Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Michaelmas by Algis Budrys

The traditional description of the trade-off from "classic" SF to "modern" SF goes something like this: we used to have zippy, short books, without a lot of nuance or fine writing, but now we have much longer, denser, more detailed books that have much better writing and greater scope.

It's not exactly wrong, but it elides a lot. And it paints thousands of books from hundreds of different writers, across multiple decades and several major literary movements, with a very, very broad brush. There are plenty of "classic" books that are most of those things combined: short, precise, zippy, deeply nuanced, and entirely comfortable with ambiguity.

I finally got to one of those books, forty-five years after it was first published: Algis Budry's 1977 novel Michaelmas. It's about the secret ruler of the world, and it never actually says he's the secret ruler of the world. Oh, a reader should figure it out pretty quickly, and the central conflict related very directly to his behind-the-scenes manipulation of events, but Budry's tight third-person narration never dips into infodump, or wastes a second on details that aren't immediately pertinent.

Some readers would probably hate that: it's a novel that takes place mostly in the quiet corridors of power, among a small cast, and Budrys gives us vanishingly few descriptions of those corridors and that cast: the focus is on what they do and think, how they scheme and plan, and what results from those events.

Laurent Michaelmas is a newsman in what seems to be just about 1999/2000, as predicted from twenty years earlier. As usual with SF, some things are vastly further ahead than the real world (what seems like workable AI, large crewed space missions to the outer planets), and some things are oddly aligned with the real world (miniaturized and ubiquitous communications gear, the fact that the newspeople here are all freelancers fighting for every hot story and pitching to multiple global outlets all the time). Social attitudes are more or less 1977-standard, though Budrys has a lot of things on his mind, so he doesn't get into that too much.

It's a durable, believable world: not our world of 2000, and probably not a world we actually could have gotten to from the real 1977, but plausible enough.

Michaelmas has an AI assistant, Domino. It is a secret; it's probably the only one in the world. The book doesn't explain it, and the timeline implies that it grew out of some kind of digital assistant Michaelmas first created in the late '60s (which is the main reason why I think this is a world we never could have gotten to). But it's the usual SF AI: swooping through the networked computers of the world, seeing all and touching all and giving Michaelmas the insights he needs to push lightly, here and there, to make things go the way he wants.

We realize he's been doing this for a couple of decades now: lightly, mostly as part of his work as a trusted face and voice on global news. He's been making the world, bit by bit, more peaceful and settled, less likely to break out into crisis, exposing corruption here and quietly engineering the downfall of extremists there. What he says about his purpose - what other people say about how the world has changed, become less wild and less fun for newspeople - struck me as something like a fictional twist on all of the arguments for the EU: Michaelmas is that same kind of thing, done as a secret plot rather than in public democratically.

Since this is a SF novel from the mid-20th century, one big piece of the Making the World Better Program involves shooting monkeys in cans out into space, ever more and more. This is a world that still has a NATO and a Warsaw Pact, where the Soviet Union has not fallen, but the Cold War seems to have almost entirely quieted down - there's no sign of small proxy wars, not even the Clash of Civilizations talk of the mid-century. Everyone seems to get along, and the big space missions are crewed by combined teams from all major nations - not unlike how it has been in our real world for the last couple of decades.

But there is a crisis, and it of course involves space. An American astronaut died in a small aircraft crash, just a couple of months ago, putting plans for a big Jupiter-bound mission into confusion. But now, apparently, he didn't die. He is announced to have been recuperating at the nearby compound of a brilliant scientist, and a press conference is announced.

Michaelmas must be there. Both as the globally-trusted newsman he is in public and the Secret Master of the World he really is. And so he goes, and so he learns what's going on.

It is all a very SFnal explanation, as it should be, and a pretty good one: it was close to my theories early in the book, so I count that as a good thing.

Maichaelmas is a short book, focused entirely on the main character: my guess is that a majority of the dialogue in the book is in his head, between him and Domino. It takes place in a few locations: clinics and government installations and offices and high-end hotels, in Switzerland and elsewhere. It has the kind of narrative ruthlessness borne of a genre where word-counts mattered: it's here to do what it needs to do, to tell its story, and to end. It is a damn good SF novel that implies ten times as much as it says, and it reminds me that Budrys was always a master at that kind of compression. (I'm also a huge fan of his late novel Hard Landing, which is if anything even tighter.)

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