Rogue Moon, another great classic

roguemoonI’ll tell you what, I’m really enjoying the experience I’ve been having this year of immersing myself in all these old classics that I had overlooked before. I’m also realizing how many great books were published particularly in the 1950’s and 1960’s — what a great time that was for science fiction! Add another one to the list: Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, from 1960. This is an absorbing and maturely told tale of the scientific exploration of an alien artifact of mind-numbing incomprehensibility, and of the very real human costs and sacrifices involved in confronting it.

The mysterious structure found on the dark side of the Moon was beyond all human understanding. Anyone who entered it died, usually in a very strange and horrific manner. But each volunteer, using the experience of the previous ones, managed to last a little longer and get a little further inside. But there was something unusual about these volunteers: they were duplicates, created by a new matter scanner/transmitter and beamed to a receiver on the Moon. So, there were two copies of the volunteer, one entering the alien structure, and one on Earth, telepathically linked and witnessing the actions of his “twin.” A problem, though: when the structure killed one member of the pair, the other member invariably went insane.

The scientist who designed the matter transmitter and runs the project, Ed Hawks, is torn apart by the constant guilt of condemning these men to death and insanity. but he implacably continues to do so, knowing the importance of his mission. After all, there’s some Cold War pressure there, and any knowledge to be gained from the artifact must be gotten before the Russians learn of it. So, even though Hawks views himself in some sense as a murderer, he also feels driven by the necessity of his job. His dedication to his work never wavers, but his inner turmoil is constant, and he readily admits he’s a monster:

“It’s a monstrous thing we’re dealing with. In a sense, we have to think like monsters, or stop dealing with it, and let it just sit there on the Moon, no one knows why.”

The other major character is the latest volunteer, Al Barker, recruited because Hawks needs “a new kind of man,” a man who doesn’t fear death. Indeed, Barker has always actively courted death, living life on the edge, taking deadly risks, daring any adventure, all in order to prove his worth and manhood. His near-suicidal thirst for danger gives him just the edge that is needed: he is able to retain his sanity while experiencing his own death (his copy’s death) in the Moon structure.

One point I want to make about this novel is that the scientific investigation of this mystery is always there, but it’s not really front and center like you might expect. In fact, even after the structure is fully penetrated at the end, there is no revelation, no new knowledge, no dazzling discovery to appease the reader’s sense of wonder. The strange artifact is just as much an unknown at the end of the book as it was at the beginning.

No, the main focus of this novel, and its real strength, is its portrayal of the human side of the situation. It’s a story thick with psychological tension, that delves deeply into the strains and stresses of people caught up in something much bigger than themselves, something that forces them to draw upon the uglier parts of their nature, but also to learn something about themselves in the process. And I think it succeeds extremely well at that. These are some of the most complex characters I’ve encountered, and it’s impossible to come away from this without being affected in some way by their experiences and the passions and pains that shape them. Budrys is one hell of a writer — I’ve got to see what else the man wrote.


4 responses to “Rogue Moon, another great classic

  1. Good review. I read this one recently myself and thought pretty much the same things you did.

    I read a couple of other books that borrowed pretty heavily from this: Man in the Maze by Silverberg and a short story called Think Like a Dinosaur by….can’t remember right now. Its about a race of aliens that look like dinosaurs that give us the secret of interstellar teleportation, but what happens is that the original is just copied on another planet. The dinosaurs then insist that if we are going to use this technology we follow their rules and kill the original once transfer is done. I always thought that author borrowed from this one.

    Ive been thinking about the teleportation aspect of this book. One would think that as you make more and more copies the source would get duller and duller, like dubbing a tape again and again. Not so here. I think that Barker became more and more ingrained in his screwed up worldview.

  2. I wonder if Star Trek’s transporter concept got some influence from this book?

    Just read your review. I like your analysis of the characters’ names — barking Barker, con-man Connington, etc. I totally missed that.

    One thing I disagree with though. You said none of the characters really changed, except for maybe Hawks. I think Barker changed, at least the final Moon copy:

    “You were right, Hawks!” Barker said in a rush of words. “Passing initiations doesn’t mean a thing, if you go right back to what you were doing before; if you don’t know you’ve changed! A man — a man makes himself. He — Oh, God damn it, Hawks, I tried to be what they wanted, and I tried to be what I thought I should be, but what am I? That’s what I’ve got to find out — that’s what I’ve got to make something of! I’ve got to go back to Earth and straighten out all those years!

  3. That was at the end, right? I can’t really say that was a change. He may have had his moment of epiphany, but Barker on the Earth isn’t changed. The psychic link terminated too soon, so he will probably be himself, and this Barker is a dead man. It may be ironic, but Barker was too into himself before hand to see what Hawks saw. That’s not change. That’s a day late and a dollar short. Authors do that kind of thing a lot: Make death be the ultimate changer of attitude. But Barker was not at peace when he had his moment of realization. It didn’t actually change him. He just thought that he had to get back to Earth and “fix” things. I dont take that as real change. Just panic over looking bad for so long.

    Remind me if I’m wrong about the timing. Its been a while since I read this one.

  4. The above quote from Barker was after they had exited the structure, but before Hawks made him realize that the two of them were dead men.

    I think Moon Barker changed, sorta kinda, but who knows about Earth Barker? The ending scene with the Earth Hawks and Earth Barker was too short to get any sense of how those characters felt.

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