What Science Fiction Should Be
Budrys mastered that trick. After a conventional start, his short fiction deepened: a story like “The End of Summer” (1954), for instance, considers the intrinsic limitations of immortality, memory, and identity; “Nobody Bothers Gus” (1955) portrays a lonely superman unlike any in previous SF; and “The Distant Sound of Engines” (first published in 1959, and reprinted here) presents a persistent theme: terribly damaged characters who will do anything to survive or leave a legacy.
Who? has a damaged figure at its heart: a scientist named Martino who has been appallingly injured in an explosion at his lab in Europe, near the Soviet border. The Soviets reach him first (the novel extrapolates the Cold War’s high-noon years into the late 1980s) and rebuild him; when they release a man they say is Martino, cybernetic prosthetics have replaced his face and skull and one arm. Since Martino had been developing a strategically vital technology, why have the Soviets returned him? The problem for an intelligence officer, Rogers, is that if this enigmatic figure is Martino, he must be cleared to work again immediately; if he’s an impostor, he must be kept away from the project. In chapters that alternate between Rogers’s surveillance of Martino and scenes from Martino’s earlier life, Who? unfolds in entirely character-driven ways. Budrys imported material from his own life into this novel: Azarin, the Soviet spy chief, is modeled on his father, a former military intelligence officer; the sections describing Martino’s youth draw on Budrys’s own experience as the son of immigrants. In the end, while technology accounts for the uncertainty about the identity of the man claiming to be Martino, it’s his own character–his limited emotional development and his early isolation–that has rendered his claims impossible to corroborate.
Having proved a character-driven SF novel possible, Budrys took a radically different approach with Rogue Moon, which takes place in an alternate 1959 where a secret project sponsored by the U.S. government has reached the far side of the moon and found a large, nonnatural structure that kills everybody who enters it. The project of understanding this artifact has fallen to a scientist, Hawks, who has developed a functional matter transmitter–really a matter duplicator, since a human subject scanned by Hawks’s machine on Earth is destroyed, and the resulting information is used to create one duplicate in the machine and another in a “receiver” on the moon. Crucially, before these duplicates’ experiences diverge, they briefly share a consciousness.
Rogue Moon returns to Budrys’s themes of identity and memory, adding death and love into the mix. But this brief description gives no sense of the singular flavor of Budrys’s text, which conveys only what the characters can see and what they say, without describing their interior mental states. The stylistic antecedents are in the hard-boiled prose of writers like Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett, but such prose had never before been applied to such strange subject matter. Hawks plans to map the lunar artifact by sending duplicates into it; when they die, their cognates on Earth will retain memories of what happened in the preceding moments. Hawks’s difficulty is that enduring death by proxy has left each surviving duplicate catatonic. He decides that an abnormal individual might not be driven mad by the experience. A candidate is found: Al Barker, paratrooper, assassin, Olympic ski jumper, mountaineer, and all-around macho man.