Rogue Moon by Budrys, Algis, 1960

Rogue Moon by Budrys, Algis

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When Algis Budrys' novel Rogue Moon came out in 1960 several of the genres most important critics jumped on its bandwagon and proclaimed it to be perhaps the worthiest SF novel that had ever been written. Luminaries such as Willis E. McNelly, Damon Knight and James Blish prophesied that it would go down in history as the most important novel of the decade. Blish even went so far as to say that it was as worthy of serious study as James Joyce's Ulysses. Reading it here almost fifty years later it is not hard for me to see why they were so enthusiastic. It was a harbinger of things to come, primarily the New Wave, but it was not drastically different from the books of the era. It was accessible and complex; layered and simple, all at the same time. But the best SF book ever? I have to believe that as the sixties wore on all three of them changed their opinion, because as that decade marched on it gave us some incredible stories. Though as one of the first real examinations of "inner space," or the psychological impacts of stimuli with attention paid to SF tropes, this one is better than most. It uses as its central motif a maze that people must find their way through, but the book on the whole is more about the psychological contortions that people will go through to achieve a goal, rather than the physical ones needed to get through the maze.

Rogue Moon feels like itís about two things, but I think at its heart Budrys was really only trying to say one thing. The first thing it was about, and the least important, was the genre aspect. The U.S. Government has discovered an alien artifact on the moon. Itís a structure about 100 by 20 meters, and it has a door. At the beginning of the story the government had put maybe hundreds of men through that door, and not one of them had made it out alive. The purpose of the structure seemed to be to kill whatever went into it. It was a labyrinth that would kill those who did not absolutely stick not only to the path, but also to body contortions as they moved through.

You will not be able to maintain communication, either by broadcast or along a cable. You will be able to make very limited hand signals to observers from the outpost, and you will make written notes on a tablet tied to a cord, which the observer team will attempt to draw back after you die. If that fails, the man on the next try will have to go in and pass the tablet out by hand, if he can, and if it is decipherable. Otherwise, he will attempt to repeat whatever actions you took, making notes, until he finds the one that killed you. We have a chart of safe postures and motions which have been established in this manner, as well as of fatal ones. It is, for example, fatal to kneel on one knee while facing lunar north. It is fatal to raise the left hand above shoulder height while in any position whatsoever. It is fatal past a certain point to wear armor whose air hoses loop over the shoulders. It is fatal past another point to wear armor whose air tanks feed directly into the suit without the use of hoses at all. It is crippling to wear armor whose dimensions vary greatly from the ones we are using now. It is fatal to use the hand motions required to write the English word "yes," with either the left or the right hand.

The government got men up to the structure with a teleportation device. A contractor just happened to be working on one when the artifact was discovered, so they co-opted it to avoid the huge costs of rocketing men up there to die. The teleportation device worked by making two copies of a man; one on the Moon and one on Earth. The Earth copy was made because the subject was completely destroyed when he was "read" and encoded by the machine for transmission to the Moon. But the man on Earth turned out to be vitally important to the project. Once the Moon copy of the subject woke up, the copy on Earth, who was kept in sensory deprivation, would "remember" the things that the lunar copy experienced. Budrys explained that the two beings were really two brains sharing one mind, though after time the link would wear off and the two would be different individuals. But before that happened the lunar copy of the subject would go as far into the artifact as he could, before getting killed, while the Earth copy remembered everything. The problem was that the strain of the labyrinth and the shock of death killed every one of the Earth copies. The project was moving incredibly slow because the only way to map the labyrinth was to tie a sketch pad to the man going in and pull it out after he died.

Along comes Connington, a HR director for the project. He convinces Hawkes, the project manager that what he really needs is a crazy man who doesn't care about death, and delivers him Barker, a suicidal narcissist with a flair for daring-do. The other major element of this story, and I think the one that was more important to Budrys, was characterization. The characters here were not as full as they could have been, but Budrys crafted them as well as he needed to, and played their dominant traits against one another masterfully. Added to the three above was Claire, Barker's woman. The character's names are excellent metaphors for their behavior. Barker was always making as much noise as he could and trying to draw attention to himself. Hawkes just cared about the project and did not care whom he killed. Connington was a conniver and con man who was more interested in getting into Claire's drawers, and Claire used her sex to get whatever she wanted; she was a treat for Connington who may have been motivated to send Barker to his death so he could have Claire, rather than helping Hawkes get the job done. Though get the job done they do, but in probably the biggest let down in the history of the genre. Barker makes his way gradually through the artifact over the course of months, dying on the Moon who knows how many times, but never going insane or dying on Earth, until one day he announces that he is at the end. Hawkes teleported with him on the next mission and went through the artifact with him, and together they walk out the other door, and immediately forget about the artifact for good. There are no answers here about the artifact; nothing about its purpose or its builders. Instead Hawkes reveals that the teleportation only works one way. There is no way back to Earth, so for all their work, the two are doomed to die on the Moon when they run out of air.

I think that Budrys was writing about foolish strategies that people use to make themselves happy. None of the characters were likeable people. All of them had neuroses that were so deeply welded to their personalities that they came off like fetishists. And despite failure after failure, none of them changed, save for Hawkes who in the end managed to find it within himself to care about someone else more than himself or his job. Although Budrys may actually have been trying to make a comment about the opposite; about how people's personalities tend to drive them to do stupid things to get noticed, but only wind pushing away important people in their lives. Take a look at the Connington-Barker-Claire triangle. Claire was constantly trying to move up by hooking a new and better man, which pushes Barker away. Connington tries too hard to bed Claire, which causes her to recoil time after time. And Barker puts his life on the line daily. Claire shrinks from him as a result.

Overall I think that this is one that should be read. Budrys is not a major author, and despite the timing of this book, it is not a major work. Obviously people who made a much greater mark than I ever will in SF scholarship completely disagree with me, so I think you should read it and make up your own mind. Three out of five stars.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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