Yesterday's Tomorrows: Algis Budrys
by Graham Sleight
from Locus Magazine, June 2008
Who?, Algis Budrys (Pyramid, 158pp, pb) 1958. Cover by Robert V. Engel.
Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys (Fawcett/Gold Medal, 176pp, pb) 1960. Cover by Richard Powers.
Michaelmas, Algis Budrys (Berkley/Putnam, 254pp, hc) 1977. Cover by Don Brautigam.
So far, in writing this column, I've followed a self-imposed rule: to talk only about books that are currently in print in the English language, and that I assume Locus readers can easily get hold of. I've bent it a little in the past, but not broken it as I'm about to. The author I want to discuss this time seems to have none of his work available in North America, the UK, or Australia, although a couple of his books were reissued in 2000 and 2001. That said, given the online book-finding resources available these days, it shouldn't be too difficult to track them down. I want to make the case that it's worth doing so.
Algis Budrys is known, as much as anything, as an SF critic these days. He received the Pilgrim Award from the SFRA last year, I guess principally in recognition of many years of criticism in the SF magazines. But to me, his three major novels Who?, Rogue Moon, and Michaelmas are an achievement of central importance to the SF field, all the more because each tries to do something different, with an approach and structure reshaped each time.
Who? (1958) carries from its first words the burden of the era in which it was written. The time is the Cold War, and the opening scene shows a scientist, Lucas Martino, returning to the "Allied Sector" from the "Soviet Sector". He was originally an Allied scientist, but fell into the hands of the Soviets and was injured in an explosion. He is returned to the Allies with metal prostheses replacing one arm and covering his head. It's not at all clear why the Soviets have made this supposedly generous gesture, especially since Martino had scientific knowledge that would have been invaluable to them.
So the question for the Allies in the person of a relentless investigator, Shawn Rogers is whether the man with the metal head really is Martino or a spy posing as him. Other ways of settling the question (fingerprints, distinguishing marks) are ruled out of court, and some that would be used now (DNA fingerprinting) aren't available in the world of this book. Rogers's investigation is told in chapters alternating with ones telling the story of Martino's earlier life. Or, perhaps I should say, purporting to tell the story of Martino's life, since one has to allow the possibility of unreliable narration. Either way, though, the questions raised are the same. What makes you you? Your body, your mind, your memories?
Martino grows up in New Jersey, the possibility and promise of New York across the water. He shows an early aptitude for science not just in his skills but his mind-set: he "couldn't ignore a fact." He rapidly ascends the academic ladder placed before him, at the same time growing into adulthood. He spends formative time in Greenwich Village, an account poignantly juxtaposed with the contemporary story: the metal-faced "Martino" walking the same streets, attracting stares, all the while under investigation from Rogers and his team.
Rogers's obsession with trying to crack the case is frightening, and perhaps intended as such. In a sense, the novel tries and rejects various methodologies for solving it just as Rogers does. Pure science doesn't get them the answer, and nor do the surveillance tools of detection. In the end, there's a climactic conversation between Rogers and "Martino", but that leaves the issues as ambiguous as before. Budrys seems to be saying that, in the end, no-one can answer questions about you except you. As much as the state (Soviet or US) would like to know you, some things are irreducibly private Who? gets to some remarkably deep issues in a brief compass (160 pages), and does so without flashiness of style or a feeling that its conclusion is anything but right. One's abiding memory of the book is how starkly questioning it is, while at the same time carrying passages that are straightforward yet freighted with emotion like this:
On that particular Monday, the weather held good. The sun shone down just warmly enough to make the streets comfortable, and the narrow Village sidewalks were crowded by the chairs that the old people sat on beside their front stoops, talking to each other and their old friends passing by. The younger men who did not have to go to work leaned against parked cars and sat on their fenders, and the Village girls walked by self-consciously. People brought their dogs out on the grass of Washington Square Park, and on the back streets there was laundry drying on the lines strung between fire escapes.
The scientist's eye, concealing an unknowable heart. Here's another Budrys passage about a child's memory of a cold winter night:
It was cold enough to make my eyes water, and I found out that if I kept them almost closed, the moisture diffused the lamps so that everything the Moon, the stars, the streetlamp seemed to have halos and points of scattered light around it. The snowbanks seemed to glitter like a sea of spun sugar, and all the stars were woven together by a lace of incandescence, so that I was walking through a universe so wild, so wonderful, that my heart nearly broke with its beauty. For years, I carried that time and place in my mind. It's still there. But the thing is, the universe didn't make it. I did.
That's from Rogue Moon (1960), a novel that takes the themes of Who? identity, ethics, memory, scientific obsession and intensifies its gaze on them. But it also has a new concern, death. Like its predecessor, it uses an almost arbitrary science-fictional device to examine an existential question, in a way that a mimetic novel never could. The premise, briefly, is as follows. In the near-future, humans have discovered an artefact on the Moon, which appears to be non-natural. Astronauts have entered it and, without fail, been killed. The Moon has been reached by an odd kind of matter-transmitter or, more accurately, matter duplicator. An astronaut on Earth is duplicated on the surface of the Moon; his duplicate can then begin to explore the artefact while the other remains safe on Earth. But some sensations are shared between the two, and in particular the trauma of death within the artefact is experienced as an unbearable agony for the survivor of the pair. Otherwise healthy, sane men are driven to catatonia by the shock, and so no incremental knowledge about the artefact no progress can be achieved.
The project to understand the artefact is being led by Dr Edward Hawks, and the opening scenes of the book see him dealing with another astronaut who has experiences death-by-proxy. He realises that he needs to find someone who can withstand this shock, repeatedly, in order to make any progress within the artefact. The company that employs Hawks sends him to meet Al Barker, and Hawks has an intuition that Barker may be able to take on the task. So Barker is briefed, sent into the artefact, and, as it were, survives death. It's clearly a worse experience than he's ever had before, but it's one he can endure. So he goes back again and again, and begins to make progress through the structure. It appears, though it's scarcely the point of Rogue Moon, that there's a complex permitted route through the artefact, and that any deviation from it will be fatal. Therefore, ultimate success for Barker will be to emerge on the other side of the artefact.
The alien structure, though, is not the focus of Rogue Moon. Most of the novel is taken up with the relationship between Barker and Hawks and theirs with those around them. Sooner or later, you begin to realise that both these people are, by any normal standard, mad. Hawks is prepared to put aside any canons of scientific ethics to achieve his goal. (Even though he notionally has Barker's consent for what he's doing, it's so obviously monstrous and Barker is so obviously not in his right mind that it's not a difficult question.) Barker, meanwhile, seems at first an overwhelming egotist, but soon seems more and more like someone empty at the core which is what enables him to survive the death-experience.
We're allowed a particular insight into Hawks's worldview through passages like the winter memory I quoted above. One of the questions it raises, as does Who?, is how we get to our adult selves from such apparently uncomplicated childhood memories. What is it that's made Hawks willing to do what he does? But there are other questions too. Why does Barker agree to take on the assignment? Is it as simple as he says that he wants to be able to prove himself better than any opponent? Why does Hawks accompany him on the last visit to the artefact? And what can be made of the endings of their stories both ambiguous and far from triumphant?
Like Who?, Rogue Moon unpacks into a series of tensions moral, social, personal far more testing than its brevity would suggest. Its mysteries cannot be reduced to neat answers even on a fourth or fifth reading. Although it never won a major award (it was beaten to the Hugo by Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz) and, as I said, is hard to get hold of now, it still seems to me one of the half-dozen essential SF novels.
In Who?, a part of Rogers's motivation is explained as follows: "The [Cold] war was in the world's filing cabinets. The weapon was information: things you knew, things you'd found out about them, things they knew about you." This intuition, that the post-World War II world would be governed by power relationships stemming from the ownership of information, has proved spectacularly prescient, especially since computers entered the home in the early 80s. But well before the cyberpunk boom started, Budrys had in Michaelmas (1977) produced a novel whose central question was to what ends an information-governed world could be manipulated.
It has to be said, straight off, that a lot changed in Budrys's writing in the gap between Rogue Moon and Michaelmas. The former Budrys, I'm sure, would never have used as flowery a description as this, of landing at an alpine airport: "Michaelmas descended just behind Watson and Campion, into a batting of light reflected from every surface, into a cup of nose-searing cool washed brilliance whose horizon was white mountaintops higher than clouds." Since a lot of the attraction of early Budrys was his ability to get at the deepest questions through prose of journalistic directness, this change in approach is a bit of a shock. A character like Hawks might speak in a heightened way at a moment of extreme emotion, like the passage about winter quoted above. But it's quite a shift for the narrative itself to relay extreme emotion like that.
Michaelmas is a near-future thriller, whose premise (as in Budrys's earlier books) is laid out from the start. Laurent Michaelmas is a middle-aged newsman, "his round, nearly hairless head founded on a short, broad jaw." He's ostensibly respectable, calm, safe. But he's also a kind of secret master of the world. He owns a computer, Domino, which allows him access to the world's data-networks, and so helps to unpick the plot. The starting-point is the apparent resurrection of a dead astronaut; Michaelmas swiftly realises that this is somehow suspicious and sets off to try to unpick the mystery.
The book's plot is far more intricate than the earlier two novels, but the mysteries at its heart are far more orthodox far more regularly science-fictional than one might expect. There are two things that distinguish Michaelmas. The first is the person of Michaelmas himself. Budrys requires us to accept, more or less as an axiom, that this is a person whose access to the sum of human knowledge will leave him uncorrupted. Like the implacability of the lunar artefact, it's not a premise you can argue with. You either accept that Michaelmas is as he is portrayed, and that the book's resulting optimism is something you can believe, or you don't.
From the point of view of science fiction's genealogy, the depiction of the uses of information is the most arresting feature. Like other proto-cyberpunk works such as Tiptree's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (1973) and John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975), Michaelmas manages to capture something of the ubiquity of information that we're now experiencing even if it doesn't foresee exactly the means by which we can access it. It differs from cyberpunk in radically downplaying the extent to which information will be owned by corporations and used to exert leverage over their competitors. Instead, Michaelmas finds himself most preoccupied with governments and the UN bodies almost invisible in works like Gibson's Neuromancer (1984). So, once you get past the thriller plot, Michaelmas now reads rather oddly, as a kind of counterfactual. This is the road not taken: the road we might have taken if humans were better, if human knowledge was encompassable by someone like Michaelmas. So you close the book with a kind of melancholy.
These are not Budrys's only works of note, of course. His short fiction, collected in volumes like The Unexpected Dimension (1960), has the same apparent straightforwardness and deep thoughtfulness as his best novels. His criticism stands with that of Blish, Russ, and Knight as an essential body of work by an SF practitioner. But these novels, and Rogue Moon in particular, are something unique in the field. They should be remembered.
Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and becomes editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.
Graham Sleight is one of eight regular Locus reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of new books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.