Hard Landing, by Algis Budrys

Some time ago, I read Rogue Moon (1960), by Algis Budrys, a classic science fiction novel about an alien deathtrap maze discovered on the moon and the man willing to die over and over again to discover its secrets. I found it fascinating, even though for some reason I never blogged about it. I’ve thought about looking up more of Budrys’ work, and after recently rereading his invisibility-related story “For Love,” I decided to give Hard Landing (1993) a try.

Hard Landing is a very unusual but compelling novel — it tells the story of alien explorers from another solar system who crash land on Earth and are forced to “go native,” and the ways they go about it.

The book is told as a collection of reports, interviews, recollections, and author notes telling the stories of various characters connected to the story. Many chapters, including conversations with characters that are dead, are signed “A.B.,” and the end of the book reveals it to be a narrative pieced together by Algis Budrys himself, allegedly from news stories that he had encountered! It is a curious sort of meta-narrative, and was at the very least interesting.

The story begins in the 1970s, with a death in Chicago. A man has been found electrocuted on the tracks of the northbound “L” train, with no obvious explanation how he ended up there. Was it murder, or suicide? Investigators soon find something far more mysterious — the “man” not only appears to have no real history before he took a job in Chicago, but he is not a man at all. His internal organs and biology are far different from any human being.

We soon learn of four almost human-like aliens that have crash-landed on Earth. Expeditions have been visiting and studying Earth for a long time, waiting for humankind to develop far enough to be welcomed into galactic society (think Prime Directive). The four castaways will not be rescued, for fear of causing an escalating global conflict; they are expected to blend in and spend the rest of their lives as humans. Each of them, based on their personalities, takes a very different approach to doing so, and eventually meets their fate due to their choices.

The book is really a fascinating and unconventional first contact story, looking at how extraterrestrials would survive when trapped on a world that is alien to them. It is, in a sense, an understated story: like all of Budrys’ work I’ve read so far, it is all about the characters and their development, and there are not flashy and dramatic science fiction battles or encounters like you would see in a Star Trek or a Star Wars. It took me a couple of chapters to get into the story proper, but once I could see where Budrys was going with it, I was hooked, and finished it within a day.

Hard Landing appears to have been Budrys’ last novel, and I found it to be an enjoyable and thoughtful sendoff for a science fiction master.

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