

There were a few things about the book that reminded me, writing-wise, of Heinlein. And storywise, especially, some of it was evocative of The Forever War. Were either of those things intentional, or were they coincidental?

I think it's coincidental. It's very hard to write science fiction without some influence from Heinlein, I'll tell you. He was the man. H.G. Wells probably invented the genre, at least as a genre. I know that Brian Aldiss wants to say it was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, but she only wrote the one book — Frankenstein had no children, if you know what I mean. Whereas Wells not only wrote The Time Machine, which made him famous, but a lot of other science fiction.

So he was the early influence on everybody. And in the 20th century, that was Heinlein — I don't think there's any question of it. In fact, Isaac Asimov said that he read Heinlein and that was what got him going as a science-fiction writer.

You were in the Korean War yourself. Were you thinking about that at all when you were writing about Chelle in Home Fires?

Oh, yes. Yeah, absolutely. I was an infantryman; I got shot at a lot. I shot at a few people, too, and all that stuff, and I kind of know what the soldier's mind-set is — the combat soldier, I mean. There's an enormous difference between combat troops and rear-echelon troops who are back there doing paperwork and counting beans and so on. Combat is a different thing.

The future in Home Fires — it's not too distant of a future.

No, no, it's near-future. An idea that I've been playing with a lot, I played with in this story too — you also find it in Evil Guest and you'll find it in Memorare: It's "What if yesterday, somebody discovered an interstellar drive?" Somebody in some research facility somewhere is sitting there and scratching his head, and thinking, "My God, look at the possibilities in this. How do we tell people? Who should we tell first? Should it be kept secret? If we tell the government now, they're gonna classify it as top secret and it'll be hard to work on it anymore. What do we do?" It could happen. I would say that the odds are probably, oh, something like one chance out of 200 that something like this will happen. And if it happens, it's gonna turn things on their ear! Suddenly, suddenly, human beings will be able to travel outside the solar system and return in a reasonable amount of time. It's going to be enormously bigger than the discovery of North and South America were in the 15th century.

So I have played around with that idea in Memorare seriously, and in An Evil Guest rather unseriously — because An Evil Guest is not a serious book, if you know what I mean; it's a fun book. So I did that again with a near-future society. We tend to write as if Earth will have an overarching government controlling the entire planet by the time that we have space travel. What if we don't? What if it happens yesterday? We've got major powers like China and the U.S. and, to some degree still, Russia, and the European Union and so forth, and they're all going to be going out there and finding whatever it is there is to find out there.

I'm interested because of your background in engineering: You really think the chances of a discovery like that are as low as one in 200?

I think so. Yeah, I think they are.

Is that instinct on your part? Is that following of the literature?

Gene Wolfe talks dystopian futures, and the chances of star-drive in our lifetime

I guess you can call it instinct. I'm not saying I'm following some series of experiments, because I'm not. But just the way things have been going: AI is teetering on the brink; to some degree, it's here already. I heard a news story yesterday on the radio that absolutely blew my mind. They said — and I'm telling you what they said — that there was a Barbie doll that had a TV camera built into her necklace. If that doesn't knock you to your knees, you are unknockable! A TV built into a necklace worn by a toy? Come on! Stuff is going so wildly, and so stunningly that, yeah, I think it could happen.

I don't think it's a million-to-one shot. You know, when I was a boy, I used to talk about space travel with adults, because I was reading science fiction, right? And I was a kid, and they would say, "Well, someday, human beings may reach the moon, but it will be long after you and I are dead." Was it Sturgeon who got the call from the FBI agents because he had written a science-fiction story predicting a nuclear bomb? And at this time, the Manhattan Project was top secret. They came around to see if he knew anything, and how the hell he'd found it out.

At the same time, the future in Home Fires definitely reads as rather bleak. If I'm reading it correctly, the whole Eastern seaboard from Boston to Washington has become one city —

It's practically that now! You know, that's not much of a prediction.

— and the ship's captain says that docking in South America is only a fractionally better option than the ship sinking. Are you just exploring the idea, or is that an assessment of how you think things might be going?

I'm no shark on South American politics, but I can tell you, if you look at Colombia and you look at Venezuela, you will see that the fuse has been lit. They are very different countries, set on very different paths. It's incredible to me, at least, how different they are, when what we're talking about really are all orphan fragments of a Spanish empire that existed up to a few hundred years ago. Hell, Spain still owned Cuba when we had the Spanish-American War.

With Skip, it seems like you were really writing sort of a paladin character — someone who is very good, very noble. The section that constitute his reflections are written in first person, and you have a history of unreliable narrators, but it seemed like there wasn't a secret reading there. Is he a good person?

I think so, generally. Of course, you have to remember that he cheated on Chelle while she was gone, for one thing; and he's quite close-fisted with money, if you notice that. But yeah, there's a lot of good in him, no question about that.

So did his character grow organically out of the impetus to write about a female soldier returning from space after so many years — you know, the sort of guy who'd offer to wait for her?

Yeah, if Skip had been the kind of man that Chelle's father was, I would have had a very different story, and one that I wouldn't much want to write. But he wasn't. At heart, he's a romantic. And there are people who, at heart, are romantics — I suspect I am one, although you never really know. Self-knowledge is a tough thing to come by. I'm 79, and I still don't know.

What else should I be asking you about Home Fires?

Well, I expected you to ask me about all the energy stuff, which seems to me to be the way that we're going, and the overpopulation stuff, which again seems to me to be the way that we're going.

That was sort of what I was getting at when I mentioned the bleakness of the book. The overpopulation, the lack of jobs —

Well, when you have overpopulation, that's what you have. If you have jobs for all those people, you're not overpopulated; you're just densely populated. But if you don't have jobs for those people, then you are overpopulated. The government in Home Fires is doing the thing that I expect them to do now at any minute: to grab hold of General Motors and General Electric and whatnot, and say, "You've got to hire more people. Understand us: You've got to hire more people."

That's what they're doing in my book. They are telling employers that they have got to overstaff. And as a result, you have things like this sailing cruise ship, which has five crewmen for every four passengers. And what are you going to do to justify all this crew? Well, you put in sails instead of engines, and that saves oil or coal or whatever it was that the engines would burn if you had engines; and you make the working of those sails largely dependent on muscle power, as they were on the old-time sailing ships. Now you need all these people to work your ship.

My original thought was that it was the other way around — that the ships were running on wind power because oil or coal had become too expensive.

Yeah, but it wouldn't just be cost-rationing — it would be rationing-rationing, as it was in World War II, for example. In the situation that the NAU is in, in Home Fires, they are going to want to reserve a whole lot of what energy they have for war matériel.

If this is sort of the way you think things might be going, are you hopeful at all?

I think that with the exception of the interstellar-travel thing — which, as I say, is like one shot in 200 — I think that this is the way we're going. I think that we will see a North American Union, whether it's called that or not, that will certainly tie together the United States, Mexico, and Canada. I think that you may see a South American Union; if so, it is going to be turbulent in the extreme. A North American Union is going to have big enough problems, and right now we're seeing the problems that the European Union has.

Long before I'd ever read Neil Gaiman's piece on "How to Read Gene Wolfe," I always got the sense when I picked up something by you, that I was almost decoding a message. Is that fair?

Well, there's that aspect to it. With any piece of fiction, you have to do a certain amount of that; obviously, if it's Peter Rabbit, it's not going to be terribly complicated. But stories get longer and more complex.

But your stories are even more complex than many others.

Some are, and some aren't. But people seem to look at mine and expect to find hidden fingerprints under the lily pad or something. I've heard some really nutty theories about my stories — I won't name names, but there's some real screwball stuff going on out there.

Home Fires is out today in hardcover and electronic formats from Tor.