That didn’t quite happen. In the 1950s and early ’60s Budrys published a hundred-odd stories and a half-dozen novels, which reflected his own experience not least in tending to feature deeply isolated people and problems of identity. One novel, Who? (1958), had characters as developed as any in that era’s serious fiction and compares favorably with work by Budrys’s mainstream contemporaries, such as Graham Greene. Budrys capped the decade off with another book, Rogue Moon (1960), that knowledgeable readers consider one of the half-dozen SF masterpieces. Then he noted where the science fiction market was going and, because he now had a wife and four children, turned his energies to making money in publishing, editing, and advertising. Through the following decades he kept a foot in the field, mostly with book reviews (he’s better known today as science fiction’s best critic than as a writer), but his fiction appeared at increasingly longer intervals. Yet some is notable, particularly, the last great novel, Michaelmas (1977), which imagines a digitally networked world much like our own.
Arguably, there’s little real science fiction. That’s because drama made relevant by informed social and technological extrapolation and by a profound understanding of the human condition is hard to write. For anyone interested in the real stuff, Budrys was by some lights the best who wrote it. I ran this proposition by Fred Pohl, who has been everything it’s possible to be in American science fiction publishing. “I think that’s a fair statement,” Pohl agreed.
The Golden Age of Science Fiction
That we have any Budrys books in English is a historical accident: in 1936, when his father failed to get the Paris posting he’d requested, he was assigned to New York instead. Then, in 1940, the USSR occupied Lithuania, which ceased to be an independent state. Budrys’s parents, desperate to survive in Depression-era America, ended up running a chicken farm in rural New Jersey. Recalling that farm when I interviewed him this past spring, Budrys chuckled weakly and said, “It was godforsaken.” He was enduring the final stages of cancer, a metastatic melanoma; the noises from his oxygen feed line as he struggled to breathe grew more obvious as we talked.
“My big breakthrough came when Miss Anderson, who owned the general store in Dorothy, New Jersey, gave me a bunch of unsold magazines, including Astonishing Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl,” Budrys said. Having taught himself English at six by reading Robinson Crusoe, Budrys had already discovered comic strips like Flash Gordon and Brick Bradford, then graduated to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and the few remotely science-fictional books in his local library. From Astonishing, he moved on to other SF magazines.
In the 1940s, short fiction in magazines constituted Americans’ chief medium of home entertainment besides the radio. It was in the cheapest magazines, the pulps, that science fiction had taken root in the United States–most significantly in Astounding Science Fiction, which Budrys found belatedly, since its covers lacked ray-gun-wielding heroes and big-breasted heroines. “Astounding was the last magazine I picked up,” he told me. “It didn’t look like an SF magazine.” Astounding’s editor, John W. Campbell, had assembled a stable of writers such as Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov–all those names who once were SF to its readers. Out in the New Jersey hinterlands, the magazine was a revelation to the 11-year-old Budrys: he determined that the vocation of science fiction writer was worth pursuing.