By Algis Budrys
Rogue Moon is the disquieting story of what happens when aberrant scientific ambition is matched by human obsession.
Shortlisted for the 1961 Hugo Award (losing out to the quite wonderful A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr), Rogue Moon is one of the few genre novels that Algis Budrys wrote. Robert Silverberg, Brian Aldiss, Ben Bova, Alfred Bester and James Blish have all commended the novel and higher praise cannot really be achieved - Robert Silverberg even went as far to say it was The most terrifying pages in any SF novel I have ever read.
Written years before anyone even attempted to set foot upon the surface of the moon, this very short (almost novella) novel is a powerful, disturbing and completely off-the-wall story that examines the question of death, humanity and individuality. There is a lot more to it than just those major themes though, it's as much about relationships than about space with a running theme of misogyny.
As with many novels of the era the portrayal of women is for the most part quite unflattering but the difference here is that it actually highlights this issue and even points it out, such as when the character Elizabeth Cummings tells the protagonist Hawks that he "isn't the typical man" as he treat's women as people. As such the use of misogyny actually highlights the general issue within the genre and does so in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion. I'd love to say that the novel of the 21st Century has completely overcome this problem but even today there are some books that still give out this perception, although it is thankfully much improved than it was.
A small amount of the social and political trends of the time also permeate the prose and along with the way women are described we also have an underlying feeling of the cold war, that race against the Russians into space and political paranoia that played a part of American life in the 1950's and 1960's.
The actual plot of the novel is fascinating, a building has been found on the moon that contains a machine that kills people in many different ways through-out the strange building but always consistently. Almost like a mouse in a maze, the scientists figure out that if they can get through this death trap and map each method of death along the way they should be able to get further each time and eventually manage to travel out the other side. Of course it could take many lives to accomplish this so they devise a method of teleporting a copy of someone from the earth to the moon and taking a "backup" copy that shares memories with their counterpart so that when that doppelganger dies there is still a version left alive earth-side.
The only problem is that the sheer horror of each death causes the surviving copy to be driven insane, the human mind just not able to cope, that is until they find the reckless Al Barker who's courted death all his life. It's only then that the research makes any headway.
Being a very short novel there is no wasted space at all however the book still manages to retain a relaxed, unhurried pace and uncomplicated narrative that accentuates the books main themes. The characterisation is treated very much like a short story or novella in that the characters are given enough life to be effective protagonists without a great deal of time spent on back story.
As with all good science fiction novels the actual science fiction elements are there to actually highlight the main themes of the novel, not to replace them. As such you could quite easily get rid of those elements and still end up with a very effective story about relationships and the inevitability of death. The ending is quite abrupt and is somewhat ambiguous - acting as an effective method of encouraging reflection of the main themes.
This study of the human psyche has an incredible amount of power which when combined with the study of relationships and exploration of that final frontier - the inevitable truth that is death - creates a unique and breathtaking novel that simply has no equal, a true classic in every sense.
Written on 20th February 2012 by Ant .