Friday, February 23, 2018

Who? by Algis Budrys

It has been raining steadily here in east Texas for the past few days.  My friends are posting their belly-aching on Facebook.  I personally love the rain.  It is peaceful and the perfect time to feel cozy with a cup of coffee and a good book.  Perhaps it is a strange thing for a Texas (transplant) to say, but I don't much care for the heat.

Today's music is by a Japanese composer, Tōru Takemitsu: Les Yeux Clos II (Eyes Closed) performed by the pianist, Peter Serkin.

Who?Who? by Algis Budrys

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is probably one of the best science fiction stories I've ever read. I know it's cliche to say, but I literally read this on the edge of my seat with a finger knuckle in my mouth. I'll briefly break down why I liked it so much, but first a synopsis.

Intelligence man Rogers and the Foreign Ministry man are waiting at the border of a Soviet Union check point. They are waiting to receive a scientist from the west who, while working on the classified K-88, was critically injured through an explosion. Somehow the Soviets got to him first and have had him for four months. The reason is because the Western Allies chose to build this lab near the Soviet Union.  Why they did so is revealed later in the story.

Rogers knows that the Soviets have had their man Azarin doing his utmost to extract information from the scientist, Lucas Martino. Knowing Azarin as he does, Rogers shudders at the thought.

Finally a limo on the Soviet side stops at the border. A man exits the vehicle and walks toward Rogers and the Foreign Minister. What they see freezes their blood. Martino is mostly made of metal.

His head is completely covered in metal, his eyes are artificial as are his ears. He speaks and eats through a grill where his mouth should be. His left arm is also artificial, made of metal. He has no heart or lungs. A machine inside does his breathing for him.

This sets in motion the problem that propels the plot through to the end. Is this Martino or is it a Soviet ringer that wants to return to the lab and find out about the K-88. The K-88 is some kind of nuclear device that would turn the Cold War in the West's favor.

Rogers is assigned to find out. How does one prove someone is who he is supposed to be? One can only prove if he's not by catching him in a mistake; but if he doesn't make a mistake, it still doesn't prove the metal man in front of him is Martino.

What makes this story successful is not simply a good plot concept but Budrys' ability to make all the characters human. Rogers is a tough intelligence man in his thirties who can view the (maybe) Martino with compassion but also pragmatism. We also learn about Martino through flashbacks of his life that eventually merge with the present, but don't think you're going to know if the metal man is the real Martino until the very end. And don't cheat! You find yourself caring about Rogers and the maybe Martino. You also get schooling on how Intelligence works in shadowing and tracing people.

What perhaps you don't get is the actual terror that was reigning in the Soviet Union. We in the West did not discover that until the archives were opened in the 1990s. If you want to read shocking accounts of what went on behind the Iron Curtain then read Orlando Figes, "The Whisperers" and Svetlana Alexievich's Second Hand Time. Those two books are non fiction accounts of individual lives that lived during the Soviet era.

Algis Budrys' parents came from Russia in the thirties and, while he was born in Russia, his family moved to America while he was young. Nevertheless, I think that his approach to the Cold War of the fifties, when this story was written, has some personal emotion involved which makes the story all the more compelling.

At just over two hundred pages I defy you to get up before you are finished.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Terrific review Sharon. This story reminds me of so many tales that I read in my teens. Many were gripping, imaginative and said much about the time that they were written in.

The Soviet Union was indeed a horrible place based upon bad ideas. Living thier mist have been terrible.

I also like rain :)

Sharon Wilfong said...

H Brian. I love sci fi from the fifties. I hope to read more stories from Budrys.

You should read the books I mentioned, they are poignant and tragic.

Anonymous said...

Your music choice is beautiful, as always, and this book sounds like it would make a wonderful film. I'll tell my husband about your review, too. He's a big sci-fi fan.

Todd Mason said...

Budrys's family was actually Lithuanian...his parents were spies, then diplomats, for the Lithuania that existed between the World Wars...and for most of his life, Budrys was resident alien in the US, officially a citizen of the Lithuanian government in exile, essentially only recognized by the Cold War US. With the fall of the Soviet state, Budrys finally applied for US citizenship.

His background and relation with his father particularly can be seen to have colored his work considerably.

Todd Mason said...

There really wasn't too much mystery about what was happening in the USSR unless one chose to avert one's eyes. Hell, Kruschev, no saint, did the world and particularly the USSR a favor in denouncing Stalin and his particularly vicious, insane regime.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Todd. I'm sure you're right. I had read about his parents being Luthuanian, and I'd also read Budrys had been born in Russia. I did not realize his parents were spies. That is very interesting.

I hope to read more of his books in the future.

Sharon Wilfong said...

It's interesting, though, based on what I've read in Second Hand Time, how many former Communists could not give up their "dream of epic glory for the motherland" and the atrocities they justified and even committed themselves. Truly Communism was their god.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Thanks, Marcia. There was a film made in 1974 by Jack Gold. I don't know if it's any good but I think I would like to see it, even though I know the ending. Hope your husband gets to read and enjoy it.

Todd Mason said...

When Budrys was born there, to his diplo parents, Konigsburg was part of Germany, in Eastern Prussia...since WW2 ended, the city has been officially known as Kaliningrad and was annexed by the USSR and is still part of the Russian Federation. A whole lot of ugly has gone down ther through the centuries.

Sharon Wilfong said...

That is certainly true.

Mudpuddle said...

i know i left a comment above, but it must have disappeared in the ether; either that or my brain has... anyway, i've read some Budrys with admiration but not this one... and i didn't know about his history; very interesting; tx for the info...

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Mudpuddle. I admit I was surprised I hadn't heard from you. I thought you might have read Budrys. I really like him. I seem to be on a lucky streak finding new authors I like. I plan on reading much more of him.