Monday, September 5, 2016

Review of The Unexpected Dimension by Algis Budrys

In a broad sense, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs should be considered the foundation stones of contemporary science fiction: Burroughs writes the highly fantastical side and Wells the largely realist (or at least human-centric) side, while Verne represents a kind of middle ground, a fascination with the possibilities of technology and science as it plays against both sides. The fathers of space opera, soft science fiction, and hard sf, respectively, they have directly or indirectly influenced science fiction since. Squarely in the Wells’ camp, and thus the most likely to transcend his time yet be forgotten, was Algis Budrys. Largely overlooked when 50s’ sf is discussed, the descendants of Burroughs and Verne (e.g. Asimov, Heinlein, etc.) hog the spotlight all the while Budrys, along with a handful of other writers from his era, remain deserving of further discussion. Pulling together the best stories from the first eight years of his career, Budrys’ The Unexpected Dimension (1960) is as much representation of Wells’ legacy as it is engaging soft science fiction in its own right.

While reviewers today would be likely to call the story Dickian, “The End of Summer” was before Philip K. Dick’s time. About memory editing on an Earth where life has been extended near to indefinite, the novelette opens with a man returning to his US home after hector-years living in Europe. Having reviewed his memories of his previous time in the US on the flight over, he takes his time getting to his home, enjoying the long drive from the airport. But once at his old apartment and back in society, not all is calm and certain. Budrys’ sparse style suiting the story being told, he portrays the man, and the people around hinm, as more dependent on the memory vaults they carry than actual memory itself. Loss of the man’s memory vault a natural springboard into interesting story, what happens after examines—yes, like PKD—memory, perception, conspiracy theories, and the surreal, resulting in powerful, if not Brave New World-esque, ending. The title literal and figurative, “The Distant Sound of Engines” is another piece about memory. A short work, it tells of a driver who lost his legs in an accident and is now convalescing in a hospital room, listening to the sound of cars and trucks on the highway outside his window. About what the brain retains as long term and short term memory, Budrys writes subtly but powerfully.

Budrys a writer who chooses one or two ideas and takes his time unpacking them, the stories in The Unexpected Dimension unfurl slowly but satisfyingly. Something of a socio-political experiment, “The Burning World” posits a far-future wherein a utopian society has been created. The military subsumed into citizenry (each person armed), tension results when a rebellious leader wants to re-introduce an independent military for “protection of freedom.” This large canvas looked at through the eyes of a select few characters, Budrys uses an intentionally reduced political landscape to explore the petty statements and actions of two politicians. Largely an abstract story for this structuring, the reader is required to forego the epicness of such a struggle, but is rewarded for the resulting familiarity with real-world politics. Another political piece, “First to Serve” at first appears as commentary on Asimov’s Robot stories, but as it develops becomes a more universal criticism of the expectations of leadership on soldiers, and the inhuman manner in which they are treated. The army the largest non-democratic organization in existence, a soldier’s obedience and willingness to follow orders are expected to be automatic. But they are human, with human reactions to forced obeisance, which would seem to make a robot the best soldier. Or would it? An interesting story.

A radical concept delivered in simple terms, “The Executioner” combines extreme religious thinking in government with an equally extreme sense of capitol punishment. Guns and radical ideology, as one can imagine, result in an ugly scene, but one which goes a long way toward presenting the human capacity for absurdism, or at least faith. The oddest story in the collection for setting alone (i.e. the only non-Earth based), “Go and Behold Them” tells of a man sent to discover what became of a husband and wife duo of scientists exploring an unknown quadrant of space. A tragedy is ultimately discovered, but a hauntingly beautiful one that transcends the setting. An alternate history with Germany winning WWII, “Never Meet Again” looks at Europe fifteen years after the war through the eyes of a German scientist who helped develop submarine radar, and continues to work on top secret technology. Life in utopian Berlin heavily government controlled, the scientist, now in old age, loves the advantages German modernism has brought to the city after the war, but in conversation with a colleague comes to realize certain political realities may not be so advantageous. To describe his reaction is to spoil the story, so suffice at saying… he is allowed an alternate perspective that nicely contextualizes the state of Europe and the world after WWII, in turn providing an excellent example of how sci-fi sensawunda can be applied in humanist terms.

Each story polished and carefully constructed, The Unexpected Dimension is a debut collection as it shoud be: give a writer several years to develop and coalesce their skills per story, and once they’ve got enough quality material, put the pearls in a collection. Capturing the best of the first eight years of Budrys’ career, it likewise serves as a great introduction to the writer’s style and underlying concern with the effects of technology, memory, radical ideology, and time. A solid effort by Budrys as grandpa Wells approves from the wings of history.

The following are the seven stories collected in The Unexpected Dimension:

The End of Summer
The Distant Sound of Engines
Never Meet Again
The Burning World
First to Serve
Go and Behold Them
The Executioner


  1. Budrys was twenty-three when he wrote 'The End of Summer,' just as a detail.

    Yeah, Budrys was and is highly underrated. There was a time when he looked to be the most likely candidate to make an adult literature out of SF, partly because he was an interesting thinker and partly because of his adeptness at infusing mainstream lit techniques into SF. I see you've reviewed 'The Silent Eyes of Time' from the mid-1970s, so that's the kind of thing I mean and wanted to see more of. But so is the beautiful way that WHO? is structured -- and Budrys wrote that back in the 1950s.

    As regards THE UNEXPECTED DIMENSION, I think there's something interesting in each of the stories in this collection except maybe 'Go And Behold Them' and I first read them when I was a kid in the 1960s. (And I've reread them many times since.) But the style and Budrys's recourse to or avoidance of then-standard plot moves in his short fiction of the 1950s is still a little too redolent of the writing-level of the genre then for my taste. (Except for "The Distand Sound of Engines, which is arguably a little Hemingwayesque masterpiece.)

    If you can find BLOOD AND BURNING, a collection from the latter 1970s, I'd say that book has his most achieved stories (which are mostly from the 1960s and '70s). I'm thinking particularly of stories like "Be Merry" and "For Love" and "Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night."

    IMO, there's a lineage of (fairly dark) SF that runs from the short fiction of C.M. Kornbluth in the 1950s to those of James Tiptree in the 1970s, and Budrys -- in stories like "For Love" -- seems to me the missing link between those two writers.

    1. For sure this is a very solid debut collection. You can really feel that each piece is revised and reworked until is shines - subtly, but shines. Blood and Burning was on my list of Budrys' works to read, now it will probably be read sooner than later as I try to devote the remainder of 2016 to writers deserving greater recognition.

      Interesting that you should describe Budrys' stories as dark, or at least 'fairly dark.' :) For certain he is more in tune with writers like Orwell or Huxley, writers who took a more realistic (or what some might think of as pessimistic) view toward humanity's capabilities - the vices as much as the virtues. I'm on the realist side myself, which means Budrys' delicately cautionary tales strike a real chord. Whether or not Budrys forms a waypoint on the journey to Tiptree Jr., however, is something I'm not convinced of. I put a lot of Tiptree Jr.'s work, for as great as it is, beyond dark, with one toe or foot in paranoid land. In the stories of his I've read, Budrys covers a wide gamut of territory, from memory to politics, economics to religion, etc. Each story seems to be a piece unto itself. With Tiptree Jr., however, I get the impression that each story, for as unique as it may be, is extracted from a much smaller pool of ideas. There is a certain fear of men, sex as a tool for oppression, of the imminence of mortality, of cultural domination - these are the common threads to her work, appearing time and again. With Budrys, I get the feeling the only real common thread to his stories is a strong underlying sense of humanism, and the need to protect it in the face of interests which would seek to undermine it. But do correct me if I'm wrong. I've read enough of Tiptree Jr. and Budrys to form an initial impression, but perhaps not enough to make a fully qualified statement.

      Regardless, thanks for the great comment. (P.s. Kornbluth is another writer deserving greater recognition - as I assume you are well aware. Alas...)