Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#23: "Rogue Moon", by Algis Budrys

This is going to be a short one: There's only one novel by Algis Budrys that I want to review -- but I really do want to review it, and it's not a novel that can comfortably be covered in a short paragraph, or slipped in among the novels of two or three dissimilar authors.

"Rogue Moon" (***+) is the novel. The year is 1959 (ie, when the book was written), and an alien artifact has been found on the moon. No, it's not an alternate-history novel. The public doesn't know that the moon is reachable via matter transmitter. There are problems with the transmitter: The device doesn't move you; it duplicates you. For a short time, before differing experiences cause you to diverge, you and your duplicate are so similar (call it nineteen decimal places' similarity :) that you are telepathically linked. Then there are two of you. One goes home for supper; one remains on the moon.

The artifact? The artifact is *very* alien, incomprehensible. And people who enter it die. For practical purposes, it's a maze: If you do the right things at the right times, you can get through it. Mapping that maze, however, costs lives at both ends. The duplicates on the moon map out a bit more of the artifact before being killed -- and the telepathically linked originals on Earth are broken by the experience.

Edward Hawks, the developer of the matter transmitter, needs someone who can survive the experience. He turns to Al Barker -- an adventurer with a bit of a death wish -- and talks him into joining the project. Again and again Barker goes through the maze -- farther each time -- and dies.

Oddly enough, particularly for the time, Budrys doesn't devote much attention to the artifact. The attention remains focused on Earth, upon Hawks and Barker and their interactions. The two represent venerable cliches of science fiction -- the Scientist and the Adventurer -- but Budrys digs into those cliches, and gives us a look at what lies underneath.

"Rogue Moon" is one of the best science fiction novels of its time. It combines novel ideas, nontrivial ethical problems, and a focus on character interaction, rather than on nuts and bolts. The decades haven't been that kind to the novel. By today's standards, it suffers from long monologues, excessive exposition, and thin, if interesting, characters, and we've come to expect smoother writing in our science fiction. (Hence the ***+, rather than the **** it once merited.) That said, I'd characterize this book as one of the genre's classics -- and still worth reading on its own merits.

Perhaps it's the alien equivalent of a discarded tomato can. Does a beetle know why it can enter the can only from one end as it lies across the trail to the beetle's burrow? Does the beetle understand why it is harder to climb to the left or right, inside the can, than it is to follow a straight line? Would the beetle be a fool to assume the human race put the can there to torment it -- or an egomaniac to believe the can was manufactured only to mystify it?

%A Budrys, Algis
%T Rogue Moon
%D 1960

Dani Zweig