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February 3rd, 2015

Who? by Algis Budrys

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: — William Cardini @ 9:18 am

Who? by Algis Budrys is a psychologically tense Cold War SF story, twined around the titular question: who is this faceless cyborg sent back into Western territory by the Soviets – a spy or the brilliant American scientist he claims to be? Lucas Martino is horribly injured in an explosion while he’s working in a top-secret government research project. The Soviets kidnap him from the wreckage for questioning but he can only be saved by an operation that covers his head in an expressionless metal helmet, his eyes glittering lights and his mouth a grill filled with metal blades.

Who by Algis Budrys, cover by Bob Giusti
Cover by Bob Giusti.

The novel alternates between flashbacks of Martino’s life up to the accident and the present-day story of the American spy who watches him to see if he betrays a Soviet allegiance. I was expecting lots of action – the cyborg man has a super strong prosthetic arm and eyes that can see into the infrared – but instead Budrys gives us a character study of a socially awkward scientist who wants to always know exactly how he fits into the universe but is instead cast adrift by both the Soviets who cure him and the Americans whom he hopes will welcome him back. There’s also some body horror as we watch the cyborg adapt to his body – for example, his lips and teeth are gone but his tongue remains, hidden behind metal blades that cut his food up for him.

The next two paragraphs go into spoiler territory.

Who? exposes the uselessness of spy-vs-spy shenanigans. Neither side has any true insight into what the other side is doing. When double agents are caught, the projects they know about are immediately canceled, making espionage a wasteful play staged for the benefit of unknown bosses far up the hierarchy. We never learn what kind of secret technology Martino was working on before his capture, but it doesn’t matter because the Soviets would’ve soon developed a counter tech. This isn’t a novel about American ingenuity solving anything.

Who by Algis Budrys, cover by Frank Kelly Freas
Cover by Frank Kelly Freas.

Budrys shows us these limits on what a nation state can discover and reflects them in the limits of what individuals can know about others and themselves. The American who is charge of the surveillance team on the cyborg, Shawn Rogers, is obsessed (because of the demands of his superiors) with finding some kind of certain evidence that the cyborg is Lucas Martino and not a Soviet pretending to be him, but nothing is acceptable because Rogers is so convinced of the supreme skill of his Soviet counterpart. Fingerprints could be faked by grafting Martino’s arm on someone else’s body. The facts of Martino’s life could be found out from interrogation. A desire to see an old lover could be an act and recognition of her face, feigned. In the flashbacks, even Martino’s own motivations are obscure to himself. He doesn’t understand why he falls in love with a woman who seems superficially unappealing to him. After the explosion, Martino loses his identity. He was a brilliant physicist and let his work define himself but now the Americans won’t let him back on his project. His parents and other family are dead. His voice is the same but the rest of his body is scarred and transfigured. Even his mind is reshaped by the rejection of so many people he meets and the trauma of the accident and surgery.

Who by Algis Budrys, cover by Alun Hood
Cover by Alud Hood. This back cover copy makes it sound more exciting than my description.

Similar themes have been explored in great SF novels such as A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem. I don’t think that Who? is at the same level as these masterpieces but the book is so short, with a great twist towards the end, that it’s worth a read.

1 Comment »

  1. […] For reviews of little-known and out-of-print sci-fi paperbacks. [Hypercastle] […]

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