Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys was published in 1960. It was nominated for the 1961 Hugo Award – but lost to A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller jr. Generally, it seems I do not rate award-winning science fiction books very highly. I do wonder if this is because I subconsciously expect awesomeness and therefore raise the bar unconsciously when reading them. I know some people might suggest that some of these novels are “dated” and that’s why I don’t “like” them, but that’s not the case. I have no problem with novels being “dated.” I have had this on my to-be-read list for a trillion billion years and I even started it and made it to page 60. Then I got aggravated with it and chucked it aside for months and months. Finally, I picked it up again.
I was most interested in the novel not because it was a Hugo nominee, but because of the author. Budrys is a Lithuanian-American. This is significant to me. Also, this past year I have been reading a lot of Eastern European writers. For example, Bulgakov, Goncharov, Nabokov, Lem, et al. I have another novel by Budrys that I intend to read – the fact that I did not love this novel did not put me off of the author, but I can’t say that I was not disappointed with Rogue Moon.
I love the science fiction concept and idea that Budrys wants the story to tell. I want to have a 400-page novel about it and have it be really good. However, that seems to be the smallest part of this book, oddly enough. Instead, the novel is filled with the two-dimensional characters who are incredibly egotistical and who like to make speeches in each others’ presence. There are about four major characters in the novel. The main two are the daredevil macho man named Al Barker and the sullen scientist Edward Hawks. Many pages of the book take place at Barker’s mansion. I absolutely abhor all of these scenes and they are what made me drop the book in the first place.
Seriously, what happens is that these egotistical 2D characters lounge around the pool and the house grating on each others nerves and having temper tantrums. Barker’s girlfriend, Claire Pack, hangs out there. Much of the novel purports to explore her psychoses – and, as a reader, I disliked her immediately. She’s wretched. Now, I know that these scenes are supposed to be some sort of psychological exploration of these characters in the context that they are not the average, normal members of mass society. They are all “screwy” in their own way – so it is supposed to be interesting to see how they interact with each other and what their perspectives are on various topics. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Instead, I felt like I was at a really hideous pool party wherein only self-centered, immature wackos were invited. Their musings on topics is painful.
The main topic is the concept of man qua man. What is a man? And further, what is it for a man to die – what is the death of a man? This is really the whole point of the science fiction in the novel. Sure, the plot is somewhat about a large alien artefact found on the Moon. People enter and explore it, but are inevitably killed for violating the unknown alien rules in force within the structure. But this whole (and really cool) science fiction item is kept very vague and is only a plot device so that the characters can do self-discovery and ruminate on death.
“The thing is, the universe is dying! Bit by bit over the countless billions of years it’s slowly happening. It’s all running down. Some day it’ll stop. Only one thing in the entire universe grows fuller, and richer, and forces its way uphill. Intelligence – human lives – we’re the only things there are that don’t obey the universal law. . . . But our minds, there’s the precious thing; there’s the phenomenon that has nothing to do with time and space except to use them – to describe to itself the lives our bodies live in the physical Universe.” – pg. 167
That is the best quote, I think, in the novel. Don’t think that the novel is full of such insight. Sometimes, what seems profundity is really just navel-gazing. And while the rumination on what man is and how he dies in the universe can be philosophical, I really wanted the science to be there. I wanted to learn about the item on the moon. I wanted to be creeped out by alien technology and to read the scientific insights into how the artefact works. I wanted to see the humans discover, learn, and conquer. Instead, I am not entirely sure that they characters even conquer themselves. Maybe a little. I don’t know. The psychological aspects of people who are not the norm do not make good survey samples.
Overall, the novel is simply not what I expected. There are sections that are tedious and wretched. There are times when I feel the characters are preachy. In the end, I think that people who enjoyed this novel did so because they liked the light pseudo-philosophy running through it – and not the science fiction elements. However, the philosophy itself just isn’t enough for me to give this novel any good marks. The two stars is a gift. I just think it’s better than the 1 star books I’ve read.