Book Review: Who? by Algis Budrys
In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets. The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet. The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line. But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm. Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?
I was excited to read this book because the idea of a transhumanist/cyborg American made that way by the Soviets has a James Bond like appeal. Unfortunately, it feels a bit more dated than I was anticipating, as well as compared to other older scifi, and doesn’t fully address some questions it raises.
Immediately, there are a couple of plot holes that aren’t addressed until close to the end of the book, which made it a bit frustrating to read. First, why did the Allies put their best scientist in a lab on the border with the Soviets? The answer to this, given at the end of the book, is pretty flimsy, and only works if you are willing to believe the Allies are very stupid. Second, it makes sense that they can’t verify Martino’s identity with his fingerprints, because the Soviets could have taken off his remaining arm and put it on someone else. However, why can’t they verify who he is with DNA? Presumably, he has some living relatives somewhere they could compare to. DNA was discovered in the 1860s (source) so to never even address why they don’t use it is a bit bizarre. The book mentions toward the end that Martino’s parents and uncle are dead, but you can conduct kinship tests using dead bodies. It still baffles me that the government in the book didn’t simply dig up Martino’s father and run a DNA test. Even if DNA testing wasn’t widely known of when the book was published, one would hope a scifi writer could see its future implications, imagine the applicability, and address the scenario. The fact that DNA wasn’t addressed at all, and Martino’s place near the Soviet border wasn’t satisfactorily addressed really removed a lot of the intensity and interest one should feel from the situation.
Another way Budrys showed a lack of imagination for the future is in the strict gender roles and lack of women in the military or the sciences in the future he has envisioned. Women are only seen in the book in strict 1950s gender roles. As wives and mothers and not once in the military or in the sciences. People in the sciences are referred to as the “men” not even leaving room for the idea of a woman in science. I know this is a symptom of the times, but I also know that more progressive and forward-thinking scifi was written in the same decade. It was a bit jarring to me to read a scifi that excluded women so much, when I’m so used to women being present, at least nominally, in scifi.
All of that said, the writing of individual scenes was quite lovely. Budrys evokes setting and tensity well. I particularly enjoyed the scene of Maybe-Martino running through the streets of New York City, which reminded me of an old noir film. Budrys also shows a good understanding of what it is like for people who are incredibly highly intelligent. He writes Martino at a young age as both brilliant in science but also dumb in interpersonal relations. The fact that he got this and demonstrated it in the 1950s is to be commended. There is also some solid commentary on the American education system and a desire for it to encourage more independent thought.
Look–these guys aren’t morons. They’re pretty damned bright, or they wouldn’t be here. But the only way they’ve ever been taught to learn something is to memorize it. If you throw a lot of new stuff at them in a hurry, they’ll still memorize it–but they haven’t got time to think. (loc 9163)
Overall, this is an interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed. It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today. A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers. Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.
3 out of 5 stars