Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys
Published by Gollancz, January 2012, as part of the SF Masterworks series.
Originally published in 1960.
Review by Mark Yon
In the days of ten volume, backbreaking series, it’s easy to forget that sometimes brevity can equal quality.
Algirdas Jonas Budrys (1931-2008) is a writer who deserves greater recognition in the genre, though these days, if he is known at all, he is perhaps better known as a critic. For the record, much of his time was spent writing the Book Reviews column for Galaxy (1965-71) and The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1975-93), as well as being a teacher at the Clarion Writers Workshop and an organizer, editor and judge for the Writers of the Future awards.
So: a stylist who didn’t publish just for the sake of it.
Although he published comparatively little SF himself, especially in novel form, what he did I’ve usually found to be pretty good. Who? (1958) became a film in 1973 and Michelmas (1977) was a novel that predated the internet but was fairly prescient in being a world where the lead character is involved in solving a mystery using his self-invented omnipresent computer. (We would probably call it MultiVac or the Internet these days.)
With that in mind, Rogue Moon, his most famous story, is sold to us under a bit of a misnomer. The title makes ideas of galactic-spanning Empires and FTL spaceships spring to mind: nothing could be further from the truth.
At the beginning this isn’t that clear. Rogue Moon seems to be initially a great exploration puzzle, about a large alien artefact found on the surface of the Moon. All attempts to explore it leads to the intrepid explorers being killed or going insane in various ways, but their deaths slowly reveal that the process of dying is the point: that and by dying in various ways by moving through it humans learn something about themselves, as presumably would the aliens, should they still exist. It is a Clarkean test, an ordeal that humans must pass in order to evolve and develop beyond their present state.
As this shows, Rogue Moon is a deeper and more complex novel than we expect at first. Though set on the Moon (of the title), its core, as Graham Sleight points out in his introduction, is more about death and the way that people approach it and deal with it.
There’s less space opera and more sociological analysis, which can throw some readers off-balance, expecting more flash and bang. It is less ‘outer space’ and more ‘inner analysis’.
The characters involved are interesting, because some of them are downright unlikable. Many of the characters are complex and at times shockingly unpleasant. Manipulative, selfish, demanding: these are not the clean-cut heroes and heroines we’re conditioned to expect.
Our main character, Edward Hawks, is a seemingly emotionally detached scientist who has sacrificed his morals and ethics in order to cope with the fact that he knowingly sends men to their deaths in the search for scientific knowledge. Al Barker is ‘the solution’, a deeply cynical and unpleasant character but whose nastiness to those around him is what seems to be needed in order to survive the transfer to the Moon and the tests set by the alien artifact. Claire Pack is a sexual predator who admits that she’s a bitch to everyone, knows what she wants and how to get it and how to both tease and ‘reward’ those who please her. Vincent ‘Connie’ Connington is the personnel expert who introduces Hawks to Barker, obsessed with Claire and yet rebuffed by her, a necessary target for Barker to use as a punchbag. Elizabeth Cummings is an artist who, in comparison to the other sociopaths, seems quite out of place as the nice girl who Hawks falls in love with.
Reminder: this is an SF novel, right?
It has been argued that Rogue Moon is one of the heralds of the 1960’s New Wave for that reason, though its origins is at least peripherally in the SF trappings of the 1950’s. We still have a desire to ‘beat the Russians’, for example, and much of it can be read as an intellectual puzzle.
There are some differences. The mode of transportation is a matter transmitter rather than a spaceship, for example. This use of matter transmission to access the artefact allows a discussion about identity, as the process creates two: one on the Earth whilst the transmitted version explores the alien realm, something which allows the explorer to die again and again.
After the 1950’s explosion of space exploration novels, this is a good example of how authors were trying to examine and push the boundaries of SF by the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that led to the New Wave. There’s more here about human relationships than spaceships. The downside of this is that some readers may find the navel-gazing and the deep intuitive analysis this thought-experiment creates rather wearying, although I would add myself that it is not as bad as some of the New Wave got to be later. Much of the book deals with this analysis through lengthy language so well honed that there is an element of unreality about them. It is not how people normally speak. At times it can be a tad hysterical, with lots of angsty speeches about the value of death and its relevance to life, the meaning of a man and the human race’s place in the universe.
I can see why readers at the time would’ve been perplexed by it, as something quite different to what else is out there. The ending is a resolution of sorts, yet also deliberately ambiguous and may annoy some readers expecting everything to be tied up at the end.
Though short – more novella than novel – Rogue Moon has some memorable scenes and dialogue that remain with the reader after reading. The deficiencies of its age are outweighed by the quality and maturity of its writing, which at the time of their original publication over fifty years ago must have been head and shoulders above the rest. In less than 200 pages it covers weighty ideas that belie their origin and questions the idea that all SF has to be starships and deathstars.
Often regarded with Bester’s Tiger! Tiger!/The Demolished Man, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz as a seminal book at a time of change and growing maturity in SF, Rogue Moon is a thought-provoking, even if unpleasant novel, that deserves the over-used term of ‘classic’. A recommended read, but not for everyone, and although it is one you should at least try, it’s not one you would read repeatedly.
It was nominated for Best Novel in the 1961 Hugo Awards, but lost out to Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Mark Yon, January 2012.