(Bob Engle’s cover for the 1959 edition)
3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)
A smile, or tears, perhaps. Tears are easier than laughter. Tears need no gust of breath, as laughter must though breath is short — tears do not crack the muscles of the back or make the jaws ache when the jaws are sore-gummed from the artificial teeth — yes old men’s or old women’s gentle tears; these too are safe; not grown men’s sobs, but children’s tears; not children’s tantrum-cries but children’s tears upon the moment when they learn that, in all justice, children, too, can fairly died–those are the tears that we regain when we are very old (pg 149).
Algis Budrys’ The Falling Torch (1959) is on the surface yet another simplistic brave oppressed mankind rebelling against the alien invaders who have conquered Earth novel à la Aldiss’ Bow Down to Nul (variant title: The Interpreter) (1960) and the ilk. And I was deluded into thinking it was until a third of the way through and then inklings of a deeper, albeit not entirely redeeming, purpose/meaning emerged. Like the quote above, the message is laboriously and inarticulately conveyed — shackled and hampered by its time worn and altogether too restrictive plot.
Budrys attempts to wiggle within his confines by creating a character study charting the coming of age of our less than heroic main character who emerges from the artificial constructs heaped on him by his exiled parents who look back on free Earth with nostalgic longing. However, like the author’s unsuccessful articulation of the work’s themes, the “growth” of our “hero” isn’t entirely evident unless the plot demands that he has indeed evolved.
The Falling Torch is clearly trying to evoke the post-War environment of Budrys’ Soviet homeland, Lithuania. However, the equation of Soviets with aliens which look like humans but can’t breed with humans again is evidence of the painfully clunky nature of the work.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Earth has been conquered by the human-like Invaders. However, Earth’s colony of Alpha Centauri has remained free. Many years have passed since the conquest and a government for Free Earth still exists on Alpha Centauri. The Centaurians are reluctant to give outright support to the government and its vague and unsustained attempts to free the home planet.
Budrys established the Centaurians as detached from the sufferings of Earth due to their distance from the home planet which has resulted in not only in a different dialect but an entirely distinct culture. Here the work is at its best — showing the complications seldom addressed by the traditional narrative. However, with the growing threat of the Invaders on Centauri territories they are pushed into action.
The President of Free Earth on Centauri is an old man. His entire cabinet is beset with the more pressing concerns of daily existence in a foreign society. The Centaurian System Organization (C.S.O.), a military organization, offers to clandestinely ship weapons to various separatists which still exist in Earth’s hills. The President delegates the task to his rather unintelligent son, Michael.
By the time Michael arrives on Earth with the weapons he suddenly possesses much greater intellect, training, etc then he previously showed (i.e. the plot demanded it and Budrys didn’t want to elaborate on Michael’s evolution of character).
Soon Michael realizes that the separatists on Earth are driven more by petty squabbles and rivalries than any real desire to free the planet from the oppressors, who really aren’t that oppressive. Michael decided to surrender to the Invaders… And then…
Final Thoughts (Some Spoilers)
Without doubt The Falling Torch is more than the run of the mill push out the evil aliens that have brutally enslaved the planet. Budrys has Michael encounter people who have found a respectable place within the new society, he attempts to humanizes the aliens, and even suggests that their reign isn’t that terrible — for example, they allow the dissidents to run around in the hills as long as they don’t attack and even administer a work placement test to anyone who wants a chance to assimilate.
All the positives of the work are hampered by the banal plot. Also, Budrys skips over the difficult moments of the narrative: key moments in Michael’s evolution of character and most importantly, Michael’s entire eventual movement to “free” earth! At least the “freedom” has various complicating caveats.
The work with its thought-provoking themes has the potential for a great novel. Unfortunately, The Falling Torch remains a work of unfulfilled promises.
(John Schoenherr’s cover for the 1968 edition)
(John Schoenherr’s cover for the 1962 edition)
(Ed Emshwiller’s cover for 1974 edition)
(Eric Ladd’s cover for the 1978 edition)
(Wayne Barlowe’s cover for the 1991 edition)
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