The novel “Rogue Moon” by Algis Budrys was published for the first time in 1960 in the magazine “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”. In 1961 it was a finalist for the Hugo Award as the best novel. A shorter version was published in the anthology “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two”.
In “Rogue Moon” a secret project aims to unravel the secrets of an alien labyrinth found on the Moon. The problem is that all men who enter the labyrinth are killed in various ways after a few minutes according to unknown rules so how can they go on?
The project has developed a teleportation technology that destroys the original person, makes a copy on the Moon and another in the laboratory. The two copies are initially identical and this creates in them a sort of telepathic bond that is fading as their brains get different. With this use of the transporter the copy on Earth can tell the experience of the copy on the Moon but he will also get the feeling of dying and this is very heavy on his mind.
Finally they find a person who might be able to endure the trauma of the indirect death and win the challenge with the alien maze but what will be the consequences?
“Rogue Moon” is one of the best novels by Algis Budrys and it’s one of the first to explore the “inner space”, a trend that became common in the ’60s. In all of Budrys novels the psychological side of the characters is crucial but in this case the concept is carried to the extreme.
Despite the presence of the mysterious maze as a classic topic actually the description of its crossing takes just a small part of “Rogue Moon”. Even in that case what really matters is the effect on the characters because the achievement isn’t seen by the author as a scientific breakthrough but as a rite of initiation.
For Budrys the point of an initiation is to change yourself and in “Rogue Moon” this concept should be taken more literally than ever as the transporter described in the novel creates a new copy of its user. The inner change however can be reached by the characters only after a great effort and also contrasts with what are supposed to be their colleagues.
When “Rogue Moon” was written it was still common to find in science fiction stories flawless and fearless heroes who worked together to achieve a common goal, in this case instead Budrys implements some features more typical of the noir genre in a science fiction story. Therefore we have a group of anti-heroes full of flaws who have their own goals and motivations:
- Edward Hawks is a cold scientist who’s only interested in discovering the secrets of the labyrinth, no matter how many people must be sacrificed.
- Al Barker seeks the ultimate challenge, no matter how many risks he needs to take or how bad the injuries he suffers. He’s an “alpha male” and he wants to always be the best in everything he does. He’s the most suitable to bear the experience of death because after all he’s already insane so he can’t go crazy again.
- Claire Pack uses sex as a tool to manipulate men. She’s Al Barker’s woman for her convenience but she flirts with other men.
- Vincent Connington is theoretically Edward Hawks’ boss but as decisions concerning the project are now being taken by the military he must find other ways to manipulate the people around him to satisfy his thirst for power. He tries to take Claire Pack from Al Barker, not because he feels anything for her but because he’d consider it an important victory.
The tension in the novel is caused more by the fighting between the characters than by the attempts to get to the end of the maze. Just like the men who enter the alien structure see different things, the characters see the fulfillment of that goal in different ways depending on what it will bring them.
The clashes occur particularly between Hawks and Barker, the two people who must work most closely. The more Hawks reminds Barker that his job is to kill him repeatedly the more Barker is determined to go ahead with the challenge. The climax arrives in an ending that’s also a mental trip of the kind that would be seen years later in “2001: A Space Odyssey”.
Algis Budrys could have developed the topics of the creation of people’s copies and the experience of death further but perhaps the novel would have become too long by the standards of the time – it’s under 200 pages – and it would have been difficult to maintain the tension at a level of such intensity. Anyway “Rogue Moon” is a classic and especially people who prefer stories based on characters to hard science fiction will appreciate it a lot.