John DeNardo on SF Signal decries Algis Budrys' 1960 Rogue Moon for its character development and focus on existentialism, opining that “too much of the book centers on the characters of Hawks, Barker, Claire,, and Vincent Connington. While their stories are somewhat interesting, I really wanted to see more of the BDO.” It’s precisely superficial attitudes like this which have kept much of sf in the gutter, my friends. Gimme cool death machines rather than exploration of human nature… Yeah. But I get ahead of myself.
From its title to the central plot device, Rogue Moon is an enigma. Is it satire on the American system and what it demands of a person before they die? Is it a meditation on death from the point of view of numerous character types? Allegory to the subjectivity of existence and the variety of responses to that notion? Or just an obtuse idea presented as conceived without deeper significance?
Possessing something of the vivacity of Alfred Bester, the maddening enigma of Rogue Moon centers around a strange artifact discovered on the moon, and the death and psychosis it deals to anyone who enters it. Dr. Edward Hawks, employee of the US Navy, has been tasked with getting to the bottom of the mystery, and after numerous sailors succumb to the labyrinth, is forced to expand his search for a person with the right mindset to deal with the stress and threat the artifact wields. The daredevil Al Barker coming available, Hawks must deal with a flirtatious girlfriend and a private businessman before recruiting the devil-may-care stuntman. Personalities warring above and below the surface, the men’s innermost demons must be exorcised before getting to the heart of the alien device.
Heavily focused on character and character interaction, it’s natural that the average genre fan who reads Rogue Moon’s back cover blurb and its promises of excitement via the labyrinthian lunar killing machine will be disappointed once they actually get through the text.* Socially realist rather than squids in space, Budrys’ agenda is not lurid entertainment. Like Robert Sheckley, he deploys the devices of conventional genre toward a humanist agenda—at least, apparently.
The main preoccupation of Rogue Moon woud seem to be mortality (though how the title fits this I’ve yet to imagine). Hawks and Parker’s differing mindsets the focus, secondary characters nevertheless also weigh in on the alien device and its ultimate meaning. A jostling of personality ensuing, entering the labyrinth is whne the rubber hits the proverbial road, forcing a deeper reaction from those who enter, and what some might argue, a true representation of their personality. Ballardian before Ballard, Rogue Moon is a dense book with more than one unexplained element digging at the human psyche.
While interaction among the characters is occasionally a tad overdone (the dueling quotes from classics, for example), it’s possible, given the extended reality of the plot premise and other aspects, this was intentional. Budrys other books show more reserved, natural dialogue, indicating he knew what he was doing. This sense of ‘overdone’ is heightened by the fact all of the characters occupy stereotypical roles: the macho man, the booming Texas businessman, the glamour queen, the plain Jane, What then, was the purpose of the tone? Again, enigma.
While later films, like Saw and Cube, would turn the mysterious death machine into big-dollar entertainment, Budrys keeps the concept human-centric. Rogue Moon, by focusing its attention on the characters rather than plot devices, delivers a story which hovers in and around many significant topics, including mortality, personality strengths and weaknesses, and existentialism. Thought and emotion at the forefront, more time is spent discussing the meaning of the artifact than describing the grisly horrors it visits upon its victims, and thus will be a disappointment for readers looking for cheap thrills. (Looking at you, Mr. Denardo.)