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The Falling Torch

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Pyramid, New York, 1972
(first published 1959)
price: 95c; 160 pages

dedication: To Richard McKenna and Theodore Thomas

The blurb on the back:

Their mission was simple - and suicidal
The spaceship dropped them into the night. Their objective: to destroy the mighty empire that held Earth a slave planet. One was an anonymous agent from Earth's Underground - the other was the son of the last President of Free Earth, Michael Wireman.
Together they had to weld the underground guerrilla fighters into a force capable of beating the most powerful army in the Galaxy. Danger and almost certain death awaited them on Earth's nightside. But there was one weapon that could vanquish the Occupiers of Earth, and Michael Wireman had it within him. The only trouble was, he didn't know it...

opening lines:
The cortege moved slowly, slowly down the broad white marble esplanade that bent to overhang the inward curving shore of Lake Geneva. Wireman was dead at last...

Let's do alternative history: imagine that Germany had invaded Britain in 1940, occupied the country for twenty-odd years while the British government had gone into exile in America. That's essentially the situation here, but set in the 25th century. Humanity has colonised Cheiron, a planet four light years away, with the colonists then establishing their own empire; still human in origin, they have long drifted from their cultural roots on Earth. So when Earth is invaded by aliens, the government flees into exile on Cheiron and impotently plans a return home, hoping against hope that the administration on this foreign planet will actively intervene to assist their cause.

The story concerns the fate of the son of the last President of Earth, now in his late-twenties, who volunteers to take a consignment of arms back to the planet he left as a baby, to arm the resistance and lead them in a revolt against the alien occupiers. But, as with Who?, Algis Budrys isn't really over-concerned with the science fiction elements of the tale at all. The real core of the book is the passage of a young man into adulthood, the finding of his own character and direction in life, and ultimately his break with the legacy of his father. Set against that deliberate evocation of Nazi occupation, the primary theme is one of generational identity: linking, in other words, the immediate past of the Second World War with the dawning of the Sixties.

And it's very good indeed. Our hero, Michael Wireman, is a misfit, an outsider in classic beat tradition, unable to find a place for himself on his adopted planet, or in the resistance or in the society created by the Invaders on Earth. It's not until he can piece together his own understanding of what it means to be a leader - and a leader in a new style, not that of his father's generation - that he can establish where he fits.

Along the way, there is a whole heap of good sense talked, and some sharp observations of and insights into humanity and human society. Here, for example, is Budrys reflecting on an Invader soldier:

The young guard ... felt the stiffening of the tradition all up and down his ramrod backbone, but if he had been asked, he would have said that fighting, and not passing inspections, was a soldier's occupation. It would have been a little bit beyond him as yet to understand that passing inspections - assuming the shape of the ideal, acquiring the symbolic stature - was exactly a soldier's business. A soldier had, in a very real sense, failed when his mere appearance no longer maintained discipline among the people he was sent to keep in order. A soldier who fired his weapons at anything but training targets was already a living admission of defeat. (p.112)

Somewhere along the way in the last few years, we seem to have lost sight of this truth.

As I understand it, Mr Budrys is regarded as one of the great science fiction writers. I'm hardly in a position to comment on that, but it does seem to me that - like the best creators of SF - he is more concerned with human beings than with technology or hardware, and certainly reveals more about the present than the future. Intelligent and entertaining - a fine combination.


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