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Badger, London, 1960
(first published Pyramid, New York, 1958)
price: 2/-; 144 pages

The blurb on the back:

Dead or alive - Martino was dynamite!
If he were dead, then a superhumanly clever spy in perfect disguise was free behind Allied lines. And if he were alive and brainwashed by the Soviets then he was a terrifying menace. In one blow he could sabotage the Allied war project and destroy the world's balance of power.
Dead or alive? How could anyone be sure? Because the man who called himself Martino was not even human.
Famed science-fiction writer Algis Budrys has created a unique and exciting spy story that both fascinates and challenges the imagination.

opening lines:
It was near the middle of the night. The wind came up from the river, moaning under the filigreed iron bridges, and the weathercocks on the dark old buildings pointed their heads north.

In the near future, with the Cold War having now engulfed the world, an explosion at an Allied laboratory near the frontier sees a leading research scientist 'rescued' by the Soviets and taken into safe-keeping. Following lengthy negotiations, he is returned to the Allies, which is where we join the story. And the Allied security service has a serious problem straight away. Because Lucas Martino has suffered such serious injuries that the Soviets had to perform some rather radical surgery: his left arm has been replaced by a metal one, whilst his entire head has been replaced by a metal ovoid. He can still speak, eat and smoke, he can see and hear, and his brain is intact, but he is to all intents and purposes half-machine.

And the question arises: what about the other half? Is he still safe, or has Martino gone over to the Soviets whilst in their custody? More worrying still, how can one tell that he actually is Martino? The fingerprints on his surviving right hand match, but any medical team that can do a head-replacement is perfectly capable of an arm-transplant - all the fingerprints prove is that this is Martino's right arm. What about the rest of him?

And essentially that's the book. It's a philosophical piece about the nature of human identity, and how bound up it is in the existence of a face. Does a man lose his past if he (literally) loses face? Can you trust such a man? Is human interaction possible if one party can't read the facial expressions of the other?

There's an echoing here, of course, of HG Well's Invisible Man, and Budrys makes the debt explicit, but he goes deeper in his ruminations on the subject. Not really science fiction then? No, not really. But a very nice book, and full of insights into the foibles of human society. Here he is on the fatal flaw at the heart of the security services and their practice of recruiting traitors:

They were very proud of their foreigners at Central Headquarters, and of the whole over-complicated and inefficient system that supported them. They had it in their heads that a man could be a traitor to his own people and still not be crippled by the weaknesses that had driven him to treachery. (p.130)

I have to admit I only read this because the cover was so trashy; turned out that the book was anything but.


from the maker of...

The Falling Torch
my thanks to Mr Josh Cedar
for donating this book