If Algirdas Budrys–who signed his work “Algis Budrys” and answered to “Ajay” among the regular Americans with whom he lived–maintained an apprehensive watchfulness toward much of the human race, it wasn’t without justification. To start with, as the small son of Lithuania’s consul general in Königsberg, East Prussia, he had seen Adolf Hitler pass in full Nazi pomp, while the citizens of the city where Immanuel Kant lay buried whipped themselves into such frenzies of admiration that they soiled themselves and defecated in public.
More than seven decades later, dying in a Chicago suburb, Budrys still remembered what he had seen from the second-story window of his parents’ apartment on that spring day in 1936. He told me, “After the Hitlerjugend walked through, Hitler came by in an open black Mercedes with his arm propped up. I’m sure he had an iron bar up his sleeve, because he couldn’t have kept his arm that particular way for so long otherwise.” The Königsberg crowds produced an indescribable sound, Budrys recalled, and some individuals behaved as though experiencing epileptic seizures: men and women rolled on the ground, writhing and clutching at each other–or ran for the bushes as they pulled their underwear down, unable to control their bowels. “Some of them made it, some didn’t,” he said. “I was only five. It was quite a thing to see.” Budrys had spent his earliest years amidst a people who his patriotic Lithuanian parents stressed were not his own; on some evenings, he’d sat on his mother’s lap in their darkened apartment while his father sat beside them, holding a loaded pistol in case the brownshirts broke in. But it was on the day he watched the crowds’ reaction to Hitler, he wrote later, that he understood that he had come into consciousness among a species of werewolf.
Similar early experiences have compelled others to become writers. Unlike most, Budrys insisted that what he had to say was best articulated in that literary tradition whose principal founding fathers are H. G. Wells, former draper’s assistant, and John W. Campbell, MIT dropout and editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.
This cultured man of Middle European origins–who was multilingual at five, went to university at 16, and as a literary critic was capable of reviewing works as diverse as the stories of the 19th-century German Romantic E. T. A. Hoffmann and a Robert Coover metafiction novel of the 1960s–became a passionate advocate for the view that, amidst all the dreck, great and beautiful work had been published in American science fiction magazines. The fiction Budrys himself began writing as a young man in the 1950s still provides as good evidence as exists that SF can be literary art; at the time, it led his fellow practitioners to regard him as the one among them who was most likely to transform their field into a fully adult literature.
“He was in some ways the best writer of his kind around,” the writer, editor, and literary agent Frederik Pohl–at 89, almost the last man left standing from American SF’s classical age–told me after Budrys’s death in June. “He made sentences come alive better than most writers. I’m not talking just about science fiction writers.” This esteem was not confined to his fellow SF authors. Kingsley Amis, the British novelist and critic, once wrote, “Algis Budrys, if all goes well, may become the best science fiction writer since Wells.”