Goodreads review: “Rogue Moon” by Algis Budrys

Rogue MoonRogue Moon by Algis Budrys

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Warning: contains spoilers.

Although this novel was praised by Alfred Bester as “one of the finest flashes of heat lightning to dazzle us this year,” that is, the year 1960, and John Clute, in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, called it “now widely regarded as an sf classic,” I respectfully disagree.

I think there was a great SF story in there trying to get out, but it stood as much chance as an escape from Alcatraz. The author also seemed to be trying to write a different story than the SF one, and he failed at that, too.

Clute said the “perfectly competent surface narration deals with a hard-SF solution to the problem of an alien labyrinth, discovered on the Moon, which kills anyone who tries to pass through it.” Well, it aspired to being competent. Readers are shown some technology about the means to reach the Moon, or rather, the reader must wade through long monologues about the technology. This could have been a story with a lot of action. Instead it’s largely a collection of windy speeches: a lot of telling, not much showing.

In addition, the alien labyrinth on the Moon is a piece of nonsense once we get on the inside. Passing through it added no more meaning to the story than swimming through an alligator-filled moat. It’s a lost opportunity to create a transcendent story about an alien artifact that tells us something about our universe.

Clute also says, not unreasonably, that the means to get to the Moon, which involves creating two copies of a person, then killing one of them, “is a sustained rite de passage, a doppelgänger conundrum about the mind-body split, a death-pean.” Well, it aspired to being that, too. The idea isn’t really explored, however. Instead, various characters deliver long monologues about life, death, courage, and what it means to be a man (to be macho masculine, that is, not a human being).

For example:

“A man should fight, Hawks,” Barker said, his eyes distant. “A man should show he is never afraid to die. He should go into the midst of his enemies, singing his death song, and he should kill or be killed; he must never be afraid to die; he must never be afraid to meet the tests of his manhood. A man who turns his back — who lurks at the edge of the battle, and pushes others in to face his enemies –” Barker looked suddenly and obviously at Hawks. “That’s not a man. That’s some kind of crawling, wriggling thing.”

The reader will also find long, sometimes shouty, monologues in which men jostle over who is the sexually dominant alpha male. (What does this have to do with an alien artifact on the Moon?)

In addition, although Budrys gives us strong characterizations, those characters are deeply emotionally troubled, disturbingly self-destructive, and some of them might be sociopaths. They spend a lot of time (and speechifying) trying to hurt each other emotionally and sometimes physically in a vicious psychodrama that is a pointless sideshow to the actual SF story. Edward Albee could have written it, and probably less tediously.

Carl Sagan, in a 1978 article for the New York Times, called Rogue Moon one of the “rare few science fiction novels [that] combine a standard science fiction theme with a deep human sensitivity.” He seems to have read it as a boy, and I think children have such an intense, sensible hunger for big ideas with that they can be willing to overlook big ideas that are poorly presented. An adult might think otherwise: this is a could-have-been-good SF story that gets obscured by a different story, and both are badly told.

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