Why did he decide that? “I don’t know,” he told me. Though he answered my questions courteously, Budrys labored to construct his responses. “I was a writer. I wrote rather well. Like that.” Didn’t he know how bad the money would be? “I didn’t care about the money.” When he entered college at 16, had his ambition remained the same? “Yes.” And at 21, having sold his first story to Campbell’s Astounding, what was his creative agenda? Where Budrys had paused for seconds before previous answers, his voice now firmed: “I didn’t have any agenda for SF. I just wanted to write it. I thought I was a hotshot.” Whom had he thought the best writers? “Me,” Budrys answered emphatically.
When I put the phone down I recalled a line near the end of Budrys’s first fully achieved novel, Who? “For a moment his voice had depth in it, as though he remembered something difficult and prideful he had done in his youth.” We had talked a couple more minutes, but it was painfully clear that though Budrys was struggling to behave in a professional manner–much as he’d taken pains to be a good husband and father, dependable friend, and reliable colleague–he was slipping as we talked, struggling to recall things about his own work and finding them gone from memory. Still, he had testified to the main thing: the absolute seriousness of his ambition as an artist who’d been, specifically, a science fiction writer. Three days later he died at home with his family.
To take any science fiction writer seriously is ludicrous, some say, since SF is an inherently juvenile form. Yet the urge to speculate about a technology that could allow us to reach the distant past or future isn’t necessarily childish, although an eight-year-old can acquire it from reading The Time Machine. To contemplate the future or the past in the spirit of a scientist is to be aware that one’s lifetime represents an infinitesimally thin section of the universe’s possibilities. Sidney Coleman, the great theoretical physicist (and Budrys’s friend and fellow science fiction fan), put it this way: “I assure you, one of the reasons for doing science, especially the kind I do, is that it makes your head feel funny, Goddamned strange. That’s also the feeling I get out of SF.”
The other main charge against science fiction is that it scants characterization. Here, critics are on firmer ground. The problem, Budrys pointed out, isn’t merely that the SF writer must focus heavily on setting at characterization’s expense, but also that when unique characters are presented in unique settings, the audience cannot assess what’s normal for those characters and what, if anything, their behavior says about the human (or alien) condition. Nevertheless, Budrys said, a meticulous, artful SF writer can create fully realized characters.