Friday, June 6, 2014


Algis Budrys (1931–2008)

Algis Budrys, who died six years ago this week at the age of seventy-seven, arrived in the United States as a temporary resident when he was five years old, the son of the Lithuanian consul-general. Little did he know that his temporary home would become permanent. In 1940 the Soviet Union annexed his family’s home country, an event which was followed a year later by the Nazi occupation and, in 1945, by the Soviet re-annexation. Budrys and his family were thus rendered stateless; his father became consul-general of the Lithuanian government-in-exile while Budrys settled down as well as he could in his new home, attending the University of Miami and Columbia and working as a clerk for American Express before publishing his first story at the age of 21. (He would become an American citizen in 1996—sixty years after his arrival.)

It is unsurprising, then, that much of Budrys’s fiction deals with questions of identity and that one of his most well-known novels adopts the Cold War as its background. In a 1981 interview with the editors of
Amazing Stories, Budrys explained how he was inspired to write the short story, “Who?”, which later became the novel of the same name and the basis for the 1973 cult movie starring Elliott Gould and Trevor Howard:
It started literally with the image. I was doing a lot of work for Fantastic Universe magazine, which bought covers without their being tied to any particular story. I turned a corner in their offices, and there was the Kelly Freas painting. . . . It just immediately captured my imagination entirely, and I had to write a story around it, which was contrary to the magazine's policy. They never had a story that fit the cover, but I wrote one anyway. It was a short story, set on the Moon, and it had a very weak, trick ending, but it had the basic situation in it. And they ran it. About six months later I realized I could build an entire novel around that character and that situation if I pulled it off the Moon and threw away the weak trick ending. I went to a book publisher with the idea and got a contract on it.
In an appreciation, novelist Tim Powers discusses further how the original story relates both to the novel and to Budrys’s life as an exile:
The short story takes place, perfunctorily, on the moon, but the core puzzle of the novel is already the main issue—how to decide whether a man with no identifiable features is a top-clearance western scientist artificially rebuilt beyond recognition after massive injuries, or a Soviet spy pretending to be the scientist. . . . Budrys has said, “A lot of my life when I was a small child was spent in cars, or trains, talking to strangers, speaking a variety of languages, never settling down anywhere . . .” That landless quality, which Budrys never entirely lost, is certainly the core of the complex, contradictory but fully realized character of Martino [in the story: Martini]. The novel is an espionage thriller written by a man with a singularly international perspective, but, more than that, it is a deeply affecting portrait of a man deprived of his identity.
Note: The Komsomol (mentioned near the end of the story) was the shortened name for the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League in the Soviet Union.
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The concrete room was stifling in its smallness. Rogers had turned off the rattling air conditioners in order to keep the discussion below the level of a shout. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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