(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.
“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
(Eyke Volkmer’s cover for the 1965 German edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1966 edition)
(Jim Burns’ cover for the 1975 edition)