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Yesterday’s Tomorrows Today

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When Algis Budrys died last year all his books were out of print in the UK, even the Hugo-nominated Rogue Moon (1960). I found a copy of this a couple of years ago, thought it was the best SF novel I’d read all year and vowed to track down more of his work. On my first trip to Hay-On-Wye last year I found copies of The Falling Torch (1959) and The Iron Thorn (1967) in the basement of Booth’s and I’ve just got round to reading them.

The plot of The Falling Torch seems like that of a conventional pulp: one man must free Earth from enslavement by alien invaders. This is certainly the impression the back cover blurb gives but anyone buying it on the strength of this is likely to be disappointed given how comprehensively it undermines the expected narrative. The opening chapter describes the state funeral of President Michael Wireman, emancipator of Earth. Interestingly it is written from the perspective of an anonymous young politicitian who is poised to succeed him having out maunovered the other contenders:

They were plainly identified in the public eye as subordinates. They were too far up the ladder to be rising young men; too well branded as not having enough ability to wrest position at the very top.

This gets to the very heart of the novel; this isn’t a story about adventure, it is a story about work. The Falling Torch is a novel that is obsessed with hierarchy. The next chapter moves back in time and out of the solar system to the government in exile where again we are confronted with further people politics. The outcome is that Wireman is sent to Earth to make contact with the leader of the rebels. He turns out to be a gangster and proto-dictator and another power game ensue. The pattern repeats itself again and again.

The Falling Torch, with its jerky, episodic structure, isn’t an entirely successful novel. Most of the things we might expect to see – the actual liberation, for example – take place entirely offscreen. Instead Budrys concentrates on the the more prosaic struggle for dominance in every day situations and, more problematically and less convincingly, on Wireman’s psychological uniqueness. Essentially he saves the planet by a unique and beautiful snowflake. We are repeatedly told that Wireman is not like other men but we are only told it, never shown it, and his personal quest for satori never rings true. (Apparently it sold a quarter of a million copies, God only knows what people made of it.)

Although The Iron Thorn was only published eight years later it seems infinitely more modern (although it doesn’t contain any meaningful female characters either.) Its plot is furnished with contemporary SF tropes such as genetic engineering, grumpy AIs and nanotech and it is less wilfully abstract. It opens in a science fantasy landscape that turns out to be Mars where a human called Honor White Jackson is hunting a beast called an Amsir as part of an initiation ritual. Jackson is another square peg in a round hole and from here the book onion skins out as he chaffs against his societal constraints. This expanding sphere of knowledge about the universe is handled very well and Budrys is rather better at portraying Jackson’s exceptionalism than Wireman’s though.

In his Yesterday’s Tomorrows column Graham Sleight implicitly describes these as minor work in Budrys’ canon. My selection was entirely informed by availability but I’m glad I read them, The Iron Thorn in particular. On the inside of my copy of the book his publishers describe Budrys as being “universally regarded as a great storyteller in the tradition of Kipling, Wells and Tolkein.” At the time this must just have seemed like hubris but now it is quite sad. It would be wonderful to see a publisher putting these books back into print, particularly since they are only a 150 pages long and you could plausibly collect all his novels in one omnibus.

Written by Martin

8 February 2009 at 17:29

Posted in books, sf

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