The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys

The opening of The Iron Thorn hints at dramatic action in the form of a violent encounter between man and alien. Instead of presenting alien encounter as a development of the plot, Algis Budrys addresses it as a function of test-tube living — the idea that when people are under the microscope, and are uncertain subjects in greater experiments, then this is no life at all. In fact, primitive living on this far away planet has created a kind of infantilism, where everyone gets by on the most base of motivations. Of course this violence leads to its natural home — the consumption of feminity as visual lure, as it tends to be in science fiction.

So often, the character’s experience in a science fiction novel is that of a young man coming of age — The Iron Thorn is a prime example. White Jackson, the peculiarly named character here begins the book with a great cultural rite of passage — the killing of his first Amsir.   In this strange place, the world of The iron Thorn, two cultures live side by side — the humans and the Amsirs — and they skirt around each other, clashing violently when they meet.

From reading SF in general, you will guess early on in The Iron Thorn that what you are reading about is a closed environment — a socio-genetic experiment of sorts. The characters seem ignorant of the giant iron ‘thorns’ that they live within and around even though they sound to the reader for all the universe like spaceships.  This is a conditioned planet, where the two species people and amsirs live as neighbours but are physcially unable to enter each other’s habitat, meeting instead in the sandy dunes between and there hunting each other for sport and kudos.

So often, the young man coming of age in a SF novel is somehow different from those around him — as in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, for example. White Jackson in the Iron Thorn thus winds up leading his race, at least what is perceived of it, out from under the barrier of lies from which they suffer, and into a stranger more mixed up and recognisable world. White Jackson has no time for falsity or even for tradition or authority, and ultimately he finds the world of the iron thorn's creators a pointless place, full of fakers and rather pointless actors. As an artist, Jackson has too sharp an eye for what’s really going on: ‘To me I am the only sane man conceivable.’

There is a great scene, when captured by the Amsirs, White Jackson is presented with a door that nobody can open, and told he will have to remain captive until either he starves — or can open it. It’s indicative of the great tension Algis Budrys can build up, in what easily like a throwaway novel. I say that because the two or three chapters which concern the door, could easily form a novel in themselves, they are so well sketched and create such mystery.

There is a metaphysical element to The Iron Thorn however which makes it worth reading. We see a backward society, predicated on various crude hierarchies formed from sex, technology and violence, and within it a hungry minded individual who discovers the next society up, as it were. This bunch, despite their sophistication, likewise fail to please him and the result is a calm and collected lack of satisfaction with the universe that any long term SF reader will recognise.

How is it these smart loners always appear in the genre? Something to do with the nature of the readership, I shall guess.