Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys; First Edition: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1960.
Cover art Richard Powers. (Click to enlarge)
by Algis Budrys
Fawcett Gold Medal (176 pages, $0.35 paperback, 1960)
Cover art Richard Powers
Algis Budry’s 1960 novel Rogue Moon is an unusual book. It’s relatively short, even for SF novels of its era. It’s heavily character focused. And while it deals with a fascinating mystery concerning an alien artifact, on the Moon, it’s also about the bureaucracy behind the scientists and engineers, and as much about how different kinds of men react differently to the challenges of life and the inevitability of death. The story also features two women, who use analogous means to get what they want.
There are two central science fictional premises. First, humans deal with a kind of alien strangeness that cannot be comprehended, and which in this case is usually deadly. Second is the consideration of the implications of a matter transmission device, an idea treated casually in most SF (especially in Star Trek), but that raises profound concerns about matters of the “soul” or, setting that notion aside, the consequences of simple duplication. (James Blish, to his credit as transcriber of Star Trek episodes, took on this question in his one original Trek novel, Spock Must Die! (1970).)
A mysterious alien artifact has been found on the moon, and two men, one an introspective but determined scientist, the other a reckless daredevil, cooperate to discover a path through the labyrinth inside.
This is both a traditional science fiction story about a problem and its resolution, involving alien mysteries and the consequences of matter transmission, and a sober meditation on life and death, on how different kinds of men and women deal with them. The novel is eccentric, and unique.
Summary and [[ Comments ]]
Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys; Avon Equinox, 1974
Cover art William Maughan. (Click to enlarge)
The narrative breaks cleanly into nine chapters, each broken down (and subnumbered) into a series of scenes, though some chapters are much longer than others (the shorter ones being character introspectives). Page references are to the Avon Equinox edition shown above.
- In 1959, three men sit in a room: Edward Hawks, a Doctor of Science; Weston, a psychologist; and Rogan, a young man who has apparently gone insane. He mumbles incoherently, “An dark and nowhere starlights…” And later, “It hurt me and it was so cold.. so quiet I could hear myself…”
- Perhaps he can be treated with electroshocks, the other two wonder. We gather that Rogan was subject of a matter transmitter, an experimental device built by Continental Electronics’ Research Division, and latest in a series of victims who apparently felt themselves die, and went insane.
- But Hawks won’t give up; he’s determined to find a special kind of man who can survive the experience. He contacts Director of Personnel Vincent Conningon, who claims he knows just the man — and that man lives right up the coast.
- [[ This is apparently set in California, with references to smog, and the time difference with DC. ]]
- Connington drives Hawks in his Cadillac along the coastal highway, then up a narrow road into the hills, where Hawks has to get out to help the Connington navigate a tight corner in his big car.
- They’ve come to meet Al Barker, a famous daredevil – parachutist, Olympic ski jumper, skin-diver, etc. etc. we’re told p18b — who has an artificial leg and a beautiful, aggressive girlfriend, Claire Park. (As always in novels of this era, men are referred to by last names, women by their first.) They live in his estate at the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. It’s evident there’s some background, and tension, between Connington and the couple.
- Barker is willing to take on any challenge. Hawks shows him some photos — of a place, on the moon he says, and explains what happened to the men who tried to explore it. Barker insists he’s a real man, unlike say Connington, who is quickly becoming drunk. Thus Barker offers to drive Hawks back, but is such a show-off in his tiny sports car that Hawks declines, deciding to walk. Different kinds of men, he reflects… Barker zooms up and down the narrow road just to show he can do it.
- [[ That the story is set in 1959, as we’re told in the opening sentence, requires Budrys to find some way of getting to the moon without rockets, which didn’t exist then. Conversely, to use a matter transmitter that kills its subject to create a duplicate elsewhere, the key to the book’s symbolic structure, requires the book be set before rockets to the moon were available, say, 1959. ]]
- Walking down to the coastal highway, Hawks comes to a general store, which seems empty. Outside, a young woman pulls up for gas. The store owner emerges from the back, treating the woman nastily, and Hawks intervenes to help her. She then offers him a ride back to the city. She’s Elizabeth Cummings, and she realizes, as she pulls up to Continental Electronics to drop him off, who he is. He’ll call her later.
- [[ This is one of several mundane scenes that are told in excruciating detail, e.g. as Hawks enters the store and no bell rings when he swings the door open: “He frowned and looked around at the doorframe behind him. He found a bell, suspended from the frame where the swung-back main door would have brushed it. It had been noiselessly cleared by the smaller screen door. He reached up and bend the bracket downward. His precise gesture failed to disturb the bell enough to ring it, and he stood looking at it, his expression clouded. He half reached toward the bell, brought his hand back down, and turned around again. A number of cars passed back and forth on the highway, in rapid succession.” (page 42). Is this padding for an otherwise too-short novel, or a close-up description of how one particular type of man deals with one type of problem, even such a trivial one? Perhaps both. ]]
- Next morning Barker arrives promptly at the facility for his briefing; Hawks shows him the lab, an electronic structure that holds the essence of a man. Sam Latourette, Hawk’s chief associate, is skeptical of this wild man Barker. As Barker’s artificial leg is adjusted for the suit he must wear, the assistant and he quote a play, at great length. Barker tosses out, “New artifices, Mage?”, a line Hawks does not recognize. The assistant, an ensign, does recognize it, and explains that it’s from a play he read in his English Lit course about Merlin the Magician making an invincible suit of armor. He and Barker go on to quote more lines, for two pages.
- [[ But they don’t identify the play. A few minutes of Googling suggests that no one knows what play it is, and that Budrys made it up to parallel the situation at hand. But why? Is this just another example of Barker showing off? Or is there something here about the type of men who live their lives as if acting out a story? ]]
- Hawks takes a call from an admiral in DC; Hawks insists he be trusted to use Barker the next day.
- Hawks sees the company president asking to reassign Sam, whom he doesn’t trust; the president reluctantly agrees. (These scenes are the bureaucracy in action.)
- Hawks then explains to Barker what will happen, page 70. The matter transmitter makes an exact duplicate at the other end; the original is gone, its atoms having turned to energy to make the transmission, page 71. [[ But there’s more, which Hawks doesn’t explain yet. ]]
- And Hawks prompts Ted Gersten, from the receiver crew, to pay attention — Hawks plans to replace Latourette with him.
- Hawks spends an evening at Elizabeth’s, sipping brandy, talking about his experience in school, how he had to pretend not to like all his classes and become very grim about the task of education. Dealing with bad teachers, he resorted to teaching himself what he needed to know on the side, to become what he wanted to be in life. And about how he needs a kind of X-ray camera that could replace a malignancy with healthy tissue — what his problem now is like.
- Barker shows up at Continental Electronics next morning. Hawks describes the installation on the far side of the moon they are exploring, its discovery and history, how a receiver was set up nearby to employ the matter scanner already in development. How the artifact, a hundred meters in diameter, 20 meters high, and perhaps a million years old, is difficult to perceive, may exist in more than three spatial dimensions, and contains a labyrinth in which the men who enter are killed in various bizarre, arbitrary ways, after only two or three minutes. Communications aren’t possible once inside, but taking limited notes is. Gradually a map of the interior is being compiled, from the notes of previous volunteers. Barker studies their notes and speculates that humans encountering the artifact is like a beetle encountering a tomato can, p100.
- Barker is put into his suit. Hawks explains what will happen. Barker will be transported to the Moon, will enter the artifact, and, though following the safe path mapped by earlier explorers, will eventually encounter something that will kill him. The procedure actually generates two copies, one on the moon, the other remaining on Earth. [[ Ah ha — Hawks didn’t explain this part earlier. ]] And because of some connection between the two copies, the version here on Earth in the lab, e.g. Barker L, will remember what happened to the one on the moon, Barker M, p101.
- So Barker goes through the transmitter. After some 240 seconds those in the lab hear a scream. Barker L is OK; he shakily describes what happened, and is stunned by the revelation that “It didn’t care! I was nothing to it!”
- Hawks and Connington take Barker home.
- They arrive at the cliff top estate, still afternoon. Claire is by the pool. Barker goes in to sleep. Claire flirts with Hawks; “take me” she says, p117. Hawks steps away, goes in to the bar for drinks; it’s 5pm. The three of them sit outside until the alarm wakes Barker at 8.
- [[ Another example of extreme detail, p119t: “Hawks walked slowly to the leather-covered settee facing the windows, and sat down. He put the edge of his glass to his lips, and rested his elbows on his thighs. He put both hands around his glass, holding it lightly, and tilted it until he could sip it. The lower half of his face was washed by reddish sunlight mottled with faint amber dispersions and glassy points of shifting light.” And so on! ]]
- Barker wakes, talks with Hawks about alcohol, society, types of men, warriors and killers. There are no rules; the artifact represents the “undisguised face of the unknown universe” p126.4. And 126.7: “Death is in the nature of the universe, Barker. Death is only the operation of a mechanism. All the universe has been running down from the moment of its creation. Did you expect a machine to care what it acted upon? Death is like sunlight or a falling star; they don’t care where they fall.” And so on.
- Hawks goes outside to Claire, who admits what she is — “I don’t know why I do it, Hawks. I don’t know. But I do treat him as if I hated him. I do it to everybody. I can’t meet anybody without turning into a bitch.” — yet regrets that no one knows the true her. She comes on to him… then withdraws, angry with herself, and him. Inside in the kitchen Barker is beating up on Connington; Claire tries to defend the latter; Barker angrily tells her to pack her things and leave by the next morning.
- Elizabeth comes to the same corner on the highway to pick up Hawks. He admits having woman trouble. He’s never understood women. He tells about a girlfriend once who would listen to anything he said; but when she just wanted to relax and not talk, he lost all interest.
- Barker’s transmissions go on once a day, and each time he survives a few seconds longer. A nav section of the lab builds a model of the artifact, from Barker’s recordings. He gets to surviving for 4m 38s, then 6m 12s.
- Connington tells Hawks that he’s leaving the company — having hooked up with Claire. (Presumably there’s some history between them, which is how Connington knew of Barker.) Meanwhile, Barker plans to sell the house on the sea cliff and move to the city.
- Sam Latourette returns (having been fired), trying to explain and apologize. He’s going into the hospital, and he suggests to Hawks that a dupe of himself from his file tape recorded last April — a second Latourette, to be around to help. He seems sincerely helpful. Hawks cautiously tries to explain the practical difficulties of this duplicate waking up, so to speak, six months after being recorded… until Latourette realizes what a fool he’s being, and withdraws.
- Hawks deals with the company president, who is concerned about costs; why not just duplicate the duplicator? Hawks explains, in the manner of scientists explaining things to clueless bureaucrats, why that wouldn’t work.
- Barker gets up to 9m30s; after that time the signal connecting the Barkers is weak.
- Hawks invites Elizabeth out to dinner.
- After dinner they visit the shore. Hawks soliloquizes. He talks about an incident in the war, how he examined a captured receiver from a German submarine, and found a human heart among its debris. And muses about dying: “The thing is, dying isn’t an incident. It isn’t something that happens to a man on one particular day of his life, soon or late. It happens to the whole man — to the boy he was, to the young man he was — to his joys, to his sorrows, to the times he laughed out loud, to the times he smiled….”
- And: “The thing is, the universe is dying! The stars are burning their substance.” About how the physical universe will decay, but experiences are retained in the mind. In a passage anticipating Roy Batty’s death scene in Blade Runner, he recalls a vivid memory, as a boy, of being outside one snowy night. “For years, I carried that time and place in my mind. It’s still there. But the thing is, the universe didn’t make it. I did. I saw it because I made myself see it. I took the stars, which are distant suns, and the night, which is the Earth’s shadow, and the snow, which is water undergoing a state-change, and I took the tears in my eyes, and I made a wonderland. No one else has ever been able to see it.”
- But when he dies, where will that memory be? She answers: “In my mind, a little? Along with the rest of you?”
- Barker senses he’s almost through the labyrinth. Hawks wants to join him (!). So they both transmit to the moon; Hawks follows Barker, and slowly, deliberately, they make their way through the artifact, following the carefully compiled map for a safe pathway, and they emerge at the other end — the success they’ve all been working for. [[ The artifact never is comprehended; that’s not the point — it’s a an arbitrary series of challenges to survival. ]] Now that a path has been identified, technicians will follow for closer study.
- Barker is eager to get back, to Earth. And Hawks has to explain: they can’t go back. For one, there are no facilities here on the moon to send back accurate copies of people; and furthermore, their Lab copies remain in the lab. This was implicit all along, but perhaps Barker just didn’t pick up on it.
- On Earth Hawks L recovers and asks a favor.
- On the Moon Hawks M and Barker M are welcomed by an observer team, who quickly withdraw. Hawks M and Barker M ponder their success, and then Barker M is anxious to jump into the transmitter and return to Earth. And Hawks has to explain again why he can’t do that. For one, the transmitter on the Moon, designed only to return rock samples and the like, is insufficient for accurate transmission of humans. More to the point, everyone here on the Moon is a copy of a person who’s still back on Earth, living their own original lives. So Barker M will have to die after all, if not in the artifact, as he’s done so many times before, then outside it, here, now.
- Barker M dismisses these concerns, anxious to use the transmitter anyway, and races to the airlock.
- Hawks M stands on the surface in his suit, waiting for his air to run out, as he looks up at the stars. (With an echo of his nighttime snow memory.)
- Back in the lab on Earth., Hawks L and Barker L recuperate. Hawks L reminds the other, they’re not their originals; they’re copies.
- And finally Hawks L — knowing what he will find — picks up a note left by his original to himself: “Remember me to her.”
One of the alternate titles of this story was “The Death Machine,” which of course applies both to the alien artifact and to the matter transmitter. The end is about two different kinds of men confronting death. One is gung-ho, determined to survive whatever the risks; the other is the careful, cautious scientist, who understands and accepts the situation, to the point that his original leaves his lab copy a note about Elizabeth. Both men, having survived the labyrinth, have experienced many things that might have killed them, but as in life in general, death always awaits eventually.
The two women, Elizabeth and Claire, on the other hand, deal with understanding their men, and in their different ways, succeed. The distinction between the concerns of men, and those of women, is clearly sexist, but it reflects the era, and virtually all SF of 60 years ago.
The bureaucratic background of this book reminds me of an almost forgotten Budrys novella from 1975, “The Silent Eyes of Time,” which despite a couple award nominations and one reprint in Terry Carr’s annual the next year, has never (except for one 1979 German anthology) been reprinted since, not even in a Budrys collection. (I found this online review, by “Jesse,” that refreshed my memory of the story, which I haven’t reread since 1975.) Presumably both of these stories reflect the contingencies of Budrys’ day job, but that’s only speculation.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B edited by Ben Bova;
Doubleday/Science Fiction Book Club, 1973. (Click to enlarge)
After finishing the above summary, and comments, I recalled that the story was first published as a novella, and tracked it down. It was published in the December 1960 issue of F&SF, then reprinted in a French magazine in 1963 (via Isfdb). Its only unique anthology appearance was in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B, edited by Ben Bova and shown above; there have been no other English language reprints aside from later editions of that book.
In the book club edition that I have of the Hall of Fame, the novella is 90 pages of small type, while the Avon Equinox edition of the novel runs 192 pages of larger type. So the book isn’t twice as long as the novella; maybe 1/3 again as long.
Without comparing the two versions page by page, I satisfied myself that the structure and incidents of both versions are the same. There are some wording changes, paragraph break adjustments, and expansions of numerous speeches.
What about the some of the scenes I noted above?
- The description of Hawks entering the general store: the entire paragraph I quoted from is new in the book; the surrounding paragraphs are the same. So the new passage could be considered padding after all, though of course it reveals something about the character too.
- The two men exchanging lines of an unknown play: all new in the book.
- Hawks at the bar in Barker’s house: The first line of what I quoted is in the novella; the rest of the paragraph is new in the book.
- Hawks’ soliloquies on the shore. The incident about the German device and human heart is new in the book; most of the rest, including the passages I quoted, are there in the novella.
If these examples are typical of what a more thorough comparison might reveal… I’m inclined to think the tighter novella version is the better one.
Mark R. Kelly’s last review for us was of Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust and Earthlight. Mark wrote short fiction reviews for Locus Magazine from 1987 to 2001, and is the founder of the Locus Online website, for which he won a Hugo Award in 2002. He established the Science Fiction Awards Database at sfadb.com. He is a retired aerospace software engineer who lived for decades in Southern California before moving to the Bay Area in 2015. Find more of his thoughts at Views from Crestmont Drive, which has this index of Black Gate reviews posted so far.