Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Iron Thorn

Science Fiction Book Club edition
I just had the pleasure of re-reading an SF novel 40 years on: The Iron Thorn (Algis Budrys, Science Fiction Book Club, 1967, reprinted in paperback as The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn).

The book opens with a tribal hunter, Honor White Jackson, pursuing a winged reptilian alien across a desert. His prey - an 'Amsir' - is not stupid: it's leading him further and further from the Iron Thorn, a landmark structure that powers the 'honning cap' that enables Jackson to breathe. Eventually the Amsir leads Jackson out of sight of the Thorn, and he collapses, choking. The Amsir attacks, saying, "Yield, wet devil!", but Jackson overpowers and kills it, recovering his breath by sucking on an oxygen-generating organ from its corpse.

Jackson returns to the Thorn, the kill having gained him the title Honor Black Jackson, and we find more about his culture: a hunting-farming community clustered around the Iron Thorn (which we now understand to be some kind of local terraforming machine). Now a full Honor, he gets initiated into the society's secrets: that Honors are an elite presiding over a precariously-maintained ecosystem, a completely static society held together by taboo and a Darwinian belief that everything that happens makes things better. Jackson has been spotted by the elders as unusual (he has, for instance, artistic talents) and has every chance of rising to the top. But he finds the picture bleak, and is more interested in the mystery of what lies beyond the Thorn, evidenced by a particular thing the elders don't understand: that Amsirs speak, and why they ask Honors to surrender.

paperback edition
Pondering this, Jackson goes to the desert again, where he's ambushed by a rival Honor, who badly wounds him in the elbow with a hunting dart. Jackson is about to be killed, but the surprise arrival of an Amsir enables him to kill his attacker (thus becoming Honor Red Jackson) - and he decides to surrender to the Amsir.

The Amsir leads him across the desert to its own enclave, an Amsir village with its own Iron Thorn, where he's taken to see the crippled Eld Amsir. Within the limits of seeing him as a devil, the Eld Amsir treats him kindly and gives him a task: to open a door in a smaller Thorn before he starves to death. It has been preoccupying the Amsirs for centuries, and they've been capturing a long succession of Honors to try to do this on the basis of an observation: that the door kills Amsirs, but not humans (they know this because occasional more humanoid mutants among them are unharmed by the door). Jackson is given a minder in the form of one such mutant, the powerful but stupid Ahmuls, to keep him under control if he gets the door open.

 After a deal of contemplation, Jackson (by now very hungry, his arm badly infected) finally opens the door; it's voice-activated to admit only humans, and finally responds to "open up, you dumb bastard". He finds himself in a spacecraft. The ship's computer accepts him as commander and obeys his first order, to trap Ahmuls in the airlock. Jackson gets fed, his arm repaired by the robot doctor, and then receives an implanted education ...
you are now an Honors graduate in Liberal Arts from Ohio State University. You have a special Masters in Command Psychology from the University of Chicago and three semester hours in military journalism from the Air Force Academy.
 ... which qualifies him to command the ship. It also teaches him the martial arts necessary to defeat Ahmuls. He attempts to communicate with the Amsirs, but the ship won't let him, telling him he's contaminating an experiment (we, along with Jackson, now know that the Amsirs and his own tribe are experimental colonies on Mars). He, along with the hospitalized Ahmuls, returns to Earth.

On Earth, Jackson finds himself to be an anachronism. The ship being centuries old, Earth culture and civilisation have completely changed to a post-technological leisure society, with every physical need catered for bee-like ' exteroaffectors', the mobile agents of Comp, a benign world computer intelligence.

Alluding to the introduction of Tarzan to society, he introduces himself as Jackson Greystoke. He and Ahmuls are received cordially enough, but Jackson soon finds that jealousy and bullying are still fixtures of the human condition. Kringle, the nominal leader, is angry about the woman Durstine's interest in the newcomer, and also starts antagonizing Ahmuls, who has the sense to leave the group. Nevertheless, their chief interest is in novelty, and their mood perks up when Jackson agrees to participate in an 'actuality' - the live performance of his hunting an Amsir, recreated and controlled by Comp.

This he does, to great acclaim, but he's underwhelmed by the experience - the mock Amsir was a deliberately weak opponent - and doesn't understand the media conventions of the edited replay.  Neither does he relate to the ensuing enthusiasm to recycle his experiences into aesthetic forms. Comp creates a 'party Thorn' for a gathering, where the Earth people produce attempts (sincere, but to Jackson, naff) at artistic interpretation of his experience: the women mime the role of women of his tribe; one man writes a poem supposed to represent Jackson's feelings about the Thorn; and another dedicates a crassly-done painting to him:
You could tell it was a Honor because it was wearing something on its head that looked like a cross between the German helmets of World War II and the Franco-Prussian War. It was intended to be a honning cap, Jackson supposed.
Jackson puts a downer on the whole event by not praising the painting as he's expected to, and by drawing in charcoal a riposte to it, showing his world as he saw it. He walks out on the party.

He talks to Comp, asking if he can have a spaceship, but the answer is no. It seems Jackson is stuck with Earth and a future of having no-one to talk to "except them and things like them" (Comp has ensured that Ahmuls is content enough, running with the buffalo in a game park). But one of the women, Pall, follows Jackson, and assures him that he'll eventually fit into society, and that she understands him.
And then he thought, To me I am the only sane man conceivable. And she's just cookoo enough to go along with it if I take her. "Oh, come on," he said, turning away from the tent, holding her wrist.
They walk off into the fields, with no particular destination in mind, as Jackson tells her what it was really like on Mars:
The floor of the world is rippled like the bottom of the ocean, running out to the edges. Those edges are high and they're cruel. At sunset the eastern horizon is the far wall of the crater. It's black. Blue-black..."
His words, meanwhile, are already being recorded by Comp as another 'actuality' for public consumption.
"Great stuff! Marvelous!" Comp whispered admiringly in his ear. "Forgive me. I thought all you were going to produce was some sort of cliché. Any cliché from you would be admirably dramatic, of course, with great and wide appeal. But I do not want you to think for a moment that I can't appreciate the raw, honest ring of visceral truth. The audience for it isn't as big, of course, but that's all right—it's good for them. Don't compromise. Don't soften it up just because you want to please her. Make it ring, boy! Tell it like it was!"
The gap of 40 years makes some interesting changes in how you perceive a novel. When I first read The Iron Thorn, I remember enjoying it as SF - a conceptual breakthrough story - up to the point of Jackson's reaching Earth; the rest seemed rather dull. Now I find it's all of a piece, an extended examination of the treatment of misfits, as the driving characters are (Jackson, the Eld Amsir, and Ahmuls) - although let down a trifle by the lead character, presented as a thinker through most of the story, coming across as a culturally inflexible macho twit at the end. The Earth-based section has now, however, acquired an applicability that didn't exist when the book was written, as a sharp satire on reality TV. The ending made me think of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror episode 15 Million Merits, in which a man outraged with a media-driven culture breaks on to a reality show to make an impassioned protest, but when that protest is acclaimed as authentic experience, sells out and becomes a celebrity with that protest as a trademark act.

(Note: The Iron Thorn is not to be confused with the 2011 novel of the same name by Caitlin Kittredge. The latter does look of possible interest, as young-adult steampunk with HP Lovecraft borrowings).

- Ray


  1. I, too, re-read it recently ... last August, in fact, as I wrote the Vie Hobdemadaires posts ... after the thick end of 50 years.

    Synchronicity ... almost :-)

  2. Surprisingly similar to you ... although I thought the ending a little weaker than the rest.

    One surprise was discovering that the "reality TV" transmission was a staged event with a constructed simulacrum of an Amsir ... I'd remembered it as live filming of combat on Mars. Not that it was less effective for that; more so, if anything. Linked to that is my realisation that Comp's operation is (considering when it was writen) astonishingly close to current speculative nanotech fictions.

  3. > astonishingly close

    Quite! A little further freshening of my memory finds Budrys to be astonishingly prescient in other works. I think we might have briefly discussed Rogue Moon when we had a chat last summer - a guy navigating through a lethal labyrinth, and getting sent back to the beginning whenever he was killed - as being very close in scenario to any number of computer games. And the 1977 Michaelmas is all about a media baron's domination of world news via a universal digital presence.

  4. Two weeks later...

    ...coincidentally, I've just read Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age which you recommended back at the the beginning of this year (more on that shortly).

    His nanotech world is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with my above comment.

    Your mention of Rogue moon also prompted in me the realisation that Budrys' duplication device (representation of the human subject as a validated pair of synchronous signals to two spatially separated receivers) was also extraordinarily prescient when viewed from a contemporary "matter as information" viewpoint. (I reread Rogue moon at the same time as The iron thorn). Jackson's global telecast also has a particular resonance in these days of The X factor, Pop idol etc.