Tropes with sharp edges: A review of The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys
Budrys is an author whose fiction oeuvre in sheer wordage is not huge, but whose every effort is worth a little attention. He wrote with a sharpness and an eye-catching simplicity that showed him to be a more finely tuned wordsmith than many in SF. Probably his best novels are Michaelmas and Rogue Moon, and I remember enjoying Hard Landing when it came out in F&SF many years ago.
This one, first published in Galaxy in the sixties, is in the next rank but still worth a look. It is an odd mix of edginess and cliché. The main character, Honor White Jackson is his name at the start, is the classic SF hero who comes into a static world and is not happy to accept what he sees. Think of Alvin in The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, or any one of a hundred other characters who break up the status quo. Hence it can be categorised as a conceptual breakthrough story, in the parlance of the SFE.
Much of the enjoyment is in the details, as always with Budrys. Eye-catching turns of phrase, economically but effectively drawn characters, the extraordinary sangfroid of the hero (a bit too pronounced to ring true, in truth). He pre-empts Drexler’s grey goo, too.
In the end the result is somewhat underwhelming. The first half is a sharply drawn evocation of a strange way of life on an alien planet, but always in the back of my wind I was thinking, “Please, don’t let the explanation be what I think it will be,” and it wasn’t — quite. But it nearly was, and frankly I felt that the book tailed away after the mid point, despite the creation of Ahmuls, one of the more interesting figures in the book, and despite an acutely drawn post-scarcity culture that reads like something from Iain M. Banks.
In summary, the strengths of the book grow out of Budry’s skills as a writer, the weaknesses out of the needs of American magazine SF of the time and ultimately a failure to take the story far enough away from the conventions of the field.
A decent read, but not his best. Not as badly dated as much work from the time, though.