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Rogue Moon (SF) - Algis Budrys ****

This is arguably the most amazing science fiction novel of its period. Written in 1960, it was surely shocking at a time when the big SF sellers relied on characters that were so wooden and stock that they would have regarded Pinocchio as a real boy. It's not that Algis Budrys did away with those stock characters - we still get the obsessed scientist, the bitter hard-bitten antihero, the vamp and so on - but what he does with those characters is unprecedented.

The underlying premise of Rogue Moon has been reused by Hollywood quite a few times. It effectively crops up, for example, in The Prestige, Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow - one of the main characters repeatedly dies. In this case it is because a mysterious alien object found on the Moon kills everyone who enters it. An attempt at a solution is to use a (newly developed) matter transmitter to make two copies of a person, one who goes through the object and dies, the other of whom is still on Earth. The Earth copy somehow has the same memories as the one who dies, so should be able to feed back information - but it takes someone who is arguably a psychopath to survive this experience repeatedly, gradually getting further and further through the device.

Usually in these repeat death stories, the whole point of the storyline is to achieve whatever they are attempting to do. But in Rogue Moon, achieving the result is almost irrelevant. It's the consideration of the impact of the knowledge of impending death on the characters and the way that they interact that is central. In a hugely admiring review of the book, the SF author James Blish claims that every character in Rogue Moon is insane. I think that's an exaggeration - but they certainly all have serious issues. And unlike anything else of the period (think of Asimov's Foundation series, for example, where the characters are magnificently two-dimensional), the characters may still be wooden, but they spend most of their time analysing each other's behaviour. It's as if all these stock characters were psychoanalysed by the novel.

Women play a bigger part here than in most SF of the period, though by modern standards they are still primarily there to reflect on their interactions with men. Of around six main characters two are female - one the aforementioned vamp and the other Blish suggests is effectively her boyfriend's (the obsessed scientist's) mother figure, though given she's much younger comes across more to me as someone with a father fixation. Even so, the women do play a far more significant part than they did in many SF books of the time.

I only came to Rogue Moon when it was 61 years old - and obviously the way it reads to some extent reflects the way science fiction was written back then. But it is remarkable how different it is to the typical book of the period. Fascinating.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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