Algis Budrys

I try to avoid having too many posts end up as eulogies, and Algis Budrys died several weeks ago now, but I’ll make an exception for him because he was one of the first sf writers who ever really grabbed me. I have specific memories of reading Rogue Moon in high school, and being fairly disoriented by its nearly 20-year distant imagining of moon landing combined with the cold war paranoia that served as a springboard for much of his fiction of that period. Right around that same time, one of the first issues of an sf magazine I ever bought had as the cover story his “Nuptial Flight of Warbirds”, another disorienting experience where the story starts out as a World War I era dogfight and ends up as a prefiguring of reality tv. I also acquired soon thereafter the Starblaze edition of Some Will Not Die, probably the first post-apocalyptic novel I ever read. Thanks to writers like Budrys, I realized there was much more to this whole science fiction idiom than I would have thought possible at age 15 or so.

His stories were characterized by lantern-jawed men of derring do and rapid-fire dialog, and I envisioned him as a good-looking, well-dressed older man with a quick eye and sharp wit, sort of like Ben Bova or John Campbell. Fifteen years later at my first Readercon, I finally got to see him in person, and was a bit shocked. He was old for sure by then, but disappointingly pasty and bloated, wearing shorts and white socks against the Worcester July weather, and he spoke with a breathy tenor voice that belied the attitude of his protagonists. But he was compelling to listen to and held an audience in rapt attention, so it didn’t take much to get over his appearance.

I think he was a regular attendee at Readercon until a few years later he was guest of honor, the same year he held that post at the San Antonio Worldcon if memory serves. At that Readercon, I found out the entire time I’d been at college in Evanston, he was living there. I had him sign a few books and told him if I’d known he was so close by at the time I would’ve spent 4 years working up the nerve to go knock on his door. Until I started going to conventions I never thought about where writers lived, I always just figured they were all in New York, but it turns out they’re everywhere. Phil Farmer lived in Peoria, for goodness sake, just a couple hours away from my home town.

At that convention the guest of honor interview was in a smallish room, and the line for signings wasn’t very long, even by ’97 all his work was out of print, although he was still trying to keep his magazine, Tomorrow, going, and republishing a lot of his own stuff there, both in print and on its primitive website. Joe Mayhew was doing the interviewing and didn’t ask very good questions, belying a lack of knowledge of Budrys’s work, but it didn’t matter. I specifically remember Budrys referring to his second novel, Man of Earth, as “one of the two or three worst books ever written”, and when asked why he stopped writing in the 60’s and went into editing, he said it was strictly because of the money. “I had four boys, and they were eating ten dollar bills for lunch.” His one regret was not winning a Hugo, Rogue Moon was nominated but didn’t win under suspicious circumstances (although it lost to Canticle for Leibowitz, hardly an unworthy alternative), and the book version of Hard Landing was disqualified because it had been previously published in F&SF, where for some reason it never got a nomination as a novella (west coast bias probably, that year’s Worldcon was in San Francisco). I also went to his reading, and got a chance to hear his prose in his own voice, and that’s still the voice I hear when I read it myself now and it seems perfectly natural. In line at the signing I was right behind Gordon Van Gelder, who had a first edition of False Night, which I didn’t acquire myself until a few years later, along with his one original hardcover, Michaelmas. Budrys, in addition to signing it, quickly went through the book to four or five specific spots and corrected the typographical errors. For the ’97 Worldcon NESFA Press produced a trade collection, for some reason called Entertainment, but it was story for story a re-hash of a previous collection. A few years later I acquired a bunch of his short stories in their first appearances in various magazines, but there is as yet no significant anthology of his work.

That might have been the last Readercon he attended, his health was deteriorating to the extent that it’s been several years ago already that I had read in Locus that he couldn’t travel any more. He typifies the sort of midlist writer who, once he stops writing sf, doesn’t have the staying power to remain visible to new readers and has to rely on the collective efforts of those who admired his work to keep him from fading into obscurity. I’ve been going to conventions long enough now that the list of writers I got to see but can no longer look forward to seeing again is getting to be nearly as long as the list of those who died before I got there. So I can’t eulogize everyone, it’s too depressing, but Budrys has a special place in the pantheon and deserves to be remembered.

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