All Tomorrows: Goodbye, Algis Budrys

I have spoken elsewhere of the stultifying weight thrown on us by the marketing practices of past generations , which attempted to parse out speculative fiction into tidy little categories and have resulted in inextricable concatenations. * The immediate point is that writers will speculate, and if their stories thrash a limb or two over some publisher’s tidy little fence and sprawl into the “next” “category,” tough tiddy. But then we descriptors of the milieu have to invent categories like “science adventure” and “science fantasy” and “heroic fantasy,” possibly — nay, certainly — because we readers have been taught that things come in little boxes. When something breaks through into the next box, we call the combined wreckage a new box.

* God, I love the language!

-Algis Budrys, April 1982

This is far too belated, and it arises out of Pat (thank you!) informing me in the comments of the last column that science fiction writer/critic extraordinaire Algis Budrys had died last June.

He published only a handful of books, though there’s more than one classic amongst them. By his own admission, however, what Budrys did best — as critic, historian and editor — was teach: he helped demolish the aforementioned boxes, making bad writing good and good writing superb. He even made a valiant attempt to take a professional sci-fi (a term he wasn’t horribly fond of) magazine online.

His role as a tester/pusher of new writing is needed now more than ever, and he’s left a very large hole to fill.

it must have impacted my writing, because generally speaking I write about alienated people doing things that they feel are perfectly ordinary but which the general public feels are not in keeping with what the general public feels. So that’s the way it is. I write very well, but I write peculiar things.
Budrys, from this revealing interview
Like many of sci-fi’s early luminaries, Budrys was an immigrant: his father was a senior Lithuanian diplomat who ended up stuck in the United States when his country was occupied by the Soviets in 1940. Coming to New York, the kids mistakenly thought he was German, not an easy thing in that day.

Budrys forged on. In his early writing, his understanding of rootlessness served to help tear up the genre’s own boxes. In Rogue Moon (my old copy of which disappeared about a year ago), the typical heroic space explorers turn out to actually be venal, doomed nutcases (and that’s just for starters). It did for the alien exploration story what film noir did for crime drama and Sergio Leone for Westerns.

Critics, like editors, play an unappreciated but vital role. Both help perform a necessary culling, calling bullshit when needed and bringing hidden (or forgotten) talents into the public eye. Budrys said his work “helps to improve the breed. The way I do criticism is, I take a book and pull it apart if it pulls, and point out what could have been done better: Point to errors, give praise where it seems deserved and just keep that up.”

Writers have a lot invested in their works, which makes such scalpels utterly necessary. Budrys wielded his well, in a long stint as the reviewer at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, not just critiquing the works in front of him, but comprehending the deeper assumptions and ideals of the entire genre. It is to Budrys that I owe a great deal of my education about the Deviant Age. He understood the fan’s enthusiasm as well as the editor’s need to say it clear and cold.

He pointed me to Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ, Julian May, Samuel Delany among many others, while presenting a framework where whatever-fi didn’t have to fit into any damn boxes. The PR people can figure that out: write, read and never stop thinking. Budrys did them all.

There was a time when I could put the palm of my hand flat on the front of a tattered paperback called The Dying Earth and feel the magic seeping through the cardboard: Turjan of Miir, Liane the Wayfarer, T’sais, Chun the Unavoidable. Nobody I knew had so much as heard of that book, but I knew it was the finest book in the world…

It may be; on some low shelf, some obscure shelf, where the fascinated child may sit in peace for hours, irrevocably swimming into the currents of her or his future, from the vantage of that stream to regard the banks of the world with eyes that have already gazed beyond the hills.

I did not know I love books so much.

-from his books column, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. January, 1984

Question:What’s your “finest book in the world” and how did you find it?

8 Responses to “All Tomorrows: Goodbye, Algis Budrys”

  1. Jake von Slatt Says:

    The books of Algis Budrys are the ones I remember the best of all of the books I’ve read. Somehow I didn’t read them all at once the way I usually do, but spread out over the years and I remember distinctly where I was when I read each one whether in be deep in the stacks of my High School’s library or on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard twenty years later.

  2. What's in a name anyways? Says:

    The fall by Albert Camus. I got to pick ten books from my uncles book case. I love the way it’s written, the story and the message.

  3. Ben Morris Says:

    Finest book: The collected short fiction of Jorge Luis Borges. Several years ago a friend lent me his copy, telling me that I would love it. He was entirely correct. After reading most of it I moved and in the course of the move I managed to lose it. I bought a copy to replace his and one for myself, only to find his original shortly afterwards.

  4. R. Says:

    The finest book…Mine would be Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. It’s one of the few books that has stuck with me and had me re-reading it immediately after I finished it. My copy is so tattered and worn that it’s not even readable anymore.

  5. Jess Nevins Says:

    Budrys’ early criticism, I agree, was very useful.

    Then he got involved with the $cientologists and lost all credibility.

  6. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Seems the easy choice, but the BEST OF H.P. LOVECRAFT is never very far from thought. It was my first foray into his mind and it left me shell-shocked. Imagine…horror for the atheist! The Exorcist never did it for me, but here in my hot little hands, I had terror so sheer, it still keeps me up.

  7. Chris L Says:

    @Ben Morris. Your story of finding Borges has a Borgesian tilt to it as well, how suiting.

    I can’t think of what my “finest” book is. I want to say Dune, or Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling. But maybe it’s Oryx and Crake by Atwood. Or maybe something a tad more capital L Literary (though I don’t know what that would be.)

  8. cappy Says:

    Best book I’ve read in a long while was the collected “Morgaine Saga,” by CJ Cherryh.

    Limited-third-person writing FTW. Can’t get enough of it — you want immersive writing, that’s where it’s at.