Algis Budrys, “Who?” (1958)

Continuing with the Library of America‘s survey of the “golden age of science fiction,” (collected in two volumes) I read Algis Budry’s Who?  I am struck, after looking at a few of these, how short most of these novels are.  Yes, there are a handful of longer novels from this genre, but the 150-200 page standard seems to dominate.  The vast majority of Philip K. Dicks novels are around 150-200 pages, and contain 12-15 chapters.  I guess this is due to the genre’s connection to magazines or the assumed juvenile audience.  In any case, we should not let this distract us from the brilliance contained in some of these works.  They are short, and yes they often fail to fully develop the ideas they introduce, but they nevertheless have messages for us.  Most of these messages and questions remain useful to us.  Who? asked three major questions.  How does technology shape who we are?  How does technology (and technocracy) undermine our human relations?  And, how – in the modern era – do institutions take the role in defining us, undermining our capacity for self-identification?


Plot: The Cold War divided the world between the Western allies and the Soviet bloc.  Tensions lead to strictly maintained borders, spying, covert plans for weapons developments, and the incorporation of scientists into the state, war-making apparatus.  A scientist, Martino, is captured by the Soviets after an explosion in his lab.  He was working on a top-secret (and never fully defined) weapons system called K-88.  Martino is returned to the allies months later, with a bionic arm and a metal mask – all necessary to repair the damage caused by the explosion.  The allies task is to now discover if the “man” is Martino.  Actually there are three options.  (1) He is Martino and is capable of resuming work on K-88, without risk to the project.  (2)  He is Martino but brainwashed and therefore now a Soviet spy.  (3) Martino is dead or in Soviet control and this “Man” is an expert spy.  Experiments follow for months.  They are unable to determine with any clarity who the “Man” is, although he professes to be Martino.  Even attempts to follow him, observe his life, and make a psychological diagnosis fail, especially when it is learned that an old college roommate of his was a Soviet spy and the “Man” may very well be that old roommate, making use of all the knowledge about Martino he accumulated – including old girlfriends.  The government gives up and “Martino” retires to be a farmer.  An attempt is made to bring him out of retirement but “Martino” refuses and in the end announces that he is not Martino at all.  Whether this is a biological designation of a result of his changed lifestyle is not clearly stated.  Flashbacks to Martino’s previous life and his time in Soviet custody do not answer the novels’ central plot questions.  All three options are possible at the close of the novel.

Technology and Identity: The significant problem is that technology has separated Martino from the outside world and made it impossible for others to recognize, trust, or interact with him.  “Martino” makes his final claim to be someone else is true.  He is no longer a scientist.  He is isolated from his work and loved ones.  He has taken up a job as a farmer.  “I’m not a physicist.  I’m a farmer.  I can’t do that stuff any more!” (671)  This is a frighting and liberating realization.  As I explored before with the question of desertion in Melville’s work, we often look at our life and express fear at alternatives because they are unknown.  We prefer the slavery of a marriage, a mortgage, a job to autonomy.  To the degree we are our place in society, we fear any alternative.  Martino was forced to find an alternative, weeding crops and applying fertilizer.  His technological upgrades and shortened lifespan forced him into isolation.  In a way he is lucky.  Who would want to return to the shenanigans of Cold War science and weapon’s development?  Martino, when he was a scientist, could think of nothing better to do.  Technology, by defacing him, provided him an escape.  It is also important to note he did not become the technology.  So much cyberpunk and fears about cell-phones and Facebook rest on the assumption that the technology defines us.  This only worked partially for Martino.  Ironically, the mechanization of his body allowed him to become a low-tech farmer.

Technology and Human Relations:  Where technology did negatively affect “Martino” was in his inability to interact in the same way with former colleagues, lovers, friends.  If his identify changed, it was through the abolition of the human dimensions of his life.

The State and Self-Identification: When we identify ourselves and someone else says “Not so fast!” we come face to face with the horror of modernity.  “Martino” declared himself the scientist Martino but without independent verification his claims were a lie.  For the plot, this is just a reflection of Cold War paranoia, but I want to go farther with it.  Our value in society is derivative of our value to the state or capital.  By extension our self-identity matters less than what can be objectively proven and utilized.  “Martino” was only valuable as a scientist, of course.  The other matters of his life only came into view when they could be used to establish his identity.  We all experience this phenomenon during job interviews, border crossings, and banks.  In the not so distant past, Inquisitions simply could not accept ones proclamations as true.  The entire concept of the inquisition was the inability of individuals to be authentically Christian without external verification.  Nation-states do not allow individual identity.  No, identify for the nation-state is a product of education, shared folklore, common language, or a shared history.

Who? does much more than warn us about how technology can change who we are.   Budrys’ real concern is the phenomenon of other people defining us.  In the bipolar world where your values are a product of which side of a line you are on, it is made clear, but it happens to all of us in our working lives.  This is why our resumes tell us what other people should value in ourselves.  They are, of course, incapable of saying who we are.  And we fall into this trap every time someone asks us “What do you do?” and we reply with a job title.

One response to “Algis Budrys, “Who?” (1958)

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