Although “Golden Age” science fiction has always seemed corn-fed as hell to me–space cowboys and army men, pioneering colonists and alien baddies usually tinged with Soviet undertones–I’m discovering, more and more, that it’s partially an immigrant’s literature. Isaac Asimov was a Russian Jew, born on the Belarussian border. Hugo Gernsback, editorial granddaddy to the age of pulp magazine publishing, hailed from Luxembourg. Clarke, of course, was British. And Algis Budrys, the subject of this review, was the son of a high-ranking Lithuanian diplomat, born in East Prussia and sent to live in the U.S. at 5 years old. I’m not making any real point here: just that in a genre often defined by xenophobic leering, it’s interesting that so many of its A-level practitioners were imports themselves. It speaks, I guess, to the self-reflexive dimensions of science fiction’s critiques, even in the early days.
And, of course, science fiction is an art form enhanced by the ability to understand a multiplicity of perspectives–hence its clubhouse perennially stocked with outsiders, libertarians, anti-establishment nuts, women, homosexuals, people of color, geeks, and anyone else not tailored to the moment’s mores. It’s always easier to define the alien when you have a little bit of it kicking around inside you. English was Budrys’ third language; as a child, he watched Hitler parade past his apartment window in a black Mercedes. By the time he was living in America, publishing science fiction, he was on his second or third life, and this–combined with his upbringing in government circles at the dawn of the Second World War–goes a long way in contextualizing his 1958 novel, Man of Earth.
Man of Earth, according to its paperback cover, is “a fascinating science fiction novel of a man who chose his own physical structure.” As ever, this is an approximate description. Yes, the novel concerns a meek bureaucrat (Sibley), who, facing imminent political evisceration, decides to take a mysterious solicitor up on his offer of help. This leads him to a strange corporate office, hushed promises, and eventually a surgery, some kind of glandular restructuring-cum-skin-graft, that metamorphoses him into a stronger, more resilient man. Adopting a new name (Sullivan), he ships off to Pluto to begin a new life, where he rises to the upper ranks of a jingoistic army. Although Sibley’s still there, the new identity–Sullivan–eventually jostles its way to prominence; the original man, who once so fervently desired to be remodeled, is now trapped deep in the new man, Sullivan’s, unconscious mind.
In a sense, Man of Earth encapsulates genre SF’s tiered truths: what looks like a great American dream of reinvention and gung-ho pioneering is, actually, a complex immigrant’s story. As Sullivan/Sibley strives to settle into life on Pluto, he is never quite whole: he is wired for fracture, containing multitudes. He essentially speaks the languages of two different modes of being; yes, the binary is simple (weak/strong) but it remains unclear, as it does with many transplants, where the old and new identities meet. The Plutonian army trains Sullivan to fight against the Earth, an arbitrary enemy which happens to be himself; I imagine this isn’t too far from the experience of emigrating to the U.S. as an Eastern European right before the Cold War.
In a 1997 interview, Budrys said, “What science fiction does…is speculate about the nature of things. SF frequently turns to the past. All kinds of SF and fantasy is set centuries in the past. People forget that when they talk about SF as a medium for predicting the future. That’s not what SF is for. SF is for speculating, not predicting.” Although he was trying to put to bed the notion that science fiction should be judged on the quality of its predictions, he obliquely raises the point that the literature is both inward-turning and imaginative. And, by virtue of being a personal craft, it by necessity pulls the inward experiences of its practitioners outwards–in this case, to the stars.