Hidden on the surface of the moon is a labyrinthine alien relic, something that Dr. Edward Hawks of Continental Electronics has spent years investigating. The Navy wanted Continental’s matter-transmitter for its obvious potential, but when the artifact was discovered, they saw an immediate application for the transmitter: the Navy uses it to send investigators to the moon’s surface, explorers who search the artifact for signs of its purpose or creators. But every investigator who enters the artifact eventually dies, and after enough deaths, goes insane. You see, the matter-transmitter doesn’t physically transmit a worker to the Moon, it instead transmits a perfect copy—a duplicate, piloted by the original back in the lab. It creates the troubling situation where the original copy continues working on in the lab, going home each night to see his family, while the other copy becomes a charred smear inside an alien puzzle-box. The original suffers extreme mental trauma from the strangeness of the artifact and from undergoing their twin copies’ deaths, and many would-be investigators go from “right stuff” hotshots into broken husks with damaged minds.
Hawks is running out of volunteers, and the Navy is growing reluctant to fund the project, having sent several men into the labyrinth, with progress inching along death by death. But the Director of Personnel, Connington, thinks that a new type of man is needed. In fact, he’s already found the perfect man for the job: Hemingwayesque ur-man Al Barker, a thrill seeker who’s spent his life flirting with death. A former OSS commando, race-car driver, mountain climber, parachutist, and all-around daredevil, he’s lost a leg already in his pursuit of manly excursions. And it seems Connington is after Barker’s wife, Claire, a seductress who manipulates men… men like Barker, as she needles him into taking the assignment so he doesn’t look like “less of a man” in front of her. Barker begins to make progress through the artifact, but will he complete a path through this nightmarish funhouse before he becomes its newest broken victim?
Those expecting a rousing adventure of humans challenging adversity—manifest destiny on the moon—will be in for a rude awakening. Same for anyone expecting a focus on the hard science, or even on the Big Dumb Object. More time is spent with the philosophizing Hawks than on the Moon; the alien artifact remains a mysterious symbol until the last chapter of the novel, at which point the themes begin to coalesce. Rogue Moon instead uses the alien artifact and matter transmitters as metaphors to examine life and death. The matter transmitter in particular opens up the tenuous middle ground of human duplication, probing its morality as well as the psychological toll on the original copy as he experiences his copy’s death. The artifact is an unknowable enigma—something truly alien, similar to later enigmas in Roadside Picnic or Solaris. This is the stuff existential nightmares are made of, and Budrys handles it to the best of his ability.
These characters grapple with themes of identity, each one having a name evocative of their personalities as if they’re wearing their identities on their sleeves. Hawks looks over his project like a bird of prey, manipulating men to work in the project’s best interests, sending others to die for a mere yard of progress while he sits back and takes notes. Barker is loud and brutish, a bull in a china shop ever-eager to prove himself a member of Hemingway’s code of model manliness. Connington is conniving and shady, setting Barker on this dangerous assignment to get Claire all to himself—and Claire is a right peach, manipulative, seductive, using her sexuality to toy with men for her own amusement. I would criticize the novel for some of its very dated gender politics, except I’m not sure how much of it was intentional—Barker’s ur-male persona, fretting over perceptions of inadequate manliness, obviously was.
Rogue Moon is both a brilliant meditation on life and death and a philosophical horror story, showing how a subtle and thoughtful application of science fiction can lead to a rather superb novel. It’s a book full of symbolism and metaphor that focuses on psychological and philosophical elements over character depth and narrative action… but it succeeds very well at what Budrys intended it to do. A dark and thought-provoking novel, Rogue Moon is the kind of SF novel I love to read—where I’m still pondering the novel’s implications days later. I highly recommend it to anyone who intrigued by this kind of lunar exploration, plumbing the dark depths of the human mind.
Title: Rogue Moon
Editor: Algis Budrys
First Published Date: 1960
What I Read: ebook (Open Road Media, 2016)
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley)
MSRP: $8? pb / $7.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-0575108004 / B019ESGO3A