Algis Budrys

The Falling Torch

The Falling TorchThe last novel I will review for the famous Vintage Science Fiction month of 2021 is The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys (1931 – 2008).  It is a fix-up novel published as a whole in 1959.  Originally, segments were published in science fiction magazines in 1957-1959.  This is the second Budrys novel I have read.  As with the previous review, I have owned this novel a long time, but the motivation of Vintage Science Fiction month got me to read it. I read the 1978 Jove edition with cover art by Eric Ladd. 

Budrys and I would probably have understood each other very well and yet really disliked each other.  This becomes particularly clear to me after having read this novel.  The Falling Torch, while having a wide-vision “space empires” sort of setting, is actually very personal.  Did Budrys purposely write so self-revealingly? Well, only Budrys would know the true answer to that. I feel that even if a lot of this is autobiographical, the novel likely draws from Budrys’ knowing others who ran in his circles and felt as he did about political matters. I am going to be absolutely blunt here – take it or leave it as you will:  many readers focus on the obviously political-tone of this work; parallels are drawn and history can be traced.  However, many readers in America in 2021 are going to be less able to understand the layered ruminations here that underlie a lot of this novel. Not because they are idiotic, but because the sentiments and experience that Budrys is probably writing about are also unavailable to many readers.  Indeed, maybe due to that fact, Budrys’ novel(s) can be very frustrating.

Specifically, Budrys felt genuinely countryless.  For most of my adult life I feel similarly – and I know I am not alone because when I look at my cousins and so forth, I see signs and symptoms of that same feeling. Recognizing is not the same as empathy or sympathy, though, and most of the time, via Budrys’ writing, I find him to be agonizingly stubborn and dismal. So, yes, with him and his characters I also say, as I look around, “these aren’t my people, this isn’t my home.”  And it may be the generation gap between he and I that changes his dismality into my generation’s restlessness.

vintage-sf-badgeAnyway, the first part of the book is from Thomas Harmon’s point of view, really. Who is this character? We only get bits and pieces and frankly, maybe a little more about him would have been okay in order to smooth the transitions between the segments of this novel. Harmon is the major character in the beginning and then only reappears in the last pages. It would have been nice for him to get another chunk of paragraphs so the reader could discover what he has been about.  Harmon is part of the Government in Exile – humans from Earth, living on Cheiron.  Opportunity arrives for a new action in pursing liberation to occur. The president’s son is to be sent back to Earth to make efforts to restore the homeland.

The tone of the novel is very introspective. Characters get a lot of screen time to examine their thoughts and feelings. Some of it seems honest, some of it seems utterly obnoxious.  It is challenging to be patient while characters start musing on their intentions, purpose, destiny, and morals  – especially when these moments are pasted against an action movie scenery.

He had thought better of himself than that. All his life, he had known better than to expect or desire continual selflessness from others.  He had conceived of himself as one of the few in each generation who must rise above the flesh inorder that the great majority would not be called upon to do so. He had made the choice early, knowing that by doing so he was giving up his heritage as a man enjoying humanity. – pg. 32

The largest part of the novel deals with the president’s son, Michael Wireman, who is HALO dropped onto Earth – in the middle of the mountains to meet the supposed leader of the resistance forces. This is tough reading. It is really accurate and reasonable and also completely stilted and idiotic and annoying. Its just not smooth and engaging reading. Its jarring and, at points, cartoonish. But I am not saying, though, that it is bad. Its really difficult to explain. In any case, once Michael begins to evaluate the situation and the players of the liberation/resistance, he also starts re-evaluating his personhood and his rôle in the universe. At these points, I found the character to be really distasteful and wretched. He seemed self-absorbed, two-faced, and naïve.  Its harsh because reasonably, Michael is undergoing this re-evaluation because the things he knew and was taught are contrary to what his current experiences are.  

Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? What effect does the passage of time have on these positions? Is everyone locked into their worldview?  These are mighty questions to ask in a short little novel with an unlikeable main character. But at the same time, such questions do not seem completely out of place.

Again, there are brief scenes in this part of the novel that literally I have seen written in my own family’s letters. Phrases that run like: “…we were in the shadows of the woods, along the treeline……” etc.  I really dislike being so personal in this review, but I am happy to blame Budrys for it. My point in bringing this up is that, while for many readers this segment of the novel was something like an action plot that Budrys wrote, I can attest to it being realistic and not so “fictional” as readers might think.  Yes, loyalties are shifting and manipulated when you are the oppressed. But I do not think Budrys experienced such in person – he obviously knew people who did, though. 

Wireman is allowed the luxury to change sides. Surrender is often a luxury.  Once he does so, the novel changes again into an escape-evasion storyline.  Wireman has again become disillusioned and disenchanted with society.  More annoying, yet necessary rumminations occur. At times Wireman is insufferably whiney and vexing. He knows it, too, because several times during his self-reflection he questions his “right” to judge or complain or feel a certain way.  Altogether, though, its way too navel-gazing to make it fitting for a science fiction novel. 

But what of it, one way or the other?  If he was right, had he made her what she was?  And if he was wrong, was it worse to act in accordance with his judgment than to decide he might be wrong and not act at all? He had been making mistakes all his life, and now if he was going to live much longer he had to do something. Could it hurt to make a few more mistakes? And – and – for the first time in his life, this thought came to him – perhaps he was right. – pg. 132

The circling introspection gets very heavy-handed at points. A lot of reviews about this novel suggest to the reader that the novel is, at heart, an investigation into the idea of a Great Man.  I guess that is vaguely part of what is going on, but to be honest, the novel is about two characters who are homeland-less and exiled and trying to find out exactly what their position should be. The thing is most of these meditations come across as obnoxiously arrogant. At the same time, no way can I suggest that they are unrealistic. 

So, I wanted to give this novel one star at the start.  I hate how Budrys is so dismal.  I hate it because its so heavy to read his work that it makes the novels seem four times their size and weight. The edition I read must weigh fifty pounds. During the middle of the book, I gave it another star because it was so ridiculous. But realistically ridiculous. Finally, I am giving the book three stars because though the characters are all repellant, there are some thoughts in here – mixed up in the endless speculation on destiny and one’s part in the whole – that are so very honest that there should be readers who read them. Just please do not ask me which ones.

3 stars

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Rogue Moon

Rogue MoonRogue Moon by Algis Budrys was published in 1960.  It was nominated for the 1961 Hugo Award – but lost to A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller jr.  Generally, it seems I do not rate award-winning science fiction books very highly.  I do wonder if this is because I subconsciously expect awesomeness and therefore raise the bar unconsciously when reading them.  I know some people might suggest that some of these novels are “dated” and that’s why I don’t “like” them, but that’s not the case.  I have no problem with novels being “dated.”  I have had this on my to-be-read list for a trillion billion years and I even started it and made it to page 60.  Then I got aggravated with it and chucked it aside for months and months. Finally, I picked it up again.

I was most interested in the novel not because it was a Hugo nominee, but because of the author.  Budrys is a Lithuanian-American.  This is significant to me. Also, this past year I have been reading a lot of Eastern European writers. For example, Bulgakov, Goncharov, Nabokov, Lem, et al.  I have another novel by Budrys that I intend to read – the fact that I did not love this novel did not put me off of the author, but I can’t say that I was not disappointed with Rogue Moon.

I love the science fiction concept and idea that Budrys wants the story to tell.  I want to have a 400-page novel about it and have it be really good.  However, that seems to be the smallest part of this book, oddly enough. Instead, the novel is filled with the two-dimensional characters who are incredibly egotistical and who like to make speeches in each others’ presence.  There are about four major characters in the novel.  The main two are the daredevil macho man named Al Barker and the sullen scientist Edward Hawks.  Many pages of the book take place at Barker’s mansion. I absolutely abhor all of these scenes and they are what made me drop the book in the first place.

Seriously, what happens is that these egotistical 2D characters lounge around the pool and the house grating on each others nerves and having temper tantrums.  Barker’s girlfriend, Claire Pack, hangs out there.  Much of the novel purports to explore her psychoses – and, as a reader, I disliked her immediately.  She’s wretched.  Now, I know that these scenes are supposed to be some sort of psychological exploration of these characters in the context that they are not the average, normal members of mass society. They are all “screwy” in their own way – so it is supposed to be interesting to see how they interact with each other and what their perspectives are on various topics.  That’s what’s supposed to happen. Instead, I felt like I was at a really hideous pool party wherein only self-centered, immature wackos were invited. Their musings on topics is painful.

The main topic is the concept of man qua man.  What is a man? And further, what is it for a man to die – what is the death of a man?  This is really the whole point of the science fiction in the novel. Sure, the plot is somewhat about a large alien artefact found on the Moon. People enter and explore it, but are inevitably killed for violating the unknown alien rules in force within the structure. But this whole (and really cool) science fiction item is kept very vague and is only a plot device so that the characters can do self-discovery and ruminate on death.

“The thing is, the universe is dying! Bit by bit over the countless billions of years it’s slowly happening. It’s all running down. Some day it’ll stop.  Only one thing in the entire 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. . . . 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.” – pg. 167

That is the best quote, I think, in the novel.  Don’t think that the novel is full of such insight. Sometimes, what seems profundity is really just navel-gazing.  And while the rumination on what man is and how he dies in the universe can be philosophical, I really wanted the science to be there. I wanted to learn about the item on the moon. I wanted to be creeped out by alien technology and to read the scientific insights into how the artefact works.  I wanted to see the humans discover, learn, and conquer.  Instead, I am not entirely sure that they characters even conquer themselves. Maybe a little. I don’t know. The psychological aspects of people who are not the norm do not make good survey samples.

Overall, the novel is simply not what I expected.  There are sections that are tedious and wretched.  There are times when I feel the characters are preachy.  In the end, I think that people who enjoyed this novel did so because they liked the light pseudo-philosophy running through it – and not the science fiction elements.  However, the philosophy itself just isn’t enough for me to give this novel any good marks. The two stars is a gift. I just think it’s better than the 1 star books I’ve read.

2 stars