Rogue Moon, by Algis Budrys

Oh, what the heck — as long as I’m thinking of Algis Budrys’ work, and I’m still on a blogging roll, let me say a few words about his most famous novel Rogue Moon (1960). I read it on a Kindle on a trip a few years ago, which is why I suppose I never got around to blogging it — by the time I returned from the trip, I was already reading other things.

But Rogue Moon is a classic of science fiction, and well worth exploring. However, readers may find that the novel is not exactly about what it seems to be about at first glance!

‘You’ll die, Barker. I want you to give up all hope. There isn’t any.”

‘I know that, Doctor,’ Barker said.

‘I’ve said you’d die again and again. You will. Today is only the first time. If you retain your sanity, you’ll be all right — except you’ll have the memory of dying, and the knowledge that you must die again tomorrow.’

A mysterious structure, or artifact, has been found on the moon. Its purpose is unfathomable, and it may exist in more dimensions than we can observe. The United States Navy has gotten to it first, and wants to send people into the edifice to learn its secrets. However, it kills all who enter it, and in horrific ways, according to a set of unknown and arbitrary rules that cannot be learned except by breaking them and dying. Kneeling while facing polar North is instant death, as is raising one’s left hand above one’s shoulder.

Dr. Edward Hawks has a plan to learn the rules and secrets of the alien device. He has invented a matter transmitter, that can break down the structure of a human into an electrical signal and reconstruct that signal into a person a great distance away. It was through the use of beaming that the Navy got researchers to the moon and the alien artifact in the first place. Furthermore, the transmitter can make copies of people, so that one version can be sent to the moon, and another kept on stasis on Earth. Because the one on Earth has no new experiences of his own, he shares the memories of the duplicate on the moon, and can report back on any new progress inside the artifact — even after dying.

There is one problem: every subject who has died on the project has gone insane from the experience of death. But Vincent Connington, the head of Continental Electronics, which serves as the funder and the cover for the experiment, has found a solution: the brutish thrill-seeker Al Barker, a man so stubborn and filled with hate that he would likely let himself die over and over again rather than let the alien artifact get the best of him. But as the project goes on, the strain of this very literal torture weighs increasingly heavily on everyone involved, from Hawks to Barker to Barker’s girlfriend Claire, and none of them will be left unscathed.

From the description above, you might imagine that the story focuses on the terrors of the alien edifice, but that is not the case: it is very much a people-centered novel, and is a study of the very different yet equally flawed characters that would engage in such an insane scheme, even if it is for the good of humanity. Barker is a brute; Claire is an opportunist who is happy to side with any man who she finds most useful to her. Hawks possesses a cold scientific detachment that allows him to willingly inflict horrors on a subject; Connington is an amoral man who attempts to woo Claire while Barker becomes increasingly broken down by his experiences. When I first read Rogue Moon, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get more discussion of the alien structure; now that I’ve read other works by Budrys such as Hard Landing, I appreciate that stories about people are what interest him.

To me, Rogue Moon appears to be a musing about human nature, and what type of person it takes to succeed even against horrible odds. I was reminded of the novel Destination Infinity by Henry Kuttner, which also features a character who is antithetical to society but who is necessary to get the job done. It occurred to me, though, that Rogue Moon suggests that we all have these ruthless impulses within us, just manifesting in different ways. Connington’s attempts to woo Claire, and Claire’s attempts to woo Hawks, could be seen in parallel with Barker’s attempts to weave his way through the deathtrap maze inside the alien structure.

The alien structure itself could be seen as symbolizing the uncaring and capricious nature of the universe itself, and this is more or less said explicitly in the novel. The first time Barker is killed, he awakens on Earth in horror, exclaiming, “…it didn’t care! I was nothing to it!” Being insignificant is the true fear of Barker, who throughout his life was used to being lauded as brave or heroic.

The matter transmitter concept of the novel is a fascinating one. It is implied, though never explicitly stated from what I recall, that the two copies of the same human are effectively quantum entangled with each other, in that they share a single state of existence. Just as two entangled quantum particles can influence each other over great distances, the two copies of a human share memories — as long as one of them is kept in sensory deprivation stasis to keep their state “pure.”

The existence of the matter transmitter also brings up the fascinating philosophical question that is rarely discussed about transporters in shows like Star Trek: is the copy the same person, or did the original person die in order for the copy to be transmitted? Hawks is very much of the opinion that the original person has been destroyed, and makes this very clear to Barker. He spends a lot of the early part of the novel doing his best to dissuade Barker from taking the job. Ironically, he does this to assuage his own guilt over the process, though he knows full well that his warnings will act as reverse psychology on the aggressive Barker. I wonder if Rogue Moon actually inspired Gene Roddenberry in the introduction of transporters (though we also know that they were introduced due to budgetary limitations).

Rogue Moon is, overall, a fascinating story. It’s one of those novels that you tend to think about long after you finish reading it, and I can see why it is considered a classic. (And I should note: you do get to learn a bit about what happens inside the strange alien deathtrap.)

PS it is worth noting that before it was published as a novel, a shortened version of Rogue Moon appeared in the December 1960 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (The cover image does not represent the story!)

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2 Responses to Rogue Moon, by Algis Budrys

  1. momdude says:

    I’ve often thought that the basic concept of this story, to face a test, die doing it but learning a little, being reborn, and repeating the process until you get to the end is the basic structure behind today’s video games. I love the original story, but when “Doom” came out I knew that I had seen the concept somewhere before…

  2. Reading this in HS in the late 70s, I took it as a discussion of human identity from memories. The Barker on Earth is effectively the Barker who was on the moon. And each new Barker on the moon is effectively the Barker from Earth. They are the same person, if slightly changed by each iteration. Only at the end of the story do their lives diverge into the future, but with an understood inability to share in the single identity created by their memories.

    The film, “The Prestige”, had an interesting take on some variations.

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