Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Man of Earth by Algis Budrys

Sibley's face burned.  But soon, he knew, with a sudden joy, that would never happen again.  Soon he would be a man.

The central ideas behind Algis Budrys's famous Rogue Moon (lunar death maze, teleportation, the question of what constitutes a man) are great, but as I wrote back in 2007 the execution did not impress me.  It has taken me almost eight years to give another Budrys novel a chance, but this week I read Man of Earth, a 1958 paperback from Ballantine (number 243) which literally fell to pieces as I read it, and I am glad I did.

An earlier version of Man of Earth appeared in Satellite Science Fiction.  The isfdb is leading me to believe that Man of Earth has been published in physical book form in English only once, but that our friends in Italy have put out three different editions, in '62, '72 and '80.  Here is my chance to gauge the taste of the Italian SF community; maybe they appreciate something about Man of Earth that American SF fans missed!

Man of Earth starts out like one of those postwar books or movies about how stressful and corrupt the modern business world is and how our consumer society is devouring our souls.  It's New York, the year 2197!  Allen Sibley is a genius broker who can tell instinctively what stocks to buy and sell, and his firm is one of the most successful in the finance game!  But he feels like something is missing in his life: he has no family or friends; he is a bust with women; he recalls how he used to make model airplanes as a child and, now in his late forties, wishes he could leave his mark on the world with his hands, not staring at a screen and buying and selling shares.  He is naturally shy and nervous, and suffers terrific anxiety because he knows his whole life can collapse all around him if government regulators or business rivals expose some of the corners he's cut and shady deals he's made.  Then a guy from the mysterious firm of Doncaster Industrial Linens tells him our whole society is prone to collapse because we are using too many resources and soon Mother Earth will run out!

When it looks like Uncle Sam is about to fall on Sibley like a ton of bricks he hires the services of the secretive Doncaster corporation.  In exchange for over 90% of his assets the Doncaster people replace Sibley's eyes and skin so he is no longer identifiable, tinker with his hormones and glands so he will be strong and brave instead of weak and cowardly, provide him forged papers (Sibley is now "John L. Sullivan," a joke I would never have got without google), and then ship him off to the colony on Pluto to start a new life!  Tricky, tricky--until he woke up on the spaceship, Sibley thought he was going to start his new life in the Big Apple, not that barren rock beyond Uranus!

"Sullivan" lands on Pluto 47 pages into the 144 page novel.  Man of Earth is one of those SF stories in which people can walk around on Pluto and breathe the air just fine; there are H2O rivers and the soil can support Earth plants. The Pluto colony has about 20,000 inhabitants, and the place is run along totalitarian lines, with the government assigning people jobs.  Because he doesn't want to blow his cover by admitting he is a business and math whiz Sullivan tells them he has no skills and so they stick him in the army. Why does Pluto need an army?  The people of Pluto feel like the Earth has abandoned them, and the reader is lead to suspect that the Pluto army is going to conquer the Earth Franco-style!  

Sullivan tries to be a good soldier, and with his superior physique and intelligence he soon becomes the best private in the Plutonian army.  He also tries to make friends among his fellow enlisted men, but he has no social skills and is taken advantage of by a conniving bully, leaving him alienated from his comrades.

In the last pages of the book Budrys ties the whole plot together.  Doncaster gave the lonely Sibley a superior body to match his superior mind and sent him to Pluto for military training in order to groom him to be the leader of the first interstellar colonization effort!  Pluto is secretly run by Doncaster, and the army is not going to attack Earth; just about everybody on the planet is going to be leaving the solar system to found a galactic empire, and Sibley/Sullivan is going to be in charge of this heroic adventure!

Man of Earth is pretty good; I certainly liked it more than Rogue Moon.  The style was good, the plot included surprises, the book felt streamlined, and it addresses interesting issues.

While Man of Earth includes all kinds of traditional SF elements (futuristic gadgets like space ships, mass-marketed jet packs for commuters, and pocket typewriters; a morally ambiguous and far-reaching conspiracy; and a sense-of-wonder/paradigm-shift ending) most of the text, and most of the energy, of the novel is devoted to the main character's psychology and relationships, and I think Budrys did a good job with this material. Sibley/Sullivan is a sympathetic and interesting character, and the early scenes which show him as a bundle of nerves, and then the scenes on Pluto, where he blunderingly tries to win friends and earn respect among the working class volunteer soldiers and lower class conscripts, are effective.

Like Rogue Moon, Man of Earth is largely about what it means to be a man.  Sibley wants to be a man, and, thinks he has failed to be one as a weak, cowardly, and lonely, though highly successful, broker.  As Sullivan, the strong and courageous soldier, he tries his damnedest to be a man, but it is not easy.  His life in the Pluto army is as lonely as his life back on Wall Street, and even though he is now too tough to be intimidated by people, he is vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous.

That Sibley/Sullivan is selected to be the leader of the greatest adventure in human history suggests that Budrys thinks that a "real" man is doomed to loneliness, to be (to quote Virgil) "a man apart."  I think Budrys's praise of L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout, a novel about a tough, self-sacrificing, autocratic leader in a postapocalyptic world, is significant here.  Aeneas-like figures seem to be close to Budrys's heart, and he appears to share with Hubbard a level of skepticism about our middle-class democratic and capitalistic institutions.

I'm happy to recommend Man of Earth, an economical, entertaining novel which has a good balance of human drama and SF elements.  With its preoccupation with manhood and manliness, it might be an especially interesting read for someone interested in gender roles in SF.

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