Who? examines the essence of human identity. When distinguishing physical characteristics are no longer available or are untrustworthy, what is it that defines a human being as unique? Is it that person’s knowledge or experiences? Algis Budrys asks these questions in a tale whose plot device, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has become more allegorical.
The novel is clearly science fiction: It describes hardware and technological wizardry far in advance of anything possible at the time of writing, though certainly possible in some conceivable future. This is also, however, a story of well-drawn characterization exposing a misunderstanding about human beings, that they can be described in static terms when they are really works in progress.
Readers draw this conclusion because it is not until after the flashbacks of Martino’s life that an unqualified answer to the question “Who?” is answered. After learning something about Martino as he develops over time, the reader understands Martino’s answer of “No” in response to Rogers’ question of whether Martino really is Martino.
Convincing a reader that individual identity must be based on a four-dimensional analysis is often implicit in science fiction. This theme can be explored more directly, as in S. C. Sykes’s short story “Rockabye Baby” (1985), by exposing a character’s struggle to learn that the essence of selfhood is inextricably linked to the progression of time.
Budrys does this subtly in Who? by carefully building conditions that cause the reader to wonder about the question as well as the answer. The reader’s self-discovered answer is therefore a more intimate revelation.
Who? is an obvious precursor to Rogue Moon (1960), published two years later. Both deal with the humanity of an individual’s life. In both novels Budrys points out a necessary part of cultivating one’s individuality: the development of relationships with others.
Many might say that Budrys writes “science fiction for thinkers” because of his success in presenting themes for thoughtful consideration, yet wrapping those themes in a master storyteller’s style so the reader is never bludgeoned with pedagogy or agenda. In that respect, his work sometimes resembles Theodore Sturgeon’s. The impact on the reader is often as pronounced.