Sunday 16 February 2014

The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys

The writing career of Algis Budrys stretched over the second half of the last century, publication dates starting in 1954 and finishing in 1993. In that time he published eight novels along with many short stories. I used to own copies of three of the novels: Who?; Rogue Moon; and The Iron Thorn. All of them memorable, but the best-known of them was Who?: one of the few SF stories to achieve a much wider readership than SF fans, it was made into a feature film in 1973. As a result of occasional space-saving purges over the years I have kept only The Iron Thorn. A shorter version was first serialised in IF magazine in 1967 before the novel was published in the following year; an alternative title was also used, The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn.

The Iron Thorn begins in a small community on a bleak desert world. The people have lived, for as long as their collective memory can recall, clustered around a tall metal tower which they call the Iron Thorn. People can only survive, and crops will only grow, in the area surrounding the tower. Those wearing special metal caps can range further afield, but only in sight of the tower; go any further and they die of lack of air and freezing cold. The few caps are given only to those who hunt for food the enemies of humanity out in the desert; the Amsirs, human-sized flightless birds who make formidable opponents.

Honor White Jackson is an intelligent and rebellious young man on his first hunt, during which he discovers some shocking facts that were kept concealed from everyone except the hunters. This leads him on a journey during which he experiences a series of revelations about the nature of his world. That's really all I can say without posting spoilers, so all I'll add at this point is that, on reading for it the first time since the 1970s, I can understand why it survived my purges. It's a terrific story, exceptionally well plotted and written, and worth anyone's time to read, especially as it only runs to 160 pages. I read it in one sitting, because after reading the first page I didn't want to put it down. However, it is a little-known book, so for those who want to know what happens I'll continue the description below.


What Jackson discovers is that the Amsirs are intelligent, carry throwing weapons similar to his, can speak, and want to capture humans instead of killing them. Feeling stifled by the limited nature of life around the Iron Thorn, Jackson rebels and sets off to the desert where he voluntarily surrenders to one of the Amsir. With the aid of clothes and breathing apparatus supplied by the Amsir, Jackson is taken across the desert and over the mountains to a huge, lush valley where the Amsirs live within the protection of their own, much larger, Thorn. There, he learns that the Amsirs want humans in order to gain entry to a much smaller version of the Thorn that stands beside the big one; there is a ladder to a closed door half-way up the small Thorn, but any Amsir who tries to open it is killed by the Thorn. Humans are not harmed, but so far none has been able to open the door.

Jackson manages to get the door open and discovers that the small Thorn is a functioning spaceship. After a rapid education-by-induction process he understands that he is on Mars, and that the two colonies of humans and genetically-engineered Amsirs were set up long ago as an experiment to see if life could be adapted to the planet. He flies the ship to Earth, expecting to find a high-technology civilisation, only to discover that there have been massive changes in the intervening period. The world is run by Comp, an all-pervading artificial intelligence that can instantly provide for any need. People now lead idyllic but pointless lives of leisure, focused on achieving status through social games (portrayed in a chillingly convincing and thought-provoking way), and Jackson once more feels himself out of synch with the life and rebels against the role the people want him to adopt.

Budrys, who died in 2008, had a reputation of being one of the more thoughtful and literary SF writers of his era. This reputation is fully justified by The Iron Thorn but, despite these qualities, the story remains as fast-paced and exciting as any. Highly recommended.


Fred said...

Another name out of the distant past. I don't think I've read anything by him in decades. I remember reading _Rogue Moon_, _The Falling Torch_, and The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn_. One of his collections of short stories sounds familiar--_Budrys' Inferno_--so I suspect I read that also.

I just checked and discovered that I still have copies of _The Falling Torch_ and _Rogue Moon_, neither of which I've read in a decade or more.

I have a vague recollection of a novel by him that I really enjoyed back then, but I can't come up with a title, and none of the titles listed in the wiki entry seem familiar, aside from the ones I do remember reading. Puzzling. . .

Anthony G Williams said...

I find that my memory can play tricks on me, Fred. The book was maybe by a different author?

Fred said...


That could very well be. I do remember that several of my friends, when we were in high school, had an especial fondness for Budrys. I grew up in a Lithuanian neighborhood in Chicago, so many of my friends at that time were Lithuanian. They insisted that Budrys was Lithuanian, based on his name, so he was a favorite of theirs, and of course, of mine also, even though I'm not Lith.

Anthony G Williams said...

He was indeed Lithuanian by birth. According to Wiki, his family moved to the USA when he was 5 years old.

Fred said...

Ah, the old grey cells are beginning to activate. It was a post-holocaust novel that I was thinking of. So, it probably was _False Night_ or the expanded version _Some Will Not Die_, or perhaps both. It seemed a cut above the usual post-holocaust novels that were popular at that time.

Anthony G Williams said...

I read quite a few post-apocalyptic novels in the 1960s and 70s, when people actually expected a devastating nuclear war to happen at some point. I did rather go off that sub-genre, though, and now tend to avoid them.

Having said that I have kept the Pelbar Cycyle by Paul O Williams, which I really must read again some time.

Fred said...

I also avoid them now, unless I hear of one that's supposed to be special. However, I do have a few favorites which I reread from time to time.

Unknown said...


I just thought of AMSERS AND THE IRON THORN today, out of nowhere.

A very memorable and fascinating book I must say.

I'm and artist and originally bought the book, a paperback, because it had a Frazetta cover. I bought anything with a new cover by Frank Frazetta. But I was also introduced to many fine authors in this fashion as well. Iron Thorn is one of my all time favorites. You will recall that Honor Jackson was an artist. That caught me right off the bat.

Thanks for the page and the opportunity to add my two cents on a great novel.

Willy Whitten

Anthony G Williams said...

I imagine that it's the kind of story which could easily inspire an artist.