Tuesday, 29 August 2017


Algis Budrys Who? (1958)
This was written a year before The Falling Torch, the only other one I've read by Algis Budrys, and is informed by many of the same cold war preoccupations. I'm not sure if this is due to the era or just Budrys working out some of the baggage of his eastern European origin, hailing from a country occupied by the Nazis and then the Soviet Union. I seem to remember enjoying The Falling Torch, even if it was a bit single-minded in its focus, and Who? is mostly the same deal. I'm not really convinced that he was ever the best science-fiction author since H.G. Wells, as Kingsley Amis put it.

The story is faithful to Asimov's edict of good science-fiction only ever containing one element of the fantastic or implausible - an edict which I'd say is proven demonstrably and unnecessarily Cromwellian by A.E. van Vogt - and here the element is Lucas Martino, our main man. He's the scientist behind some important but poorly defined breakthrough, and so he's been taken prisoner by those weasely Soviets. We don't know if he revealed his secrets, but now they've given him back, except he was a bit poorly so they fixed him by giving him a metal head; and this means we can't actually be sure it's Martino. It may even be some guy the reds have sent to steal the secret of whatever Martino was working on, and so on and so forth.

It works fine if we assume Martino's fingerprints were never taken and that they were yet to develop DNA testing, but I found it difficult to really appreciate the weight of a story so grounded in cold war politics, given that we now know it was all bluff and bullshit. There are other problems too, notably the contrast between whatever advanced technology might furnish a guy with a metal head, and the rest of the world inhabited by these people. For example, released back into society, Martino goes to a pharmacy and asks to use their telephone, all the while trailed by government agents waiting to see what he'll do, whether he'll give himself away as an imposter. Once Martino has made his call and left, our agents take the phone books from the pharmacy so as to inspect them and hopefully deduce just who it was that Martino could have called by looking for the tell tale signs of pressure left by a finger running up and down a single page in search of a particular number. They obtain the directories by ingeniously sending a guy into the pharmacy under the pretence of using the phone, a guy with a suitcase containing identical phone books which he substitutes for those to which Martino referred. The whole operation is laboured, bewildering, and doesn't do much for one's suspension of disbelief. Why? might have been a better title.

So the espionage is all unfortunately fairly dull.

On the other hand, Budrys alternates espionage with glimpses of Martino's youth, back before he had a metal head. The detail is lovely, haunting, and beautifully written, and I would assume it was such passages which inspired Kingsley Amis to draw the comparison with Wells. Who? is a decent novel, but for reasons other than those which seemed most crucial to whoever wrote the blurb on the back cover, and it probably would have made for a better short story.

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