Algis Budrys: Science-fiction writer and editor

Saturday 14 June 2008 00:00

As with so many exiles, his name tells a tale. The American science-fiction writer and editor Algis Budrys was born Algirdas Jonas Budrys in Königsberg in East Prussia, to a family which identified itself as Lithuanian rather than German. But his father, Jonas, who had been intimately involved in the troubled political and military history of Lithuania, was sent with his family in 1936 to New York, where he served as Consul-General for Lithuania while it existed, and subsequently on behalf of the Lithuanian government-in-exile. One consequence of this was that, for several decades after 1945, his son was stateless.

In an environment so politically heightened and emotionally fraught, it is noteworthy how swiftly and fully the young Budrys became Americanised, attending the University of Miami, 1947-49, and Columbia University, 1951-52, and beginning his main career as a science-fiction writer and editor in 1952, aged 21, with the first of a flood of highly influential short stories.

For all his work, he signed himself Algis Budrys, a form of his name he used for the rest of his life; it was a name that, for young readers in the early 1950s, seemed mysteriously alien, as though this new author had come from afar, bearing strange news. In his personal life, however, he was known, familiarly, as "AJ". He married early and well, settling in Evanston, Illinois. He was a writer, editor, publisher, advertising executive, and minor entrepreneur. He was a hard worker, a convivial mate, a good friend to many. Like so many who shared his immigrant background, AJ became a good American.

This good American was pleasant to meet, faithful to his friends, a stocky, smiling figure recognised and respected by the many fellow professionals and readers he encountered as editor and colleague and (latterly) spokesman for the science-fiction culture he had inhabited since 1950 or so. But it was also immediately apparent that AJ held something in reserve; something granitic, icy, distanced, perturbed. AJ was very clearly also Algis Budrys, who was Algirdas Jonas Budrys, whose sense of exile was profound.

His short stories are incisive, intellectually challenging and highly professional; but now read too often as though they are bursting at their seams, as though they should have taken longer to tell. Although some of them, like "Nobody Bothers Gus" (1955), remain intensely readable, they are the work of a man intent on proving himself against the challenge of other new writers like Philip K. Dick and Richard Matheson.

But it is with the novels that Budrys's full, obdurate, gripping, hard-thinking intensity as a creative mind fully blossoms. Even the first version of his first novel, False Night (1954), manages to portray to scarifying effect a plague which triggers an American holocaust – clearly not dissimilar to the total war which so devastated Budrys's extravagantly tortured homeland. His second novel, Who? (1958), which was filmed in 1974, is a stunning parable of isolation and internal exile: a scientist, rebuilt into a masked cyborg after a terrible accident, must attempt to prove his identity. As with most 20th-century tales of existential despair, there is in the end no safe identity to prove.

Budrys's early masterpiece, Rogue Moon (1960), soon followed. In the guise of a science-fiction adventure in matter transmission, the novel gazes scouringly on the fate of humanity as we become our tools, progressively losing the thread of ourselves. In the end the tale describes modern civilisation as a dance of death; its depiction of modern humanity lost in deadly labyrinths of its own making has been influential on at least two generations of science-fiction writers, including Greg Bear, William Gibson, Dan Simmons. Its relentlessless arguably underlies the work of a writer as recent as the British China Miéville.

There would not be another novel for almost two decades. During these years, Budrys served as editor in various Chicago firms, including the Playboy Press; he worked for the large Chicago advertising agency Young & Rubicam until 1974; he published a great deal of non-fiction, some of his critical work on science-fiction topics being assembled in Benchmarks (1985). At the same time, he began to be recognised as one of the two or three best teachers of writing in the field, and as a story-doctor of genius. Michaelmas (1977) marked a brief return to fiction; its portrayal of a sentient Artificial Intelligence, housed worldwide through a network of distributed computers, was prescient. A final novel, Hard Landing (1993), returns pithily to the theme of exile.

In the early 1980s, a new professional role began to occupy Budrys's time, and changed his life. His involvement in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future brought him far too close, in the eyes of many, to Scientology, both as a controversial religion and as the corporate backer of the series of anthologies Budrys edited – 18 of them in all between 1985 and 2007. This programme was of immense use to many young writers, which goes some way to justifying Budrys's sometimes strenuous defence of his advocacy, in word and deed, of Hubbard himself.

It was also in the 1980s that Budrys decided to come to England for the first time, to attend the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention being held that year in Brighton. To do so he had to modify his technical statelessness, and gained an American Green Card to make the trip (in the 1990s he took out American citizenship). Unfortunately the Brighton experience was shadowed by a perception on the part of British science-fiction professionals that the Church of Scientology, which maintained a highly visible sponsoring presence at the convention, was attempting to take over the event.

Increasingly immobilised by bad health, whose effects he furiously resented, Budrys did not ever return to Britain. Although he gave up some of the administrative burdens of Writers of the Future in 1991, the annual anthologies, carefully edited to promote the careers of its young contributors, remained a full-time enterprise. They became his life, except for time taken to edit the 24 issues of his own magazine, Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, from 1993 to 1997. For his earlier, voluminous work as a critic, Budrys was given the 2007 Pilgrim Award.

John Clute

Algirdas Jonas Budrys, writer: born Königsberg, Germany 9 January 1931; married 1954 Edna Duna (four sons); died Evanston, Illinois 9 June 2008.

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