If Joseph Campbell is to be believed, then the hero’s journey is a story as old as mankind. And we keep on telling it. From the epics of Homer to the gush of epic fantasy currently on the market, the underlying formula remains relatively the same: take a person, separate them from their society, put them through the wringer to emerge triumphant in their society once again. Such a quantity of such stories, in fact, there may be more than a thousand faces.
The Falling Torch (1959) by Algis Budrys is one of the faces. The story of a scion raised in exile, Michael Wireman is thrust back into the thick of the war that pushed his father’s government to another planet. With the expectation he will reverse the tides of fate, he is given contraband weaponry, contacts amongst the guerilla rebellion, and parachuted in to “save the day”. As the prologue informs the reader, Wireman is successful, but as the intro to this review is also informs, it’s the journey that matters.
What sets The Falling Torch apart from the majority of contemporary hero narratives is that Budrys keeps his narrative grounded in realism, or at least an attempt there at. The novel is not an endless series of action scenes wherein Wireman jumps into the thick of battle, bullets flying, killing enemies as he builds a rebellion. Rooted instead in the man’s thoughts and perceptions, as well as his conversations and interaction with members of the rebellion and opposition, Budrys probes at the picture of an average man thrust into circumstances he’s rather avoid to discover the personal tools he needs to become a leader.
What Budrys probes, however, is not always a success. Like Joachim at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, I have to agree there are missed opportunities and inconsistencies. Key parts of the narrative are elided, and one has to wonder about the underlying sentiment. The prologue hinting at a semi-utopia, is the end all just satire? Or simply an idea not taken all the way through?
Budrys deserves commendation for attempting to humanize the hero’s journey while around him many contemporaries were trying to make that narrative as camp as possible; The Falling Torch looks at the progression from several viewpoints relevant to the real world. But it remains an incomplete portrayal. What is visible goes a long way toward creating the illusion a whole exists, but the inherent gaps leave the door open for questions, questions the text should have answered. Gotta love the title, however: once it lands, it explodes.