“Intelligent men pride themselves on their control. They go to elaborate lengths to disguise their impulses—not from the world; they’re not hypocrites—from themselves. They find rational bases for emotional actions, and they present logical excuses for disaster. A man may begin a whole series or errors and pursue it to the brink of the pit, and over the brink, all unaware.”
“Life is a dead-end street.”—H. L. Mencken.
A large alien artifact appears on the Moon. There is a way to enter it, but perhaps no way to exit. Just what is it and how can it be navigated? This is the puzzle that is laid in the lap of Dr. Edward Hawks in Algis Budrys’ 1960 novel Rogue Moon. Hawks leads a secret project that has developed a matter transmitter. This transmitter is used to send “copies” of volunteers to the Moon to investigate the artifact. One by one, the copies are sacrificed inside of the object. See, there seems to be a pattern to the type of movements one can make in the artifact: turn slightly right here, don’t bend down there, look up here, don’t jump across that there. As each copy arrives on the Moon, the “original” is suspended in sensory deprivation back at Hawks’ lab. For some reason, this allows a psychic contact between the two that allows the original to experience everything the copy does, only survive to tell about it…sort of. It turns out that experiencing the death of your other self is enough to drive a person mad.
This unfortunate detail leads Hawks to search for the perfect man to volunteer for the project…perhaps a sociopath of some sort? The quest for a perfect death-defying man puts Hawks in close contact with a string of manipulative characters. First there’s Vincent “Connie” Connington, the head of personnel at Continental Electrics—the place that houses Hawks’ lab. Connie suggests that the perfect man for the job is one Al Barker, an adventurer who lusts for death. Barker is romantically paired with Claire Pack, a woman who uses sex to manipulate men and who forces Barker to continually prove himself to her. By the way, Connie lusts after Ms. Pack, so perhaps he has ulterior motives for suggesting Barker, eh? Well, it turns out that Barker is the right one for the job; he’s able to withstand watching his death over and over. But as he progresses through the maze, things get stranger and more disturbing. In particular, the landscape becomes littered with dead Barkers. And in the end, Hawks desires his own place in the mapping of the artifact. Good idea?
Budrys (1931-2008), a Lithuanian immigrant known for his deft short stories, crafted an unusual sf novel in Rogue Moon. Prefiguring the “inner space” stories that would come out of sf later in the 60s and 70s, Budrys’ work is literary and pulp-y simultaneously. He lingers on character development but is short on technological definition. Nonetheless, I found the work intriguing and a joy to read. In particular, the alien artifact fascinatingly prefigures modern video games: endless lives shed in a landscape that requires specific tasks to be performed in a specific way in order to reach a goal. Also, Budrys asks fascinating philosophical questions about the nature of self in this work. Are these “copies” perfect in every way? What does it mean if just one memory, say the color of a childhood home, is disturbed? Can it be said that the copy is accurate enough to be thought of as the same individual? And once the copy and the original diverge in experience, are they each unique individuals? Or is one just a distortion of the other? While Budrys gives the reader the tools to ponder these and other questions of personhood, he leaves it up to reader to decide the answers. Lucky us.
*Sigh* Out of print. Buy it used or get it from the library.