Thursday, 4 March 2010

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys

This book was suggested to me long ago by James Gunn while I was attending the two week Workshop in Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. I was working on the story that became Looking Out For Number One and he spotted some similarity in subject matter, with the whole duplication as teleportation thing. Rogue Moon also has a strong reputation in SF circles as a neglected classic, and I've frequently seen it on lists of great SF novels of the past, so when I saw it in a second hand shop for $4 during my last trip to NZ I snapped it up (and what's more it's a first edition, albeit in poor condition).

Well, I'm glad I didn't read this novel back when I was trying to worm this story out, as I would have ended up wondering what the hell Jim was was on about. This is a dreadful book! Padded, pretentious and dull. It sets up an intriguing mystery - the killer wotsit on the Moon! - but then pretty much ignores it, and neither does it spend a lot of time on the the idea of duplication. Instead, we get talk, lots and lots of talk.

The characters spend a lot of time talking about themselves, about their lives and motivations. In fact, it's a lot like being stuck in a lift with a bunch of irritable coke heads unable to shut up about their tedious problems. "Oh I didn't like my Dad! I use sex as a weapon! Why does no one love me!" In chapter eight the sceince guy invites the girl he's met out on a date and then rants at her for seven pages about his life, after which she simperingly grasps his hand and offers sympathy. Jesus Christ, man, at least buy the poor girl a drink!

If I was to be really cynical about it, I'd suggest that all the suggestions of sex and martinis perhaps seemed daring to the straight-laced 1950s sci fi crowd. All this existentialism in the beach-side California setting brings to mind Big Sur by Jack Kerouac, but the characters here are not motivated by anything as understandable as lust or the desire to get loaded. In fact, it's hard to know what, precisely, they are being motivated by, as we only ever see them at teeth-clenching loggerheads, sometimes violently and aggressivley agreeing with each other in utterly baffling displays of bravado.

Well, look, I suppose there's something going on here about the construction of personality, how memories make us. The perfect duplicates quite quickly become separated from the original (symbolised here by a very dubious telepathic connection upon which the entire Moon exploration idea uncomfortably reposes), and the long existential monologues cover similar thematic ground, but this is really just a bunch of talking heads. We do not get to see the characters in action, they spend precious little time interacting with the fantastical elements at all, and I did not feel that the thematic elements were well meshed with the plot elements.

The whole Moon thing, in particular, seems utterly contrived; I couldn't understand how they built the receiving station on the Moon in the first place if they couldn't use rockets, and if they could use rockets, well, why not use rockets? The Moon object remains ambiguous. The questions about duplicates and identity are opened, but not resolved. The appeal and reputation of this novel elude me!

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