Citing the quality of prose, the integrity of subject matter, and the poise of the field at that stage in its evolution, Barry Malzberg states that the 1950s were the greatest era of science fiction in American history in an episode of The Coode Street Podcast. With the careers of writers like Fritz Leiber, Wilson Tucker, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon, and Robert Heinlein in full stride, it’s an easy position to defend. (In fact, Robert Silverberg considers the 50s the true Golden Age, not the decade prior.) Involved as both writer and critic and heralded by his peers, the contributions of Algis Budrys to the era have, unfortunately, faded in recognition. Perhaps for foregrounding humanism over modernism’s technological wonders and man in space, he may have been pushed to the background—behind the decade’s other big names Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. As good as, if not better than most of the novels produced by the Big Three in the 50s, Budrys’ 1958 Who? deserves revived recognition.
At core a mystery, Who? opens with a carful of ANG government officials (the Allies of WWII) waiting at the European border of the SIC (a Russian-Chinese socialist state) for an important physicist to be returned. Hostilities between the East and West four decades in the past, the men and border guards are at ease, that is, until the man they came to pick up is escorted across. As much metal as biological, Marino’s left arm, major chunks of his torso, and his entire face have been modified, steel now as much a component as flesh. Rogers, one of the ANG security officials, calmly drives the metal man to an apartment before slamming the door and calling his bosses in a panic. Have the Russians embedded sophisticated spyware in his metal parts? Is it really Marino behind the metal mask? Has he spilled data associated with the top secret K-Eighty-Eight program? A team of technicians and psychologists descend on Marino in the aftermath, but their research is unable to confirm his identity, and with nothing left to do, ANG turn him loose in the real world as an ordinary civilian. The freedom incomplete, however, Rogers and his agents decide to do the only remaining thing they can in order to know whether it is really Marino behind the mask: research his past and observe his present to see how they compare. What they find is what none expected.
Budrys slowly weaving in Marino’s backstory, Who? is the portrait of a man whose fortunes are turned upside down by the Cold War. From his youth in NYC working at a diner in the 40s to his work as a brilliant physicist for ANG, the reader is filled in on the details that brought Marino (if it really is him) to have been captured by the SIC and converted into half-bot, half-human. Not just filler, the two narratives (the past and present) slowly dovetail into a coherent, multi-faceted conclusion. On one hand commenting on Cold War concerns, particularly the paranoia and resulting behavior of the East and West, on the other is offered a very personal, affective image of a man dealing with trauma. Engagingly achieved, Budrys deserves praise for creating a surprising and suspenseful climax, including a fascinating scene in a Russian hospital that transcends the narrative.
The transhumanist/cyborg echo of Who? thus bounces off three surfaces. Indirectly described in Roger’s surveillance of Marino, the first is its social aspect. Roger’s understanding of the scenes he witnesses incongruent with those Marino has a full historical context for, the juxtaposition is intriguing. The second is the political. The Cold War a secondary but important motif, the attempted manipulation and actual manipulation of Marino by both sides is telling. And lastly is the personal perspective: Marino’s self-perception after the surgeries is the strongest part of the novel. While the length of the book (156 pages) does not belie as complete a portrait a longer story could produce, Budrys nevertheless does an effective job hitting the major nerves of self-conception and identification, leading to Marino being a sympathetic character—not a pawn or helpless victim (he has agency), but one for whom his place in society is no longer what it once was.
In the end, Who? is a highly successful novel that deserves renewed recognition. The character study of an individual dealing with biomodification, a number of humanist themes evolve from the premise, including social, individual, and political concerns. Certainly a precursor to the New Wave, Budrys writes with human concerns foremost in mind, the glow of modernism left to fellow writers. For this, Who? is able to transcend the era and remain relevant to this day—precisely the same as a large part of Silverberg, Disch, Aldiss, and Bradbury's works.