Book Review: Budrys’ Inferno (variant title: The Furious Future), Algis Budrys (1963)

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(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1963 edition)

3.5/5 (Collated rating: Good)

Algis Budrys has not fared particularly well on this site. Back in 2012 I read The Falling Torch (1959) and found it a functional military SF novel with some social commentary about the “inhumanity” of the Soviets. More recently I tackled his so-called “masterpiece” Michaelmas (serialized 1976) (short review) that despite all its pretensions to say something relevant about technology and media, slips into SF thriller mode, abandoning the most compelling elements of the narrative (it’s hard to write a convincing character study). At least Michaelmas makes the motions towards SF that moves behind the mechanical blueprints of a potential future mindset and tries to say something substantive about the psyche and society of the people who might live there. As you know, the stuff I champion.

Budrys’ Inferno (1963) contains three rigorous and intense stories– “Between the Dark and the Daylight” (1958), “Lower Than Angels” (1956), and “Dream of Victory” (1953)–along with numerous ESP and alien possession tales that, although occasionally deviating from the template, are all too uninspired. Budrys’ collection, filled with heroes and anti-heroes cut from film-noir cloth, suggests that further exploration of his best known novels–Who? (1958) and Rogue Moon (1960)–might be worthwhile!

Recommended for fans of dark 50s and 60s adventure science fiction.

Brief Plot Analysis/Summary (*spoilers*–as always)

“Silent Brother” (1956), short story, 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good): The first starship Endeavor returns to Earth. Harvey Cable, a preliminary member of the expedition who did not end of going on the trip, finds the behavior of the returned crew unusual. The press catches on and newspapers run the story line: “OFFICIAL CENSORSHIP SHROUDS ENDEAVOR CREW” (13). Cable’s body seems to be infected by some disease or change: “his jaw ached and his vision blurred” (17). Soon unexplainable events concerning electrical components transpire in Cable’s own house and his speculation runs amok….

The general story arc won’t come off as a surprise. Although Budrys’ does infuse “alien possession” with non-standard broad positivist strokes (this is a first contact story of sorts after all)… It’s a somewhat moody and engaging story–the sort of caper you’d expect from Astounding Science Fiction (first appeared in the Feb. 1956 issue).

“Between the Dark and the Daylight” (1958), short story, 4/5 (Good): A martial and gory explosion in a claustrophobic colony… Under a reinforced concrete dome the mutated–“sharp canine tusks” and “heavy fur”(24)–descendants of an expedition await the terrifying alien forces that scratch and burrow at the concrete walls, about to burst in…. The descendants are constantly reminded of the slow exterior chipping–“gnawing filled their heads ” (26). Brendan is also beset by those who question his authoritarian (let’s not mince words) tendencies and secret experiments on the children of the colony. His plan, mutate the children sufficiently so that when they emerge into the harrowing environment of the planet they will be able to fight off the attackers. As with the impending sound of doom, the reality that the offspring might also be “alien” by the time Brendan finishes his project to save his people adds to the despair.

Budrys manages an intensity that I haven’t found in many of his other stories. “Between the Dark and the Daylight” grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

“And Then She Found Him…” (1957), short story, 2.5/5 (Bad): The least satisfying story in the collection. Todd Deerbrush and Frank Stannard track down a young “criminal” woman at the orders of their Association (40). Like themselves, this criminal (Viola Andrews) is afflicted with a “dampening field” (50) that gives pause to people who engage with them, as if they are slightly invisible. Unfortunately, she seems unaware of her abilities and compulsively “asks” and receives presents (as it is psychic suggestions, it’s essentially stealing)—perhaps as a way to get attention in her semi-invisible state. However, Viola seems unstable—described as “hysteria” (50)—and unnaturally obsessed with Todd.

Only the occasional ESP story interests me, and this “hysterical woman” must be controlled one doesn’t.

“The Skirmisher” (1957), short story, 4/5 (Good) feels like brief mood piece–Ben Hoyt, a police officer, encounters a man named Albert Madigan target shooting. Hoyt and his department connect Madigan to a series of suspicious and improbable “accidents.” The idea that Madigan suffers from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and involved in a vaguely indicated time war–“Hoyt had seen a few men like him during the last war” (57)–adds complexity to what at first glance appears to be an ESPer’s ability to influence chance. Budrys’ reluctance to spell out the meaning behind Madigan’s actions creates a haunting flash piece.

“The Man Who Tasted Ashes” (1959), short story, 2.5/5 (Bad): Redfern steals a car and rushes towards the airport where a diplomat is scheduled to land. A pawn in Charlie Spence’s scheme–an alien whose people have a “compulsive need to meddle in human history” (62)–Redfern is compelled to be an assassin, with the intention of starting a WWIII. The structure–Redfern rushing towards his destination with flashback interludes–pushes this thriller forward. “The Man Who Tasted Ashes” takes on film-noir shades as Redfern’s moral failings and dark tendencies paint him an unusual savior. All in all, forgettable….

“Lower Than Angels” (1956), novelette, 4.25/5 (Very Good): Tied for the best story in the collection, “Lower Than Angels” tells the story of Fred Imbry, who a mere week earlier considered the Sainte Marie Development Corporation (think East India Company) a band of heroes, questing across space, exploiting planets, making first contact. This ideal, an ideal we all desperately want to hold dear, comes tumbling down as humanity rears its ugly head. In reality the crew of the the mother ship Sainte Marie,“legends of this generation” (75) by outsiders, exhibits cruelty, cowardliness, inebriation, infighting… Imbry is sent on the least desirable mission on World II, a lush rainforest planet. Imbry encounters a strange tribe who are convinced that the communications device that perches on his shoulder is a manifestation of his ancestor.

Budrys retreats into standard technologically advanced man encounters the primitive and struggles with explaining his origins and purpose. As wholesale exploitation of the world’s resources is the end goal, Imbry struggles with his conscience and how to indicate the true motives of the colonizers. Worthwhile.

“Contact Between Equals” (1958), short story, 3/5 (Average): A hellish sequence of events in a single room… Will, his eyes swaddled in gauze, wakes up with Alicia and Dr. Champley at his bedside. As he relearns to interpret the visual world around him, both Alicia and Dr. Champley appear uneasy, and struggle with his request to allow him to see them. Disconcerting voices emerge from the TV, “a children’s program” (107) Campley proclaims. Paranoia and claustrophobia abound. Yet, as Budrys often does, everything is happy and lovely in the end.

“Dream of Victory” (1953), novelette, 4.25/5 (Very Good): Fuoss is an android who lusts after a human woman named Carol. Despite his own perfectly designed wife–“Arms and legs […] two of each, perfectly molded, attached with correct smoothness, and equally smoothly articulated and muscled. Breasts and hips–also two of each—and superbly useless for anything but play” (119). Androids are unable to have children. Androids are subjected to endless ridicule for their inability to engage in all the rituals of growth and heritage that humans can. Adding to their misery, mankind no longer need them after they helped resurrect mankind from the wreckage of a 1960s cataclysm….  In a post-recovery era, Androids are being phased out. Fuoss, fired from his job, resorts to the bottom and his downfall is all to familiar.

Recommended.

“The Peasant Girl” (1956), short story, 3/5 (Average): Henry Spar, a rural farmer who barely scrapes by, lives in a post-technology Earth controlled by evolved humans who interfere and scheme for fun and games. Henry, possessive of his sister Dorothy, leaves his farm after her disappearance. Spirited away by the awesome alien transporter technology, Dorothy decides to marry, and have a son with, the superhuman Mr. Kennealy. Dorothy decides to return to life on the farm and Henry slowly begins to appreciate his nephew.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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(Eyke Volkmer’s cover for the 1965 German edition)

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(Uncredited cover for the 1966 edition)

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(Jim Burns’ cover for the 1975 edition)

22 thoughts on “Book Review: Budrys’ Inferno (variant title: The Furious Future), Algis Budrys (1963)”

  1. I have the Jim Burns cover version, which I don’t mind. I’ve only read Silent Brother and And Then She Found Him… Incredibly, I bought the collection for the latter. It’s because it was a sequel of sorts to the vastly superior short Nobody Bothers Gus (def recommended). As a result I stalled on reading the rest of this collection. But now I will probably read some of the others (only Joachim’s top shelf of course!).

    1. Thanks for the kind words! What did you think about Silent Brother? I wanted to like it — for sure. But, aliens as panacea for all of humankind’s ills is a boredom inducing reveal.

      I’m guessing you didn’t care for And Then She Found Him…?

      I read this collection a little more than a month ago and I could barely remember the lesser stories in this collection. The three I mentioned at the very least are more memorable!

      1. From what I remember (for I too have been struck by a strange and rapid onset of memory loss in this regard… darker forces at work?) I liked the set up of Silent Brother, but remember little more than its opening in the hospital (?). I didn’t like And Then She Found Him at all, and considering that it followed on from the much better Nobody Bothers Gus, I was very disappointed.
        I’m not sure what to think of Budrys. I sort of liked Rogue Moon when I read it almost 20 years ago, but I also remember finding much of it tedious. The central conceit was cool, but I don’t remember it holding me throughout that work.
        On the other hand, I have read a few excellent shorts of his that make me want to keep trying. For instance, I heartily recommend ‘The End of Summer’, and the moody, very short ‘The Distant Sound of Engines’.

      2. Silent Brother mostly takes place in the house of Harvey Cable, who was unable to go on the mission due to an accident (? — not entirely clear but implied).

        But yes, I have the same ambivalence as you towards his work. A few short stories pop out, but little else does. I need to give Rogue Moon or Who? a shot though.

  2. I have only read “Rogue Moon” and was not impressed at all. I would like to read more of this author in the future though. I will not dismiss him after only reading one of his works.

    1. Rogue Moon seems to be a very polarizing book. Some, as you probably know, consider it a classic. Everything of his (other than the three stories in the review) I’ve considered very middling so far….

      1. I have! Basically, everything from ’58 onward, for sure, and probably stuff before that. Some of his stories were good, but I really didn’t care for Rogue Moon (to be fair, I read the magazine version — the book version was longer and might have been better).

        You’re right that the measure of a story is how memorable it is. Only the truly bad and the truly good survive the test of time!

  3. In ‘The Skirmisher’ you misunderstood the MacGuffin. It’s _not_ ESP. Rather, the character called Madigan has come back in time — is indeed a soldier in some kind of war in time, hence the mention of PTSD — and is preemptively assassinating certain human targets so as to ensure some specific outcome that he favors in the future.

    And in “The Peasant Girl,” conversely, the MacGuffin _is_ ESP/Psi powers and those aren’t aliens, but an overclass of psionically-gifted ‘next step in evolution’ type supermen.

    The evolutionary teleology here is bunk, of course, but the story was in Campbell’s ASTOUNDING in 1956, after all, and it shares the same misreading of evolution with a lot of other writing of the time, including the rather more interesting “Nobody Bothers Gus” by Budrys or, for that matter, MORE THAN HUMAN by Sturgeon.

    1. This is what happens when I review a collection months after I read it… Thanks for clearing up the confusion (I’ll edit soon accordingly)!

      Did you enjoy the stories?

  4. I know exactly what you mean about Budrys. I recently read my first of his; a collection of 50s/60s shorts, an English edition from the mid-60s called The Unexpected Dimension. About half were just ‘average’ and nothing special, a quarter were very good (though not exceptional) and the last quarter were dreadful, bland and uninspired. Consequently, I cannot fathom why Kingsley Amis called him a ‘potential successor to Wells’, which, ever since, has been used endlessly as hype-blurbs on the covers of his books. (Then again, I gather that Amiss was relatively narrow in his remit of what ‘good’ SF was, back in the day, so maybe such epithets shouldn’t come as a big surprise.)

    I recently dug out my copy of Rogue Moon, to read soon, as it is almost universally deemed his ‘masterpiece’ (as well as being in the – usually – reliable ‘100 Best SF Books’ list by David Pringle),and if that isn’t up to scratch then it will seem that Budrys is one of those effervescently over-rated authors.

  5. Please don’t finalize your judgment of Budrys until you’ve read both Who? and The Unexpected Dimension. I have not completed Budrys’ ouevre, but they are the standouts thus far. I’ve not read Inferno, but to be honest I am a little surprised by the relative cheapness of some of the premises I see in your reviews. Doesn’t seem like the Budrys I know…

    1. I would suggest that a collated rating of 3.5/5 is rather high for a single author collection. There are bound to be some filler stories….

      You gave, for example, The Unexpected Dimension (1960) a mere .5 higher 😉

  6. True, true…. Perhaps I was reacting more to the potential imbalance of three worthwhile stories compared to numerous uninspired stories. There are a couple average stories in The Unexpected Dimension, but not such a quantity of poor material. But I guess when an author delves too much into ESP, telepathy, and the like, they’re asking for trouble…

  7. Joachim,
    Budrys Inferno is one of the last 50s books on my to buy list. Your review makes it seem like a worthwhile acquisition.

    As for Who?, I read it recently when compiling my best of the 50s list. I found the omission of particular identification procedures we take for granted today seriously date the story, and the opposing intelligence agency chiefs were bad clichés, all of which diminish the classic rating of this book and my enjoyment. I still think it’s worth at least one read.

    1. Hello Andrew, I place many 50s authors over Budrys — including Miriam Allen deFord, Judith Merril, Robert Sheckley, C.M. Kornbluth — hopefully you have a lot of their works as you are close to your “last 50s books on [your] to buy list.” 🙂

    2. But yes, it’s definitely worthwhile! (although, as I made clear, I still have yet to find a single one of his stories that screams masterpiece — unlike the other authors I listed)

      1. The others on my short list are F.R. Bellamy’s “Atta”, Gerald Kersh’s “On an Odd Note [C]”, Merril’s “Shadow on the Hearth” and Hal Clement’s “From Outer Space.” A couple others I recently saw that you, too, might find interesting are Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” and Maxim Jakubowski’s “Traveling Toward Epsilon.” The latter is a collection of French science fiction stories.

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