Clubhouse: Book Reviews: Two Books by Algis Budrys

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Algis Budrys (1931 – 2008) was well known as a penetrating critic and a brilliant editor, but also as an author whose work transcended mere entertainment for good or ill (depending on what you think of his wry, cynical approach to complex subjects), most notably in “Rogue Moon” (1960) and “Michaelmas” (1977). He was also quite a nice guy. Met him several times at various VCONs. He even bought me lunch once. (Can’t remember why. Maybe he found my ignorance and naivete refreshing.) All I can say is, he was a man well worth listening to, no matter what the subject.

By the way, what follows are not so much book reviews as a mini-course describing two novels I figure you should know about but will probably never get around to reading. If I am wrong and eventually you’ll hunt them down, then spoiler alert! I talk about whatever aspect of these books intrigue me. If that means giving away the ending, then so be it.

The Falling Torch

By Algis Budrys  – Published January 1962 (second printing), copyright 1959, by Pyramid Books.

Earth has been enslaved by alien Invaders. The President in exile, living on a now independent Earth colony on Cheiron, a planet circling Alpha Centaurus IV, arranges to have a thousand advanced rifles delivered to the Earth, along with his son, to lead the resistance. What could be simpler? Awkward young son makes mistakes, learns to be a real man, picks up a love interest, inspires humanity, then liberates the Earth amid select violence showcasing the young man’s courage and skill with his fists. Perfect plot for a potboiler of a novel, or your typical SF movie. Ho hum.

Except this potboiler is written by Algis Budrys, which is to say, the plot points are unexpected, the characters complex and realistic, the motives constantly evolving, and the underlying lesson intelligent and well-thought out, almost convincing, in fact, offering profound insight into Man’s political conundrum past, present and future. Makes you think, that does. Oh, and no love interest. Would be irrelevant to the necessity of the moment.

The novel begins with the ending, the death of Michael Wireman, ruler of the liberated Earth and universally worshipped supreme leader. His followers remain stunned, they thought their glorious leader would live forever, but already the bright young men attending his funeral are beginning to plot against each other.

Flash back fifty-four years to a cabinet meeting chaired by Ralph Wireman, President of the Earth government-in-exile. A very dreary meeting indeed, held in the kitchen of Ralph’s tiny, run-down apartment. Turns out the Centaurian government has zero interest in liberating Earth. Who cares for the home world of mankind? It’s been four-hundred years since the colony was established. The Centaurians can’t be bothered to give Ralph the time of day. A small pension, yes, but nothing else. His cabinet members, refugees all, earn their meagre living as chefs, lawyers, salesmen and other non-political professionals. Their government is nothing more than an old man’s club. So, when Ralph announces that the Centaurians are giving them some obsolete weapons and offering to drop them off on Earth along with an agent of their choice, half the cabinet quits. They don’t want to give up their day jobs. A disheartening beginning to the grand rebellion. Not the usual rah-rah enthusiasm readers normally anticipate. A very original approach by Budrys.

The President’s son Michael Wireman gets dropped, literally dropped, into a mountainous region on Earth, along with a Centaurian liaison named Isaac Potter. They meet up with General Hammil, self-appointed leader of the resistance, and Newsted, a gruff, no-nonsense soldier advising Hammil. Both treat Michael with disrespect as an inexperienced youth of no account. He senses he will have to prove himself worthy of their attention. So far, about what the reader would expect.

Budrys springs surprises. Turns out Hammil and Newsted aren’t worthy of Michael’s respect. Hammil, though physically impressive and a charismatic speaker, is a shallow twit afraid to take on the invaders, a clod of a general who prefers fighting with other bands of brigands in the mountains. Newsted has battle smarts, but is so uncaring, blunt, and rude that his own men want to kill him. Not a born leader. The resistance is a bit of a fraud, frankly.

Finally, though, Hammil is talked into leading a ten-man squad against a “Vader” blockhouse on a mountain road. Once the squad blasts its way into the blockhouse (the Centaurian rifles are VERY powerful) Hammil angrily interrogates the jaded Vader commander and has him hung from the flagpole outside. Turns out he had a personal vendetta against the guy (Vaders resemble humans, you just can’t breed with them) who had examined him years earlier with a procedure called a “Classification Test” and had him declared incompetent. That was Hammil’s sole motive for agreeing to the attack. He had known that particular Vader was present and wanted to have his revenge.

Disgusted with Hammil’s petty nature, Michael chooses not to run into the hills with the others when Vader reinforcements arrive. Instead he quietly walks up to the aliens and surrenders. Took them by surprise. Took me by surprise. Seems he had grown up in exile with a very idealistic vision of the brave and courageous Earthmen fighting in the resistance, and the puerile reality was more than he could bear. He wasn’t just giving up his mission, he was giving up everything, he had no reason to live.

Michael grows more despondent when he realises the majority of “Earthies” rather admire the Vaders, who are clean and efficient and run things the same way. The cities are beautiful. The people are prosperous. Liberation is the last thing Earthies want. They hate and despise the resistance. Again, Budrys offers the unexpected.

Eventually Michael undergoes the classification test which involves forms to be filled out and being wired up to a machine festooned with “dials, keys, and input jack terminals.” Michael is eager to take the test, suddenly realising this would be his last chance to find his purpose in life. But he is also angry at the collapse of his dreams, and spars verbally with the human doctor administering the test. It is revealed that the doctor’s own classification test selected him to be the person who gives classification tests, which was a pity, since what he had really wanted to be was an opera singer. Oh well, at least he was good at his job, as the machine had predicted.

There’s a lot of talk about free will VS. voluntary servitude, about the universal desire to belong to something, anything, but in the end the nitty gritty is that Michael fails the test. As Dr. Hobart puts it “You haven’t come anywhere near being classified for anything … You may thirst for your proper niche—but there’s none for you … The machine says you’ve got an equally low aptitude for every field of work … What’s the advantage of having someone around who has a talent for universal mediocrity?”

This shocks Michael into an epiphany: his talent is he has no talent. He has no built-in skills to hinder him or handicap him. He’s perfectly free to stumble forward reacting to events as opportunity arises, confounding his enemies with his unpredictability, turning other people’s failed expectations against them. He is a born leader, in other words. All he has to do is adapt to unfolding events and the world will be his.

At the end of the book a decrepit President Ralph Wireman greets his son and acknowledges he has been manoeuvred out of office.  He muses “On Cheiron there had been no sign that Michael had the great thing a leader had to have—self-confidence; the knowledge that men were not one tenth as wise or sure as they pretended to be—not one-twentieth as purposeful in their own minds as they seemed to be; that they knew they needed direction, and automatically followed those who chose to lead the way …”

Considering present day affairs, Algis Budrys would seem to have been most prescient. Certainly, very wise. Nice to witness such realism in a work of fiction. A very good book, indeed.

The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn

By Algis Budrys – published 1967 by Fawcett Publications, Inc.

My favourite sort of SF is the big question mark, the bigger the better, be it a derelict alien spacecraft, mysterious alien ruins, or, in this case, a world which doesn’t seem to make sense and demands an explanation.

There’s a building-sized Iron Thorn sticking out of a desert on on what may be an alien planet. The automatic machinery in the Thorn provides water, breathable air, and other, unspecified stuff for a small colony of humans. Honors, men who have slain Amsirs, get to live inside. Circling the Thorn is a running track where young men build their endurance for running on sand. Circling that is a broad belt of miserable farmland inhabited by lowly farmers and their families, and beyond that a sea of sand dunes stretching to cliffs at a distant horizon.

The goal of the Honors is to chase down and kill an Amsir, a winged, flightless humanoid which dwells among the sand dunes. These creatures are very rare. They contain little meat. At best they’re a source of hard bits that can be carved into tools. The only significant thing about them is the enormous prestige that accrues to any young man who kills one and thus earns the right to be an “Honor.” Most Honors don’t live long. They either go out into the desert and never come back, or they kill each other for absurd, petty reasons. Why, seems like a social order designed to keep a limited number of humans within sustainable limits. A very rigid social order in which the only freedom to be found lies within the totally solitary hunt by an individual for an Amsir.

The book begins with White Jackson chasing an Amsir. It’s his first Amsir. He finds it beautiful, but is annoyed to discover its wings enable it to change direction faster than he can. He wants to cast his throwing-spear but it always manages to dart aside. He’s been taught Amsirs are mere animals, but is disconcerted to see it carries a spear of its own. Even more worrisome, it can speak and is rather rude. Apparently, White’s training had left out some important details. Why?

The first third of the book explores the nature of the very spartan and draconian society Jackson lives in. He resents the way the elder Honors manipulate everyone, and especially him. He doesn’t want to overthrow their rule and “liberate” people, he just figures he’s better than everybody else and deserves better. They raised him to be arrogant, and boy, did they succeed.

The second third of the book deals with Jackson, knowing that the first Amsir he killed had been trying to lure him away from the Thorn in order to capture him alive, walking out into the desert to yield to the next Amsir to come along. He doesn’t care what happens to him, he merely wants to find out what’s up with the Amsirs.

So far so good. Jackson is rather unlikeable, but I, too, am burning to find out the “truth” behind this rather artificial world. Turns out the Amsirs live around a second Iron Thorn. Seems their purpose in life is to capture humans and force them to find a way into a third Iron Thorn, a Thorn that kills Amsirs but tolerates humans climbing its outside ladder. The catch is, nothing the Amsirs grow is edible for a human. Jackson needs to get inside the third Thorn before he starves to death. Seems the Amsirs envision the interior to be a kind of paradise with food and other goodies for all. So, lots of incentive to break and enter.

Jackson figures out a way in. The mysterious, surreal atmosphere of the book shudders to a halt. The Third Thorn is a spaceship. You got your talking ship computer offering helpful advice, a talking robot doctor, and a knowledge implantation sequence which guarantees Jackson knows the answers to most of his questions. He’s on Mars. His society is a failed colony. The Amsirs are a colony of mutants descended from humans physically adapted to live on Mars. End of story, or, at least, the story of the humans and Amsirs on Mars. Seems rather abrupt.

The final third of the book is all about Jackson’s trip to Earth. Humanity runs around naked, relying on an omnipresent artificial computer named Comp to conjure up anything, be it clothes, buildings, or artificial landscapes, purely for the sake of amusement and one-upmanship. Jackson is a temporary hit when he is forced to demonstrate an Amsir hunt but afterwards, though welcomed into this rather shallow and petty society composed mostly of twits, is considered rather dull and provincial. Still, he feels he fits in just fine.

Oh, come on now! To go from surreal hard SF into a boring, bohemian utopia (or dystopia as I see it) is crushingly disappointing. What the heck is going on? What is Budrys getting at?

Bearing in mind I may not be the brightest bulb on the planet, I have the impression Budrys is saying there is some value in formal, oppressive social orders born of necessity, one learns to strive and dream after all, but that total freedom amounts to plenty of nothing, in that infinite variety and possibilities handed to you whenever you feel like it leads to boredom and a self-obsessed sense of entitlement that destroys everything worthwhile about being human. Well, bugger. Doesn’t stir my sense of wonder.

Strikes me the whole book is a setup to make fun of the traditional SF role of advocating a better world for a better tomorrow. No such thing, apparently. Cynical as all get out. What makes it worse is that Budrys is probably correct.

So, my glorious big question mark turned into a depressing sermon. I had expected something different, I don’t know what, but with the overall tone continued, ending with a burst of surreal fantasy both incomprehensible and satisfying. Something I would have found exhilarating, even inspiring. Not to be.

I’m sure some would say the first two thirds was “mere” hard SF and that the book finally took off into the stratosphere in the final section with clever, intellectual questioning of our assumptions, etc. etc. A masterpiece of philosophy, in fact. But, to me, an intriguing story was let down with a heavy thud. Sort of like reading the best of the early Philip K. Dick only to be gobsmacked by the worst of the later Philip K. Dick. Don’t like it. No, sir. Don’t like it. Feel betrayed.

BY THE WAY:

You can find a fantastic collection of zines at: Efanzines

You can find yet more zines at: Fanac Fan History Project

You can find a quite good selection of Canadian zines at: Canadian SF Fanzine Archive

And check out my website OBIR Magazine, which is entirely devoted to reviews of Canadian Speculative Fiction. Found at OBIR Magazine

And then check out my newest new website, devoted to my paying market SF fiction semi-pro zine Polar Borealis, at Polar Borealis Magazine

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