Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Who?

Who? by Algis Budrys
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it was amazing

Algis Budrys' 1958 Who? is an exquisite science fiction novel evoking the height of the Cold War, when the Iron Curtain was still almost impenetrable, and tit-for-tat incidents were escalated both as signals of military resolve and for propaganda value at home and abroad.

When the laboratory of American scientist Lucas Martino, who spearheaded the ultra-secret K-88 project, explodes near the East-West border in Europe, Soviet "rescue" teams reach the maimed survivor first. Yet who is the reconstructed, metal-faced man who eventually returns? Is it Martino or an enemy agent with the scientist's arm and hence correct fingerprints grafted on? Even if it is Martino, is he still loyal, or has he switched sides or even merely accidentally let some crucial piece of information slip? Can the all-important K-88 project be completed, or as something presumably compromised, must it be abandoned? And, in fact, what is K-88 anyway? Certainly it is important, but even Martino's Soviet interrogator has no clue as to whether it is "a bomb, a death ray, or a new means of sharpening bayonets," nor do the American security personnel who investigate the returnee. Whatever K-88 is, though, its price--in money, effort, and lives--is very, very high.

Who? thus piles question upon question upon question. Yet while the 1950s-style Cold War machinations are gripping, the novel is no mere rah-rah gung-ho. Yes, the Western side is presumed to be at least basically morally superior to the Soviet police state, a judgment that still seems correct. But as Budrys explores, very probingly, the "security" mindset and the paranoia inherent when two ideologies compete for control of the entire world, he also examines the precariousness of identity that, really, is always with us. Tense, thoughtful, and melancholy, Who? is a beautifully rendered tale of great sophistication.
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July 4, 2014 – Finished Reading
July 5, 2014 – Shelved

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