I’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.