Book Review: The Falling Torch, Algis Budrys (1959)

(Bob Engle’s cover for the 1959 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

A smile, or tears, perhaps.  Tears are easier than laughter.  Tears need no gust of breath, as laughter must though breath is short — tears do not crack the muscles of the back or make the jaws ache when the jaws are sore-gummed from the artificial teeth — yes old men’s or old women’s gentle tears; these too are safe; not grown men’s sobs, but children’s tears;  not children’s tantrum-cries but children’s tears upon the moment when they learn that, in all justice, children, too, can fairly died–those are the tears that we regain when we are very old (pg 149).

Algis Budrys’ The Falling Torch (1959) is on the surface yet another simplistic brave oppressed mankind rebelling against the alien invaders who have conquered Earth novel à la Aldiss’ Bow Down to Nul (variant title: The Interpreter) (1960) and the ilk.  And I was deluded into thinking it was until a third of the way through and then inklings of a deeper, albeit not entirely redeeming, purpose/meaning emerged.  Like the quote above, the message is laboriously and inarticulately conveyed — shackled and hampered by its time worn and altogether too restrictive plot.

Budrys attempts to wiggle within his confines by creating a character study charting the coming of age of our less than heroic main character who emerges from the artificial constructs heaped on him by his exiled parents who look back on free Earth with nostalgic longing.  However, like the author’s unsuccessful articulation of the work’s themes, the “growth” of our “hero” isn’t entirely evident unless the plot demands that he has indeed evolved.

The Falling Torch is clearly trying to evoke the post-War environment of Budrys’ Soviet homeland, Lithuania.  However, the equation of Soviets with aliens which look like humans but can’t breed with humans again is evidence of the painfully clunky nature of the work.

Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

Earth has been conquered by the human-like Invaders.  However, Earth’s colony of Alpha Centauri has remained free.  Many years have passed since the conquest and a government for Free Earth still exists on Alpha Centauri.  The Centaurians are reluctant to give outright support to the government and its vague and unsustained attempts to free the home planet.

Budrys established the Centaurians as detached from the sufferings of Earth due to their distance from the home planet which has resulted in not only in a different dialect but an entirely distinct culture.  Here the work is at its best — showing the complications seldom addressed by the traditional narrative.  However, with the growing threat of the Invaders on Centauri territories they are pushed into action.

The President of Free Earth on Centauri is an old man.  His entire cabinet is beset with the more pressing concerns of daily existence in a foreign society.  The Centaurian System Organization (C.S.O.), a military organization, offers to clandestinely ship weapons to various separatists which still exist in Earth’s hills.  The President delegates the task to his rather unintelligent son, Michael.

By the time Michael arrives on Earth with the weapons he suddenly possesses much greater intellect, training, etc then he previously showed (i.e. the plot demanded it and Budrys didn’t want to elaborate on Michael’s evolution of character).

Soon Michael realizes that the separatists on Earth are driven more by petty squabbles and rivalries than any real desire to free the planet from the oppressors, who really aren’t that oppressive.  Michael decided to surrender to the Invaders… And then…

Final Thoughts (Some Spoilers)

Without doubt The Falling Torch is more than the run of the mill push out the evil aliens that have brutally enslaved the planet.  Budrys has Michael encounter people who have found a respectable place within the new society, he attempts to humanizes the aliens, and even suggests that their reign isn’t that terrible — for example, they allow the dissidents to run around in the hills as long as they don’t attack and even administer a work placement test to anyone who wants a chance to assimilate.

All the positives of the work are hampered by the banal plot.  Also, Budrys skips over the difficult moments of the narrative: key moments in Michael’s evolution of character and most importantly, Michael’s entire eventual movement to “free” earth! At least the “freedom” has various complicating caveats.

The work with its thought-provoking themes has the potential for a great novel.  Unfortunately, The Falling Torch remains a work of unfulfilled promises.

(John Schoenherr’s cover for the 1968 edition)

(John Schoenherr’s cover for the 1962 edition)

(Ed Emshwiller’s cover for 1974 edition)

(Eric Ladd’s cover for the 1978 edition)

(Wayne Barlowe’s cover for the 1991 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX.

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Falling Torch, Algis Budrys (1959)”

  1. just a note:
    In looking at the very wide range of cover art, I could not help but notice how different they all were… it is almost as if they belong to entirely different texts! My own favorites: John Schoenherr’s – by far, and then Ed Emshwiller’s.

    1. Which Schoenherr cover? I like the one with the spaceship more than the 68 edition with the two figures.

      But yes, Ladd’s cover is downright atrocious — why the guy is running/dancing around without a shirt is beyond me.

  2. It doesn’t look like Budrys had many novels (interested in Who? and Rogue Moon) but I would like to get my hands on some of his short fiction. Have you come across much of it?

    1. Rouge Moon is considered his best — Budrys was more of a sci-fi critic than author. This was the first of his works I’ve read so I don’t know about the quality of his short work.

  3. Boy, if you got a dollar each time you read an “rebel against an alien occupier” novel…

    At least the covers are neat. The Schoenherr with the spaceship and lots of black is pretty cool, wicked retro font too. The top one made me laugh. (Those eyes! On that shocked, intense face! The mini-helicopter troopers! I want a mini-helicopter! Even though they’d be totally ineffective without rear rotors!)

    1. At least this novel attempts to make it more complex than that…. The free Earth government isn’t on Earth and isn’t aware of exactly what’s happening on Earth and is mostly driven by nostalgic delusions. The rebels on Earth are motivated mainly by petty squabbles and care little for independence as a concept separate from their desire to acquire power and exact revenge… But again, it still doesn’t really work as a novel. I think it’s worth reading for the diehard sci-fi fans like us! But it shouldn’t be high on your list.

      1. This one certainly sounds like Budrys tried to do something new and interesting with the concept, which is something I wish more “occupied Earth” books would do. The setting sounds well above the rest, with the government in exile and apathetic colonists. But I’m not sure the concept could ever go beyond “smash evil aliens, yay humanity!” What reader would be happy if the human rebels lost?

      2. Well, strangely, Budrys robs the reader of even that feeling — the “smash evil aliens, yay humanity” — the peace is not a total victory, that’s for sure, it’s even somewhat confusing figuring out what sorts of concessions were made.

  4. Who? is pretty good as I recall, though it’s been a while. I keep meaning to reread Some Will Not Die, which I have a copy of, but I keep not doing so.

    I don’t see this making my list. It sounds interesting in concept, is it even right to rebel against these aliens for example? But execution is everything.

    For some reason I found myself thinking of other asymetric warfare books in SF. The frankly terrible The Solarians by the generally rather marvellous Norman Spinrad (which doesn’t actually involve aliens), the frankly rather wonderful PK Dick Our Friends from Frolix 8 where liberation is a distinctly double-edged matter, the early Silverberg novel Stepsons of Terra where Silverberg intentionally undermines stock cliches of battle against overpowering alien foes. The defeated earth is in a sense a subset of all those underdog humans against overwhelming odds tales, but they’re very easy to do badly.

    1. Who? is on my list along with Rogue Moon (which, according to one of my blogging friends is possessed with a virulent misogynistic tilt)… But I agree, the execution is clunking.

      I enjoyed Our Friends from Frolix 8! Again, read it a long time ago and don’t remember that much… I really should reread some of the PKD on my shelves (and procure the works of his I’m missing — 10 novels or so and a few volumes of short stories).

  5. Fred Pohl, in his blog, describs Budrys’ writing process for The Falling Torch. He used to go out in his car with a tape recorder and ride around New Jersey all night. When he got back, his wife typed up the stuff on the tape and then send it to Pohl who was his agent. Pohl was famous for rewriting stuff, but eventually the book was finished – dictated by Budrys, edited and typed by his wife and re-edited by Pohl.

    1. Thanks! I really enjoy Pohl’s blog although I had fallen off in my reading it recently…. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I think Pohl is a better editor than writer….

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