The Curmudgeon


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Algis Budrys

Every so often I read a good book and somehow fail to accumulate the author's complete works. For many years the only thing I had read by the outstanding Robert Silverberg was his novel The Stochastic Man; I liked it a lot, but I still never got around to reading any of his other books until The Book of Skulls led me on to Sailing to Byzantium and points elsewhere. In the case of Algirdas Jonas Budrys, who died early this month, I read two superb novels in my teens, was disappointed in a third, and made several false starts on a fourth.

The fourth is Michaelmas, about a journalist in conscious symbiosis with a worldwide computer network. As far as I can tell, there's nothing wrong with the book; I just haven't been able to finish it. I did finish The Iron Thorn, a short novel which begins memorably with a duel between a hunter (called an Honor) and a monster called an Amsir who curses him for a "wet devil", but which concludes forgettably in revelations of an experiment in social engineering.

Still, I was lucky in that my first two encounters with Budrys' work were two of the best science fiction novels I've ever read. The first was Who?, set in a near-future Cold War, about an American scientist who suffers a near-fatal accident and is cybernetically patched up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. When he is returned, his entire head and one arm have been replaced with metal prostheses. Because the scientist's life before the accident has been well-ordered, emotionally impoverished and dedicated almost entirely to his work, the security agents charged with verifying his identity find themselves stuck with an impossible task. Budrys alternates chapters about their investigation with episodes from the scientist's past, ending with a superbly ironic last line as the newly-minted cyborg crosses into the American sector.

I read Who? because I happened to see the film on television; in fact, my first copy of the book was a tie-in version, with stills from the film on the cover. (I've since acquired a Penguin edition, original price 3'6, with a Germano Facetti cover depicting a detail from "Nature Morte" by Raoul Hynckes.) The film was directed by Jack Gold, who also did a creditable job of bringing Peter Van Greenaway's The Medusa Touch to the screen; and because it was made in the 1970s and not the 2000s, it preserves the book's story and structure intact and allows the characters rather than the special effects to hold the audience's attention. The main divergence comes in the casting of Elliott Gould, which means that the American security agent has considerably more personality than the bland professional paranoiac in the novel. The Russian colonel who supervises the scientist's rebuilding, and who runs into problems of his own when trying to get information out of him (an interrogator's skills are somewhat limited when the subject has limited body language and no face at all) was played by Trevor Howard.

The next Budrys book I came across is, by all accounts, his masterpiece. Titled Rogue Moon by editorial fiat (Budrys preferred the more literal but less sonorous "The Death Machine" and claimed not even to know what "rogue moon" meant), it is set explicitly in 1959, the year of its publication, and problems of identity are again to the fore, not least because the narrative informs us only of the characters' words, situations and actions, never their thoughts.

There are at least two death machines in the book. The first is an alien formation on the moon which, once entered, must be travelled without deviation from a strict set of rules:

"It is, for example, fatal to kneel on one knee while facing lunar north. It is fatal to raise the left hand above shoulder level while in any position whatsoever. It is fatal past a certain point to wear armour whose air hoses loop over the shoulders. It is fatal past another point to wear armour whose air tanks feed directly into the suit without the use of hoses at all. It is crippling to wear armour whose dimensions vary greatly from the ones we are using now. It is fatal to use the hand motions required to write the English word 'yes' with either the left or the right hand."

Obviously, one can only discover what is fatal by sending people in to be killed. Hence the second death machine, a matter transmitter invented by the book's hero, Dr Edward Hawks. The device is capable of making a molecular scan of a subject and then creating a duplicate from any matter in the vicinity. The scan causes instantaneous destruction of the subject; although the duplicate cannot be distinguished from the original in any way, even by the subject himself, Hawks' absolute intellectual honesty means he cannot ignore the difference: "I'm not Hawks. I remember being Hawks, but I was made in the receiver some twenty-five minutes ago, and you and I have never met before."

A station has been set up on the moon, manned by duplicated volunteers who can never have a place on Earth. The alien artifact is explored by duplicates of naval personnel, whose counterparts on Earth are kept in a condition of sensory deprivation; because their brains are atomically identical, and because the man on Earth is receiving no sensory data, he receives the impressions of the man on the moon as if they were his own. Naturally, when the men in the artifact die, the ones on Earth are driven mad. The book begins with Hawks deciding that he needs a different kind of volunteer: one in love with death. "Some kind of psycho," diagnoses his assistant; and Barker, the man Hawks gets, is indeed a thoroughly distorted personality: a wartime assassin, a skin diver, car racer, ski jumper, aviator and small-arms champion who obsessively courts physical danger and seems to revel in the hatred of others. As Hawks observes, Barker flourishes when he can seek out murderers to defy; the shifting, interlocking triangles between Hawks, Barker, his lover Claire, and Vincent Connington constitute perhaps the best-oiled and most chilling of the book's death machines.

The relationships between the five main characters are drawn with great subtlety and economy. Hawks' manipulation of Barker's neurotic courage ("Think he'll chicken out?" asks a subordinate before Barker's first moon shot. "Not if it's put that way," Hawks replies. "And I've done that.") is mirrored in the affable unpleasantness of Vincent Connington, the personnel manager who pushes Hawks and Barker together for reasons of his own. Barker's edgy, quasi-sadistic relationship with Claire contrasts with the easy friendliness between Hawks and Elizabeth Cummings, whom he meets while walking away from Barker's opening challenge of his machismo. "You don't try to use me, cozen me or change me," Elizabeth tells Hawks later. "I take up as much room in the world, the way you see it, as you do. Do you have any idea of how rare a thing that is?"

Rogue Moon is an extraordinary book, particularly for an era in which, as one of Theodore Sturgeon's characters somewhere notes, most science fiction was anti-science. (For all I know, most of it still may be.) Budrys' macho explorer is both self-deluding and self-destructive, while the scientist is as ruthless in his honesty as he is in his need to understand the world:

"We tear a gateway where no gateway has ever been," he said, nodding at the mechanisms, "in a wall we didn't build. That's called scientific investigation. Then we send men through the gate. That's the human adventure. And something on the other side - something that never bothered mankind; something that's never done us any harm before or troubled us with the knowledge that it was there - kills them. In terrible ways we can't understand, it kills them. So I keep sending in more men. What's that called, Sam?"


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