Tuesday, 17 January 2012
‘Rogue Moon’ – Algis Budrys (Gollancz)
I’ve got a little backlog of ‘SF Masterworks’ books on the pile right now (I say ‘little’... some of those books are massive) and ‘Rogue Moon’ seemed like the best place to start in terms of chipping away at that particular sub-strata of the pile. Yep, it’s another short and sweet read; I should have time for thicker books from tomorrow onwards... :o( Having read ‘Rogue Moon’ last night I’m in two minds about the whole thing. There’s a lot for me to think about here, I don’t even know if I’ll come to a conclusion by the end of this review...
The US military has found a mysterious structure on the moon, a murderous labyrinth that no-one has yet been able to penetrate. With the military running out of volunteers only one man is seen as being up to the task. All his life, Al Barker has courted death in any number of ways and this mission on the moon could be just the challenge that his masculinity craves. Could it be though that Al has picked a challenge that even he can’t deal with? What is required of Al is not just that he die the once; Al will experience the trauma of dying over and over again...
‘Rogue Moon’ is a tough one to call, one that I suspect will be nagging away at my brain when I should be thinking about other stuff. There’s no doubt that ‘Rogue Moon’ is a masterful work but is it an ‘SF Masterwork’? I’m not sure.
‘Rogue Moon’ has its SF elements, there’s no question about it. How can it not when you’ve got an alien structure on the moon and people being beamed up, by matter transmitter, to take a look at it. The thing is though; ‘Rogue Moon’ isn’t so much about the science fiction as it is about the people trying to make sense of it all. In fact, the science fiction elements are shoved firmly (but politely) to one side to make room for the attention paid to the relationships between the main characters. It’s a move that pays off like you wouldn’t believe and I’ll go into that more in a bit. I think, if anything, that I was expecting something a little more ‘sc-fi centric’ from a book with ‘SF Masterwork’ emblazoned proudly on the cover. Does that mean it’s not an ‘SF Masterwork’ then? Not necessarily, using underlying SF concepts to bring out the human relationships so well (especially in terms of questioning human identity in a person who has been duplicated from the original source material) is definitely a master stroke here. What did I tell you? There’s a lot to think about here.
So, what have we got in the meantime? Like I said, the SF elements are in place and Budrys’ execution of these makes for a very thoughtful read that got me into the plot slowly but inexorably. On this side of things, ‘Rogue Moon’ is very much a book of two extremes with the matter transference technology detailed very carefully but the structure on the moon deliberately left very vague and ‘alien’. It’s an approach that works in terms of the emphasis on ‘alien’, especially when you find out just how arbitrary the structure is in terms of dealing out death. There’s no rhyme or reason to it and that’s how you can tell the approach works. What I did find myself wondering though was whether the technology was gone into in a little bit too much detail (especially for a book that’s only just over a hundred and seventy pages long). Reading about how technology works has always stumped me though, you might get a real kick out of these passages. The payoff at the end is deliberately understated; again to emphasise the ‘alien’ but also to draw attention to the final revelation of Dr Hawks, a man who it turns out knew a lot more than he ever let on...
The payoff is also understated to draw the focus onto the relationships that play out between Al Barker and Hawks in particular but also those of Connington and Claire. These moments are where the book steps up to another level entirely with the resulting discussion of identity on more than one level. We get to find out that some people will never change, the various iterations of Barker allow for a degree of self awareness on his part (thanks to Hawks) but he is ultimately the same person at the end as he was at the beginning. People can change as well though, Connington and Claire leave the novel in a different form to the way they entered and the question is whether they are the better for it. Hawks though... His character examination is one that provokes the most thought and, for me anyway, will continue to do so after the novel ends (which is why I can’t go into too much detail here). Budrys really seeks to lay bare everyone who appears in the novel and it is done with varying degrees of success in relation to his own obviously high standards here. On the whole it worked very well indeed for me.
Is ‘Rogue Moon’ an ‘SF Masterwork’ then? I’m going for ‘yes’ but it could just as easily be no (in terms of the thematic balance). I’d certainly be interested to see what others think. For me, ‘Rogue Moon’ is a very clear example of what the gentle application of science fiction elements can do to bring out the very best in the rest of the plot. The end result here is masterful.
Nine and a Half out of Ten