For Love, by Algis Budrys

Okay, we’re only about two weeks away until the release of my latest popular science book, Invisibility: The history and science of How Not to Be Seen! In the run-up, I thought I’d reblog my old series of posts on invisibility stories in sci-fi, and include some new stories that I haven’t blogged about yet! This is the first of those new posts, about a little-known story by a classic sci-fi author.

I freely admit that I am not as familiar with science fiction as I should be, considering how much I love any sort of fiction that steps outside of our familiar reality, be it science fiction, fantasy, or horror. One author whose work I discovered only relatively recently is Algis Budrys (1931-2008). I think Budrys is most known for his 1960 novel Rogue Moon, which I read a couple of years ago and completely forgot to blog about! The novel tells the story of a mysterious alien artifact discovered on the moon, which can be entered but is a massive deathtrap that kills anyone who makes a misstep inside of it. But the United States has invented a technology to create quantum doppelgängers of people on the moon that will pass their memory to the originals and can in principle explore the interior and “safely” die. But most humans cannot mentally handle the strain of experiencing death, so it falls upon the research team to find a person stubborn enough to survive dying again and again…

It’s a really cool idea, and I enjoyed the novel, so when I came across an invisibility story by Budrys, “For Love,” I was immediately intrigued.

As you can see, “For Love” appeared in the June 1962 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, and it is particularly noteworthy to me for coming about as close as I’ve seen in imagining how modern real invisibility devices are supposed to work!

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic near future in which a titanic alien spacecraft landed in the midwestern United States some fifty years earlier. The spacecraft immediately sent out remote harvesters to grab mineral resources, leading humans to deduce that the craft had landed for repairs. But it did not acknowledge or communicate with human beings at all, which proved to be intolerable: humanity began to target the foraging parties, which in turn led the alien craft to set up air defenses over most of the world, fragmenting human civilization and driving it underground. No missile or conventional military device can harm the alien craft, which has superior defenses. As the story begins, however, the Army has developed a new weapon, an Invisible Weapons Carrier, to deliver a nuclear payload directly to one of the legs of the alien spaceship:

The Invisible Weapons Carrier was, in fact, a half-tone of reality. It was large enough inside to contain a man and a fusion bomb, together with the power supply for its engine and its light amplifiers. It bristled with a stiff mat of flexible-plastic light-conducting rods, whose stub ends, clustered together in a tight mosaic pointing outward in every conceivable direction, contrived to bend light around its bulk.

The story’s protagonist, Malachi Runner, has agreed to pilot this vehicle on this extremely dangerous, possibly suicide, mission, to strike the first decisive blow against their would-be enemy. But even if he makes it to the target, he may not succeed — and even if he succeeds, he may not make it back again the same.

As the title suggests, “For Love” is about more than invisibility or an alien incursion. The story is largely about the motivations of everyone involved in the adventure. Compton, the general in charge, is obsessed with bringing some sort of harm upon the aliens, to simply get them to notice us, regardless of the consequences. Runner is driven more by his feelings for Compton’s wife, his own former fiancée. So the story ends up being a study of different types of obsession and the lengths we will go for either love or hatred. This is very much in line with how Rogue Moon plays out, which is a novel less about a murderous alien artifact and more about the almost paradoxical nature of the human spirit.

I was particularly delighted to discover “For Love” because its imagining of invisibility is remarkably close to how modern researchers have attempted to make invisibility devices! I wrote about the early invisibility attempts early in my blogging career; the basic premise is that it is in principle possible to design a material structure that guides light around a central hidden region and sends it on its way as if it encountered nothing at all; the original illustrations of this effect by the researchers are shown below.

Budrys is envisioning something very similar, where light gets directed around the core of the Invisible weapons carrier and passed onto the other side using fiber optic cables. A fiber optic cable basically channels light from one end of the cable to the other without letting it escape, making it perfect for carrying information or for making really pretty displays:

The end of a bundle of fiber optic cables, showing the light emerging. Via Wikipedia.

Budrys was clever enough to know that cables by themselves would not be enough to make things invisible. Light is inevitably absorbed when it is transmitted long distances through a fiber optics cable, so it needs to be amplified periodically. But this amplification would only work one way, so there would need to be a pair of cables for every input/output of the device, and if one is looking at an input cable, it would appear black:

So the illusion was marred by only two things: the improbable angle of the pictured floor it was also showing him, and the fact that for every rod conducting light from the wall, another rod was conducting light from Runner’s direction, so that to his eyes the ends of half the rods were dead black.

This is an example of what might be called “active” invisibility, in which energy must be added to the signal to create invisibility. This is distinct from “passive” invisibility, in which the original light impinging on the object is simply guided around the structure.

From the description above, you can see that Budrys also recognized that invisibility of this sort would certain not be perfect. In recent years, scientists studying invisibility have recognized that perfect invisibility may be unattainable, and have begun focusing their efforts on finding a good balance between a device being easy to manufacture yet retaining some significant amount of cloaking power.

Overall, “For Love” is quite a fascinating story, and great science fiction! I’m now inspired to track down the other Algis Budrys novel I have in my collection, Hard Landing (1993), to give it a read. I also need to read his 1977 novel Michaelmas, about an AI that secretly controls all electronic and computerized equipment in the world — very relevant to modern AI developments!

Special thanks to the Algirdas J. Budrys Trust for permission to use a “For Love” quote in my upcoming book!

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction for “For Love,” by West.
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