Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Algis Budrys's novel Falling Torch is an examination of what happens when a government in exile is finally able to attempt a return to its native land. At least, that is how the novel begins. Ralph Wireman is the President of Earth, living on a planet in orbit around Alpha Centauri for twenty years since the Invaders conquered Earth and he, along with his government had to flee. Although the human government of Cheiron felt sympathy for their terrestrial brethren, the political situation did not permit them to offer the aid needed by Wireman to reclaim the planet. Twenty years later, that help has finally appeared. Instead of going to Earth himself, Wireman sends his son, Michael, and a military advisor from the Centauri system.
While Budrys paints a realistic picture of the political situation, with the native humans desiring, but resenting, the help of their fled leaders, his novel falls apart in its depiction of Michael Wireman, the main character. When the reader first meets Michael, he appears to be a completely ineffectual man in his mid-twenties. He has been raised on fantasy stories in which his mother portrayed Earth as a Promised Land. Rather than show any sign of ambition, Michael is content to live in the shadow of his father's greatness, apart from the Cheironians among whom he lives.
Between the first two chapters, Michael is apparently trained by the Centaurian System Organization (C.S.O.), a military organization. Although Budrys tells us that Michael has been trained as a warrior, and taken to the training well, he really doesn't show any signs of the knowledge that he is supposed to have gained. Instead, he appears as a young boy who is out of his depth when sent by his father to meet with General Hammel on Earth. He only has the most naive understanding of politics and a theoretical knowledge of war.
As the novel progresses and Michael finds that he needs to use certain military or political skills, he seems to suddenly develop them, not because of prior training, which the reader hasn't seen and Michael has shown no signs of up to that point, but rather simply because the exigencies of the novel suddenly call for Michael to know how to kill a man, escape from custody, etc.
Budrys's writing is strongest when he is dealing strictly with the political, which is to say in the first two chapters and at the end of the book. In the middle, when he is focusing on Michael's character and trying to explore what causes a man to achieve greatness, he fails, presenting instead a man who has greatness thrust upon him.
In the introduction, Budrys comments that a shorter version of the novel was published in 1959 as The Falling Torch, but he has elected to reintroduce parts which were excised. Much of the writing incorporates the type of space opera which was published in the 1950s, although Budrys does manage to incorporate enough maturity in his writing that the novel is not hopelessly dated. Nevertheless, the world has seen very little technological change in the five centuries which separate us from Wireman. Spaceships and interstellar travel have appeared, but there are few other differences.
Falling Torch doesn't really work as a period piece, but it really doesn't have to. It can be read as a story published in the early 1990s, as the expanded version was, and only suffer from a minor amount of naivete. Unfortunately, much of the novel fails to come together as Michael Wireman is not a particularly engaging character and most of his growth is either behind the scenes or only comes into play when it is needed.
Purchase this book from