Science Fiction in Perspective: Who? Is Algis Budrys
By the time this column appears, the verdicts of both the critics and the public will probably be in on a new movie called WHO? It hadn't premiered as of this writing, and all the advance notices revealed was that it stars Elliott Gould. Considering the track record for science fiction movies, SF fans probably didn't have their hopes too high. But good, bad, or indifferent, WHO? could have a beneficial effect—if it draws some attention to the man on whose novel it is based. His name is Algis Budrys, and however he gets it, he is long overdue for wider recognition.
Budrys, born in Prussia in 1931 of Lithuanian parents (his father was later consul- general of the Lithuanian government-in-exile, and he holds a captain's commission in its army), has had his ups and downs. He was once editor of Playboy Press—but at the time of the recent energy crisis had the ill fortune to be working for a trade publication of the mobile home industry. In science fiction, he has held assorted editorial jobs, and has written reviews for GALAXY. All of which doesn't matter much—what does matter is a handful of novels and short story collections like WHO?, ROGUE MOON, BUDRYS' INFERNO and UNEXPECTED DIMENSION that rank among the neglected classics of SF.
Budrys exemplifies a philosophical strain in science fiction that might be called Darwinian Existentialism. He isn't the only one to express this outlook—much of Lester del Rey's SF does, for example, and one can find it in the hard-line Heinlein ("Sky Lift"), Poul Anderson ("Starfog"), Tom Godwin ("The Cold Equations") and others. But the confrontation between caring Man and an uncaring universe is more central, perhaps, to Budrys than to any other SF writer, and the struggle to assert human values in a universe utterly indifferent to them is a continuing theme throughout his work.
His best novel, ROGUE MOON (1960), which may also soon be filmed—at least, there were offers not long ago—is one of the starkest dramatizations of his theme. It may see print again under the title Budrys originally intended for it: THE DEATH MACHINE.
On the Moon, human explorers have found a structure, "a formation so terrible and incomprehensible that it couldn't even be described in human terms." What it is and why it is there, no one knows—but those who have tried to find out have been killed, "again and again in tortuous, unfathomable wars." The only means of exploring the structure is through use of a matter transmitter that can duplicate the explorers on the Moon while their original bodies remain on Earth in a state of sensory deprivation. The duplicates remain in telepathic contact as long as their experiences are identical. Explorers can simultaneously be killed in the structure on the Moon—and remain alive, with the memories of what they learned about it, on Earth. The only problem is, every explorer who has tried it has gone insane from the experience of his own death—and can be cured only by electroshock amnesia.
Dr. Edward Hawks, head of the exploration project, takes one last gamble: as his next volunteer, he seeks Al Barker—a suicidal maniac who should be psychologically prepared to face the threat of the structure if any man can. ROGUE MOON is the story of their relationship, as Barker"dies" again and again.
Budrys insists his intention was to write the "ultimate machine story"—a realistic rebuttal to a common SF plot of the 1930's in which men learned to understand and operate alien devices overnight. But ROGUE MOON becomes more than that—the structure seems to symbolize Budrys' attitude toward the universe itself, and Hawks rarely misses an opportunity to make the comparison. Even Barker barely manages to cling to his sanity after his first encounter with the structure:
"Hawks!" he shouted as though from behind a thick glass wall. "Hawks, it didn't care! I was nothing to it. I was—" His mouth locked partly open and the tip of his tongue fluttered against the backs of his upper teeth. "N-n-n.…N o-N-nothing!"
But this is something Hawks has always understood:
"Death is only the operation of a mechanism. All the universe has been running down from the moment of its creation. Did you expect a machine to care what it acted upon?…Flags and flowers are the inventions of life. When a man dies he falls into enemy hands—an ignorant enemy, who doesn't merely spit on banners but who doesn't even know what banners are."
Seemingly the typical complaint of the existentialist against the Godless universe—save that Hawks hasn't a trace of the self-pity that characterizes those usually called existentialists. Hawks knows the universe doesn't care—but he doesn't expect it to. It is enough for humans to care, and to struggle to create meaningful experience from a "meaningless" environment.
He tries to explain this to the woman he loves:
"Only one thing in the universe grows fuller, and richer, and forces its way uphill—intelligence, human lives—we're the only things there are that don't obey the universal law. The universe kills our bodies…in the end, it kills our brains. But our minds.…There's the precious thing, there's the phenomenon that has nothing to do with time and space except to use them—to describe to itself the lives our bodies live in the physical Universe."
In the end, Hawks and Barker must make the final journey through the structure together—but they still perceive it in different ways, and though it may one day be safely disassembled and reassembled—as any natural laws may be understood—its purpose remains elusive, as does the purpose, if any, of the universe itself.
Budrys' philosophy shows up strongly in a number of his short stories as well. The hero of "The Executioner" (1955) is a "judge" in a future society where genetic laws are strictly enforced to ensure the supremacy of the biologically "superior"—in trials of chance, where judges wield the guns and the only "appeals" are to the Messire, Who may miraculously reverse the judges' "verdicts." Samuel Joyce is an honest judge—although he doesn't realize it, he is one of the few pillars of the establishment who actually believes in the Messire and His divine justice. Then he is confronted with the evidence that there is no Messire—and that the "truth" for which he has lived is a lie.…
In "Between the Dark and the Daylight," (1958), which Budrys considers his best story, human colonists are marooned on a hellish planet where they can live only under the protection of a concrete dome that may soon succumb to the attacks of savage animals without. Generation by generation, they have bred themselves toward a new form capable of living in the outside environment, and Sean Brendan, leader of the colony, must release the last generation of children into that outside environment—although he knows they already sense their parents don't belong in their world, and will return to kill them even as the animals had tried to.
"The Burning World" (1957) is of interest to libertarians, in dramatizing the struggle to create a libertarian society—against the harsh realities of social inertia and threats from the outside world. Here, the resistance of the social environment is as remorseless as that of the physical universe in other Budrys stories.
WHO?—the novel, if not the movie—tells the story of an American scientist who has been captured by the Soviets after a near-fatal explosion in his laboratory near the East German border, then returned as such a patchwork of regrafted and artificial parts that no one can be sure if it's really him. Martino knows who he is—but he can't convince anyone else, and the story is not so much an espionage thriller (although it takes that form) as a psychological exploration of what it means to a man who cannot prove his identity, and is not allowed to live his life or do his work or otherwise be himself.
Budrys has never been a best-seller like Heinlein or Asimov. His works have gone through one or two printings at most, and are usually hard to find. Yet his relatively small following has been a devoted one, for the best of his work has an almost unique psychological impact. If even a bad movie—with, no doubt a tie-in reprinting of WHO?, possibly leading to new editions of his other works—can lead other readers to discover his appeal, it will be all to the good.
John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Science Fiction in Perspective: Who? Is Algis Budrys".