Algis Budrys’ 1960 Rogue Moon is a stand-alone science fiction novel that time has inconsiderately transformed from near-future/contemporary to a period piece.
Dr. Edward Hawks has a difficult task in front of him. Having consigned individual volunteers to madness and death, he now needs to consign a single person to an astonishing number of deaths.
America needed to beat the Reds to the Moon. American rockets could not deliver the materials needed to establish a base. The Navy1 delegated the task to Continental Electronics. Continental Electronics solution was a teleporter … of sorts.
Barely had ConEl’s device facilitated the creation of a Moon base when Americans discovered that their base was smack dab next to an enigmatic alien artifact. The second thing they discovered about the artifact is that the device is extraordinarily good at turning living men into dead men. Thus far, every man who stepped into its maze-like interior provoked a lethal response.
Under other circumstances, ConEl might have set investigation aside. However, their teleporter is the scan and duplicate variety2. Even better, copies of men remain in telepathic contact until their experiences diverge. With the man on Earth in sensory deprivation, contact with a lunar explorer can be maintained until death.
The catch is that men do not react well to death, even if only via a telepathic link. The copies revived on Earth invariably go mad, reducing their utility as reliable witnesses. What Hawks needs is a man he can kill over and over, without shattering the fellow’s mind. Judging by the legions of the mad he has so far produced, such men are rare.
Enter Al Barker, war-hero, adventurer, and compulsive thrill-seeker. The Mimbreno Apache has done very well from his adventures (at the cost of a leg). A challenge like the enigma and the guarantee of repeated death is irresistible to Al. Whether Al can survive the experience, only time can tell.
Over and over, an Al Barker emerges from the lunar receiver. Each copy enters the mystery. Each copy gets a little farther than the previous version. If there’s path through the artifact, perhaps Al can find a way through. If there is no exit, then all America may determine is how hard it is to break a man like Al Barker.
I try to be inclusive in phrasing but this is set long ago, and the people America sends to the Moon are all men. This isn’t to say women don’t exist or that they don’t play important roles. Indeed, one of the most astonishing moments of the book involves women. Because attempts to paraphrase sounded like spiteful parody, I will quote at length:
“Women — ” he said earnestly, “women have always fascinated me. As a kid I did the usual amount of experimenting. It didn’t take me long to find out life wasn’t like what happened in those mimeographed stories we had circulating around the high school. No, there was something else — what, I don’t know, but there was something about women. I don’t mean the physical thing. I mean some special thing about women: some purpose that I couldn’t grasp. What bothered me was that here were these other intelligent organisms, in the same world with men, and there had to be a purpose for that intelligence. If all women were for was the continuance of the race, what did they need intelligence for? A simple set of instincts would have done just as well. And as a matter of fact, the instincts are there, so what was the intelligence for? There were plenty of men to take care of making the physical environment comfortable. That wasn’t what women were for. At least, it wasn’t what they had to have intelligence for. But I never found out. I’ve always wondered.”
As the text makes clear, Al Barker’s determinedly seductive lover Claire and Hawks’ long-suffering girlfriend Elizabeth do have interior lives. Unfortunately, there’s no way to send an Al into their minds over and over to determine what those interior lives might consist of. However, it was not at all a given that authors or characters of this period would perceive women could exist for reasons not focused entirely on reproduction, so points to Budrys’ character for acknowledging that they seem to, even if he cannot work out why3.
The ineffable mystery that is women aside, this is the sort of book in which men discuss Very Important Subjects — LIFE! DEATH! PURPOSE! HUMAN RESOURCES! — through the medium of portentous monologues. These make up a good fraction of the text. That text is extremely compact (depending on the edition, as little as 159 pages), and the speeches cannot slow down the breakneck pace4. What would have been intolerable at 600 pages is hardly noticeable at 159.
Rogue Moon was nominated for a Hugo, losing to Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade placed slightly higher in the voting, while Harry Harrison’s Deathworld and Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X placed lower. Honestly, the Miller deserved the win, but I don’t know that I’d have ranked The High Crusadeover Rogue Moon.
1: Presumably each service had its own secret Moon program.
2: Destructive scanning. The man who steps into the scanner is not the man who steps out. He is a copy of the man who was evaporated during scanning. As well, there is no way (or real reason) to retrieve men from the Moon. The men on the Moon try very hard not to think about their personal long-term prospects.
Why consign men to lingering deaths? Beating the Reds was very important to the characters but more importantly to Budrys. Budrys’ father was Jonas Budrys, who among other roles was Consul of Lithuania (1928 – 1964). At the time this novel was published, Lithuania was still occupied by the Soviet Union.
3: He does not seem puzzled as why men have intelligence not entirely bound up in reproduction. I feel like he is very close to an important epiphany.
4: Despite his limited page count, Budrys finds space to address apparent plot-holes, such as why the US doesn’t send radio-controlled machines through the killamajig. The enigma is radio-opaque. Every “why don’t they just — ” that I could conceive was effectively rebutted.