Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Birthday Review: Early Short Stories (and one obscure novel) by Algis Budrys

Birthday Review: Early Short Stories (and one obscure novel) by Algis Budrys

by Rich Horton

Algis Budrys was just a couple of months older than my father, and he'd have turned 88 today. He was one of my favorite SF writers. His best work, in my opinion, came mostly in the 1960s -- the remarkable novel Rogue Moon, the underappreciated novel The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn, and such stories as "For Love", "Wall of Crystal Eye of Night", "Be Merry", and a non-SF story, "The Master of the Hounds". He also did excellent later work: "The Silent Eyes of Time", "A Scraping at the Bones", and the novels Michaelmas and Hard Landing. Late in his life he edited the interesting small press magaine tomorrow (which became one of the first magazines to transition online), right after a period working for Writers of the Future and, by extension, the Church of Scientology, that hasn't reflected well on his reputation.

However, this collection of reviews focuses on his stories from the '50s (with one 1960s outlier that reads to me like a '50s story), as well as his very obscure early novel Man of Earth. He did some very strong work in the '50s as well, with "The End of Summer" in particular a very memorable piece.

Space Science Fiction, November 1952

Of the short stories, I liked Budrys' the best. It appears to have been tied for his first publication with "The High Purpose", which was in the November Astounding. "Walk to the World" is a bit slight -- it's about a boy, son of an accomplished spaceship Captain. His father often goes walking, seemingly looking for some place unexplored -- the "World" as opposed to "Home". But he always comes Home, of course. Then an old friend, now an Admiral, comes calling. It seems he is needed to leave his home, on a well-settled planet, and go encounter the "World" again, in the form of newly discovered aliens. The resolution is low key, and I liked the message, but really the story doesn't surprise at all. But the telling is very assured -- it may be the best written of all the stories in this issue. (I will confess that Budrys is a long time favorite of mine, and that I consider him sadly underrated (mainly because of his relatively small output, I am sure).) I also note the byline, "A. J. Budrys", which he doesn't seem to have used very often. (Though he seems to be called "Ajay" by his friends.)

Dynamic, October 1953

Budrys's "Snail's Pace" is a somewhat labored and cynical philosophical piece, in which an aging space pilot, who has battled to advance the space program against much resistance, goes into space to begin work on a space station just as a nuclear war is starting. He and his fellows soon realize there will be no further missions, and they debate throwing in with the apparently victorious Russians or simply giving up and heading home, and eventually the old guy decides to head home -- humanity has proven that it's not ready for space yet, and technological advance will return to a snail's pace. Not convincing.

Dynamic, January 1954

The rest of the issue is actually not bad, though not great. Budrys's "Desire No More" is a somewhat bitter story about a man so obsessed with being a space pilot that his life becomes meaningless when it becomes clear that even though he might be one he won't really be one in a significant sense. Good try, I thought, but not really successful.

Cosmos, July 1954

Budrys' novella is more interesting. I trust the only reason the Anderson story was the "feature" was that he (then and ever) had a much bigger name. "We Are Here" is one of a number of SF stories with titles taken from "Dover Beach", though I always thought there ought to be more. (Others include Kuttner's "Clash by Night", Bova's As On a Darkling Plain (others have also used this title), and Blaylock's Land of Dreams. (And arguably Pangborn's "The Night Wind".) It seems to me that "Ignorant Armies" could be a very good SFnal title.) (In case anyone questions the provenance of "We Are Here", the story opens with a quotation from Arnold's poem.)

"We Are Here" is an odd, rather confused, story, that seems quite ambitious and which I thought could have been awfully good but doesn't quite work.  It opens with a scoundrel and sneak thief using his superior psychological abilities to take a car from another man. In the process he murders the man and rifles the car, which turns out to contain some intriguing items. The thief has found other such items before, and he is convinced that he is on the trail of a fantastic opportunity, if he can only arrange a meeting with the organization producing these on a favorable footing. On another thread, the murder investigation, by a smart cop, is strangely derailed by his superior. We quickly learn that the superior is a part of this mysterious organization -- which turns out to be composed of nonhumans -- beings from some other dimension, perhaps. For hard to comprehend reasons, they are working for an economic takeover of Earth -- by offering fabulous products at ridiculous prices. I never quite understood the economic footing of all this, and for this reason, and other hard to grasp motivations, the story founders. But much of it is interesting, and as often with Budrys, told a bit slant and featuring nearly psychotic but still intriguing characters.

Astounding, November 1954

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
The lead novelette, Budrys' "The End of Summer", is a well-known story, perhaps Budrys' first major work. It's just under 10,000 words. It's a fine story indeed. The viewpoint character, Kester Fay, is returning to America after a couple of centuries away. We soon gather that humanity is immortal, with a concomitant increase in concern about safety. Fay is a Dilettante, or Dilly, and the more conservative Homebodies and Workers resent that. Though there is another group, Hoppers, even less conservative than Dillies.

Fay runs over a boy's dog on the way home, and we learn more about the strangeness of this society. It seems no one remembers very well -- at first I assumed because of the weight of immortal years, but the real reason is stranger. So the disapproving conservative parents of the boy resolve to erase memories of the dog from their "tapes". And soon the "tapes" become the focus. We finally learn that Kester Fay was the man who decided to keep humanity from death -- at the cost, apparently, of memory, though humans learn artificial means (the tapes) of preserving at least SOME memory.

In the end this is a very odd story -- in one way an indictment of the danger of immortality, but a rather oddly slanted look at that old theme. I think it's a very effective story, and really rather spooky, though I thought the way in which Kester Fay is revealed to be the genius behind the whole setup was a bit of a weak point. Still, it deserves its sterling reputation, and it's a story that continues to live in my memory.

Science Fiction Stories, January 1955

The other short story is by a much better known writer, to say the least, Algis Budrys. "The Two Sharp Edges" comes early in his career, but it is serious and ambitious and real-seeming in a way these other stories just aren’t. That said, it comes just short of the real wow factor ... it’s a good story, not great one. It tells of a soldier who has been granted the right to an abandoned farm after a devastating war. He restores it to productivity, and then one night a man and his sons visit ... they’re clearly down on their luck. It turns out -- no surprise -- that they were the former owners; but were on the losing side. The story turns on the conversation between the soldier and the former owner, which turns again on this man’s particular secret. There’s no violence nor bitterness, just a sadness at what war does, and another sadness, about home and the loss of home.

If, June 1955

There are two novelettes. Algis Budrys' "The Strangers" (14,000 words) is a vaguely Sturgeonesque story that shows promise but ends weakly. Wes Spencer, a bitter 24 year old drunk, is confronted in a bar by a man who knows things about him he shouldn't, and who in particular says "Mr. Laban is dead". This prompts memories of Mr. Laban, a sort of quasi-Uncle who used to visit Spencer throughout his youth, teaching him things, giving him money and assistance, and hinting at a great future. But all this had ended 6 years before -- Wes is at college, on a football scholarship, when he is severely injured, apparently on purpose by mysterious enemies of Mr. Laban. Mr. Laban sadly abandons him -- it seems he's no use anymore to whatever mysterious purpose he has. Spencer is left with a job and the memory of a girl he was supposed to meet but never had. Then, by coincidence (it seems) he meets a girl -- the girl -- and learns that her story was similar: meetings with Mr. Laban, then abandonment when for some reason she falls short. Together, however, they are able to piece together the real story -- which turns out to be pretty disappointing, in my opinion anyway. Still, all in all an OK story. Perhaps it was hurt in my eyes because I was so reminded of Sturgeon, and because Budrys could not drive to a really Sturgeonesque revelation.

Infinity, October 1956

Algis Budrys' "Lower Than Angels" is a Campbellian gimmick story that went to Infinity instead -- an explorer assigned to contact the primitive aliens on a new planet is disillusioned by the belief that the corporation he works for will simply exploit them -- but his efforts to make real contact are doomed because the aliens insist on believing him to be a god.  All that is worked out sensibly enough -- then the last two pages give an unconvincing twist.

Astounding, February 1957

"The War is Over" is about a man of a race of beings who have obsessively worked for generations to build a spaceship.  He is the chosen pilot, and he makes his way to an Earth ship.  He gives the Captain his message: "The War is Over!" -- then collapses into gibbering idiocy.  We learn that he is a descendant of a lizard -- forcibly evolved over centuries by the communications device implanted within the original courier, who crashlanded on the lizard's planet but who was compelled to find a way to deliver the message no matter how long it took.  Reading it as a teen I just thought that so powerful -- but Budrys' delivery seemed rather clunky on this rereading.

If, May 1963

"Die, Shadow!" is sort of weirdly semi-old-fashioned for the Algis Budrys of the 60s -- reads more like an early 50s Planet Stories piece. A space pilot crashes on Venus, and saves his life by suspended animation. He is awakened millennia later by people who regard him as a god, and asked to intervene in a war between humanity and beings from another dimension, "Shadows". Both sides in the war turn out to be wrong -- only the "god" can set things right. Odd sort of thing.

Man of Earth (1958 novel based on "The Man From Earth", from the October 1956 Satellite)

(Cover by Richard Powers)
This is a 1958 novel (never reprinted -- apparently Budrys won't allow a reprint), based on a 1956 novella, "The Man From Earth". It actually opens intriguingly enough, with Allen Sibley, a corrupt stockbroker in a regimented future, contemplating a mysterious stranger's offer of a way out of his legal troubles. He learns that he can be altered completely -- in body and mind -- and indeed greatly improved, while retaining his memories.

He jumps at the chance, only to be shanghaied to the failing colony on Pluto, albeit after the alteration treatment has been given him, apparently successfully. Now calling himself John L. Sullivan, he ends up in the Army, having no marketable skills. The second section of the book is the story of his advancement in the Army, and his eventual overcoming of the malign and/or corrupt sorts about him. It is awful stuff, Heinlein-imitation at its worst, totally cliché, reading like the worst of contemporary "coming of age" Mil-SF only without much SFnal kick. It seems that the colonists on Pluto are planning a sort of revenge attack on Earth -- but then at the conclusion there is an easily predictable twist ... The twist is actually acceptable, nothing great, but I can imagine a tolerable novelette having been made of the beginning (cut), a different middle section (drastically cut) and the conclusion. I have no idea if the novella "The Man From Earth" is by any chance that "tolerable novelette", though I doubt it.

(One of the most egregious weaknesses of this novel is the way that Allen Sibley and John L. Sullivan are completely different characters, with no detectable linkage except the author saying so. I almost wonder if this isn't really two failed stories clumsily mashed together.)


  1. A slight temporal error--Budrys began TOMORROW SPECULATIVE FICTION after he quit the Writers of the Future program and other official duties as a CoS publishing employee...and the first issue of TOMORROW was published by Pulphouse, a project of CoS members who were by that time facing some serious diminishing returns, so Budrys took it over completely with the second issue onward...and was able to do so, I think, because of the money he'd made via WotF.

    As I noted elsewhere a few minutes ago, this indeed very bad novel (the only Budrys novel I think to be bad, as opposed to some of the early ones being the work of a promising writer not yet on top of the form, as well as fiddled with in FALSE NIGHT's case) is mostly interesting to the extent that it deals with Budrys's coping with the ridiculously involuted past of his parents, and particularly that of his father, when both had been spies and otherwise involved with all sorts of Lithuanian espionage, military activity and the like, and his paternal line engaged thus for more than one generation...a very odd legacy to feel obligation to.

  2. Several of the shorter works you cite here...I think "The Two Sharp Edges" perhaps most starkly...are also in reaction to that upbringing and sense of responsibility as much as anything else. He also thought "Die, Shadow!" an odd story, his attempt to write a straightforward adventure story to fit the desired mode at Pohl's IF...

    1. Thanks, Todd. I've updated the wording to more correctly sequence his last projects. Wasn't THE FALLING TORCH also a reflection of his father's job?

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  4. And his mother was also s spy. She didn't have the military component to her career, nor as eventful a career, I believe, but was also in the espionage business before the diplo business with her husband. Being a diplo family alone is a weird thing in certain predictable ways, much like being a political family.