Included in the SF Masterworks series, Rogue Moon, published in 1960 by Russian SF writer Algis Budrys, is considered to be part of the ‘New Wave’ of SF in the 1960s and 1970s, which was more focused on literary experimentation than hard science.
An alien object has been found on the dark side of the moon by America and a transporter built to materialise volunteers on the moon who then go in to explore what it is. Unfortunately, this results in a very quick and painful death, and retrieving any information on what is in there and what killed them is proving to be very difficult.
An extraordinary kind of person is therefore required who can face death again and again without being driven insane by the experience, in order for science and the human obsession for domination over the unknown to continue its inexorable path forward.
There are only a few central characters in Rogue Moon, with the main focus on the relationship between the obsessive and rigidly self-controlled scientist Edward Hawks, and the daredevil risk taker Al Barker, who in his own way is also very self-controlled, defensive, and consumed by the need to find a meaning.
The writing is very different from, for example, Arthur C Clarke’s, with the science not as exact and more fanciful, and the alien object on the moon being more a personification of death rather than a solid place or thing to be explored. The characters’ personalities and reactions to one another and the stress they encounter in facing the up to now impenetrable barrier of death are the driving force of the novel, rather than detailed descriptions of the lunar surface or the alien structure. When Hawks, accompanied by a Director at the company they work for called Vincent Connington, visits Barker and his girlfriend Claire, the situation is very reminiscent of the style of dialogue used in novels such as The Great Gatsby. There is a brittle, fake face put on and each of them, apart from Hawks who refuses to be dragged into these games, and they dance around one another in a series of subtle mind games and affected indifference or machismo.
This is a very different book from what I was expecting. Having read Clarke and Hoyle, who were both scientists, I was expecting most of the action to take place on the moon, with an explanation of what the thing is that is up there. This is merely a tool however for Budrys to explore human psychology in the face of such extreme testing. It explores Barker’s personality, which teeters on the edge of having a death wish and needing to prove something to everybody, particularly himself, and Hawks’ cold ambition to unlock the secrets of the alien artefact that clash with the fact that he has to send to many men up there to die in order for him to do this. This is a study of death and how humans approach it, as well as a study of what being ‘you’ actually means. The transporter used to send people to the moon destroys the original object, and sends a signal to the moon to recreate the object from moon rock by rearranging atoms, as well as forming a second identical object on earth, which means that two versions of the same person with the same memories are alive at once, but neither of them are the original person that went into the machine. The actual deaths that take place within the alien maze or whatever it may be are barely described at all, being irrelevant to the overall objective of overcoming death – but whether it is actually overcome at all is highly subjective.
A central theme of the book is things not being exactly what they seem – so a person transported to the moon isn’t the person that left earth, and the alien object cannot be exactly defined by observers, being described as possibly existing in more dimensions than previously experienced, and remains as unknowable at the end than it was at the beginning. Claire is a character made up by a character, who flirts and pushes people’s buttons in order to get a reaction from them, and who is described by a love-struck Connington, who himself gets ahead by also finding people’s weaknesses, as being ‘an elemental – the rise of the tides, the coming of the seasons, an eclipse of the Sun… Such creatures are not to be thought of as good or bad… Woe to us who would pursue them on their cometary track.’ He wants her because he can’t have her, and elevates her from being human to an unknowable force of nature. There is a constant want for more than life currently gives, yet most people aren’t sure what they actually are looking for.
The idea of memory is also a main theme; the making an impact on another person’s life. Hawks’ heartless experiment where he candidly tells Barker that he will kill him many times in a wide variety of ways is juxtaposed with a gradually blooming and tentative love story between him and a woman who gave him a lift. Barker, who is accused of ‘courting death’ by Hawkes, when killed the first time, is horrified by the impersonality of it: ‘…it didn’t care, I was nothing to it!’ he says. The team on the moon who set the volunteers on the path to the alien object are all copies of identical people who are living their lives down on earth, with their families and friends. Despite having all of these memories, they aren’t really that person, and are mere shadows on a far away moon that have to come to terms with building their own form of existence as a separate version of what once was.
This is a difficult book to get a grasp of, as humanity, love and death and what they mean to each of us can be completely different. It is a book of many layers and no answers. Whether a reader likes the book or not I think depends on what they want from their science fiction, but I think it works well to show that not all SF has to be rigidly scientific in its structure, and based on hardware in space. I think you can read into this novel as much as you wish to, there are numerous little details which can be mused upon. For example, Barker’s house is built on the edge of a sheer drop down to the sea, with the road leading to it a death trap for the unwary driver, yet Barker takes the turns at 50 miles an hour and Connington, despite having to inch his way around the bends with help from Hawks, refuses to walk up to the house which would be easier, but which would mess up his boots.
When Claire eventually leaves with Connington, they smash all of the plate glass windows across the front of the house, which earlier reflected multiple copies of Claire as she lay by the pool manipulating the men around her. A rebellion against the fake faces put on by these people or Claire not being able to stand the sight of herself? Why does the alien structure kill people for facing lunar north, or raising their left hand above their shoulder, or at all? At every turn there’s something to snag the interest of those who wish to read deeper.