#RRSciFiMonth Audiobook Review: A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe
Sci-Fi November is a month-long blog event hosted by Rinn Reads and Over The Effing Rainbow this year, created to celebrate everything amazing about science fiction! From TV shows to movies, books to comics, and everything else in between, it is intended to help science fiction lovers share their love and passion for this genre and its many, many fandoms.
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone/Book 1
Publisher: Audible Studios (10/20/15)
Author Information: Website
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 2.5 of 5 stars
Narrator: Kevin T. Collins | Length: 9 hrs 32 min
Disappointingly, A Borrowed Man turned out to be less than I expected. I was initially drawn to the book because of the vague hints at a futuristic dystopian setting, but it was undoubtedly the description of the protagonist that sealed the deal. E.A. Smithe is a clone, created for the sole purpose of being an educational resource and made available on loan to all patrons of the public library where he sits displayed from a third-tier shelf. It’s an interesting premise, and paired with a mystery plot, this book should have scored a hit with me. However, having great ideas for a story is one thing, but I suppose carrying them out is another.
First though, a bit more about Smithe. As a library “reclone”, our protagonist is seen as more of a tool than a human being, just a piece of property with no legal rights. When you think about libraries today, they are vast storehouses of knowledge where literary works are preserved for eternity, and anyone with a library card can borrow the great works of authors long since dead. However, in Smithe’s world, they’ve gone even further than that. Actual authors and artists from the recent past have been cloned, their brains filled with information from the last saved scans of the original individuals before their deaths. So now not only can you borrow books and other media from the library, you can even choose to borrow their creators, whether you want to take them off the shelf for a consultation or lead them to the checkout counter to bring them home.
The real E.A. Smithe, the man who the main character was cloned from, was a pretty well-known mystery writer in his day. At the beginning of this story, a wealthy woman named Colette Coldbrook borrows his reclone, hoping to find out more about a book he wrote called “Murder on Mars”, a physical copy of which was in the possession Collette’s late father. Collette is convinced that the book contains important secrets and may be the key to the mystery of her murdered brother.
I have to say, despite my issues with A Borrowed Man, the ideas in it are fascinating. Smithe lives in an outwardly perfect world where civilization has been replaced by another system entirely, and most of humanity’s problems have been eradicated with the population down to a sustainable billion or so. However, dig deeper and you’ll discover that those problems aren’t really gone—just carefully hidden or swept aside like they don’t exist. Then there’s the situation with reclones. As library property, we’ve already established that Smithe isn’t considered a real person, but it gets even darker and more disturbing than that. Like other library resources that get too old or outdated, reclones are disposed of when they demand for them dwindles or when they aren’t borrowed anymore. Those who outlive their usefulness are drugged and then thrown unceremoniously into an incinerator.
But ideas only got this story so far. The plot started well enough before going downhill very early on; the narrative had me but then it lost me, which is perhaps the most frustrating feeling of all when a great mystery doesn’t meet its potential. I didn’t feel that the story was well developed, with frequent derailments by trivial matters that added nothing to the mystery. These overcomplicated devices only made things feel more tedious, along with a protagonist who was uninspiring, irritating, and repetitive. I wasn’t entirely ambivalent about the ending and how things would play out, but neither did I feel all that invested in solving the mystery.
Audiobook comments: I’ve enjoyed many audiobook narrated by Kevin T. Collins in the past, and I think he’s great. However, I felt he was the completely wrong choice to read this book. Collins is amazing in high-energy roles, which is the exact opposite of how I would describe the protagonist E.A. Smithe, who came across as fussy and somewhat prim and old-fashioned compared to those around him (which actually makes sense since his memories and mannerisms belonged to a man from an earlier time). I also pictured Smithe to be older man. Collins’ voice sounds much younger, marking him well suited for the Young Adult audiobooks I’ve listened to that were performed by him, but for A Borrowed Man, perhaps not so much.
Overall, I didn’t feel this novel lived up to its potential. As a noir mystery, the story fell short, but I did find a lot of the sci-fi aspects interesting and wished they had been better developed.