Monday, September 5, 2016
Review of The Unexpected Dimension by Algis Budrys
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
Posted by Jesse at 9:04 PM