ALGIS BUDRYS AND
THAT OLD DEVIL MOON
An alien structure on the Moon,
which kills people. Is there more to
ALGIS BUDRYS’ classic SF novel
‘ROGUE MOON’ than that…?
Maybe something to do with a
metaphor for death and resurrection…?
Andrew Darlington re-reads the novel to find out.
‘The old devil moon – a timeless symbol for the lover’s
ecstasy, a vast frontier for the adventurer’s curiosity’
‘Now man had actually reached the moon – and on it the explorers found a structure, a formation so terrible and incomprehensible that it couldn’t even be described in human terms. It was a thing that devoured men – that killed them again and again in torturous, unfathomable ways.’ This is the luring blurb that seduced me into buying the 1960 Gold Medal Books edition of ‘Rogue Moon’. The Algis Budrys novel was considerably redrafted from its original form as “The Death Machine”, and as a serial in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ (April and May 1961). Some critics claim the results are a pristine example of genre symbolism, exploring metaphysical aspects of death and resurrection. Originally, on that first teenage reading, I was simply hung on its inventive and gripping narrative set around the investigation of the lethal alien labyrinth. There’s no galaxy-spanning empires or hyperdrive starships. It’s subtler than that. But it’s more than either claim too.
There’s an enigma on the Moon, ‘we don’t even know what to call that place. The eye won’t follow it, and photographs convey only the most fragile impression. There is reason to suspect it exists in more than three spatial dimensions. Nobody knows what it is, why it’s located there, what its true purpose might be, or what created it. We don’t know whether it’s animal, vegetable, or mineral. We don’t know whether it’s somehow natural, or artificial. We know, from the geology of several meteorite craters that have heaped rubble against its sides, that it’s been there for, at the very least, a million years. And we know what it does now: it kills people.’
Inside, it is ‘Alice In Wonderland with teeth.’ Arthur C Clarke had already written a short story “The Sentinel” in 1948, which was collected into his ‘Expedition To Earth’ (Ballantine, 1953). It, too, deals with the discovery of an ancient alien structure, a many-faceted tetrahedron on the Moon’s Mare Crisium. A complete tale in itself, it nevertheless contains the seeds of the eventual movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). It shares with ‘Rogue Moon’ a tendency to certain abstract preoccupations that could be deemed profound. But little more. Densely written – even overwritten, the Budrys novel is a well-structured narrative with greater psychological character interplay than the SF reader was used to at its time of publication. Yet it’s effortlessly readable.
‘Relationships between people are a complicated thing’ explains Dr Edward Hawks, Budrys’ protagonist in the novel. Although conversations are frequently less dialogue than lengthy chunks of monologue, an early chat-sequence delineates the complex bond, and sniping antagonisms that unite and contrast its characters. James Blish once suggested they’re all certifiably insane. Certainly they’re all rigidly set in tight behaviour patterns. Scientist Hawks is the cool calculating analyser. He’s an emotionally detached man who ‘sees the whole world as cause an’ effect. And the world’s consistent, explained that way, so why look for any further?’
While Al Barker, who becomes his test-subject probing into the lunar structure, is not only ‘a wonderful machine made out of gut and hickory wood,’ but also a deeply cynical and unpleasant person. Descended from Mimbreño Apache grandparents, but Ivy League educated, he’s an alpha-male keyed with macho attitude. The interactive character-chemistry between the two is vital to an unusual degree in what Budrys once termed the ‘pocket universe’ of SF. It’s essential for the plot that Barker has certain qualities – his ‘neurotic personality constellation’ makes him ‘useful on a functional level.’ More than simply courage. But that death, or at least the threat of death, holds an attraction for him. He is ‘a new kind of man’, a man impassioned by death. Hawks sums the equation defining himself and Barker as ‘you’re a suicide, I’m a murderer.’
Vincent ‘Connie’ Conningham is the personnel man who brings them together. He’s a manipulator who sets up human confrontations as though they’re moves in a chess-game, while seeking out exploitable weakness. He knows people ‘like a chemist knows valences. Like a physicist knows particle charges. Positive, negative. Atomic weight, ‘tomic number. Attract, repel, I mix ‘em.’ He takes ‘a raw handful of people’ and ‘make isotopes out of it – I make solvents, reagents – an’ I can make ‘splovices too, when I want.’ While Claire Pack provides the unstable ingredient triangulating them. She’s an ‘elemental – the rise of the tides, the coming of the seasons, an eclipse of the Sun.’ She may ‘walk in beauty, like the night,’ but she’s also a predator taunting and teasing, using sexual attraction not only to test men’s limits, but to reinforce her own self-image. She remains with Barker – as a warrior’s woman, by right of conquest. With Claire ‘forewarned is not forearmed.’ While the four of them are all warily probing and testing each other, gauging vulnerabilities.
Detail is meticulous. Chapter two consists of an encounter in a rundown general store gas station as Hawks walks back towards the city from Barker’s remote and inaccessible property. With the observational precision of a mainstream novel, each facet is related, from the empty store, to Hawks’ indecision. He opens up the cooler’s lid ‘looking down at the bottles inside. They were all some local brand, bright orange and glassy red, up to their crowns in dirty water. Saturated paper labels had crawled up the sides of some of them. A chunk of ice, streamlined down to a piece like a giant rat’s head, bobbed in one corner, speckled through with the same kind of sediment that formed a scum on the bottles.’ Then there’s a girl who pulls in for gas, and the suspicious slob store-keeper who’d been ‘catchin’ forty winks’ out back. He appears and leers at the girl. So Hawks intervenes, to be rewarded with a lift back to Continental Electronics, and by a date with Elizabeth Cummings.
Such care, and forensic attention to the nuance of detail, matters. If the involved character interplay can occasionally take on Soap Opera aspects, this also gives the novel its authentic human spine. The way the complicated pressures acting on Hawks for success are delineated, balancing the results in terms of the cost in human victims, and in the termination of the project if it fails. Every aspect is elaborated. Hawks doesn’t simply walk across the carpet, he walks across the ‘bristly’ carpet. He doesn’t just step through the door, he ‘knocked once on the featureless mahogany sheet of Cobey’s door, opened it and went through.’ And when he sits down for an interview with Continental’s president, he does so ‘adjusting the crease in his trousers.’ Later, lights don’t come on, ‘the studio’s overhead fluorescents tittered into light.’
The protective suit Barker will wear to be beamed to the moon is wrought, as illustrated by Budrys’ extended metaphor, as the invincible suit of armour created by Merlin the Magician for Sir Galahad, which ‘will not fail, upon some field, against some lance unknown to your devising.’ The field will be the lunar surface. The lance unknown to his devising is the lethal alien structure he has yet to face…
--- 0 ---
‘You thought then you’d already felt the surest death
of all. You hadn’t. I have to do it once more’
Algirdas Jonas Budrys was born 9 January 1931, in Königsberg, a medieval city in what was then East Prussia, but which would be almost completely levelled by waves of Allied aerial bombing in 1944. Fortunately, in 1936 his family had moved to the USA where his father served as Consul General for the Lithuanian Government-in-Exile. To previous generations of Eastern European émigrés to America – including Isaac Asimov, the new world provoked enticing images of future wonders. Its possible New York had the same effect on young Budrys. ‘I often walked when I was a boy’ explains Hawks, in a passage that seems autobiographical. ‘I had many things to think about. I couldn’t understand the world, and I kept trying to discover the secret of living successfully in it. If I sat in a chair at home and thought, it worried my parents. There were times when they thought it was laziness, and times when they thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know what it was. If I went somewhere else, there were other people who had to be accounted to. So I walked to be alone with myself. I walked miles. And I couldn’t discover the secret of the world, or what was wrong with me. But I felt I was coming closer and closer.’
He briefly assisted his father, then worked for American Express before becoming Assistant Editor with ‘Galaxy Publications’ in 1953. He doubled for ‘Gnome Press’, then moved on to join ‘Playboy Press’ as book editor. Next, with Frederik Pohl acting as Literary Agent, his first two short stories were published simultaneously, with “The High Purpose” – illustrated by Pawelka, in ‘Astounding SF’, the same month as “Walk To The World” appeared in ‘Space Science Fiction’ (November 1952). His work continued appearing alongside those of Robert Sheckley and Philip K Dick, gathering a leading reputation as part of what Robert Silverberg calls ‘a rush of gifted newcomers,’ a 1950’s influx of SF writers bringing new literacy, mordancy and grace to a genre not previously known for such qualities.
Three novelettes and four of his short tales were gathered into a first collection, ‘The Unexpected Dimension’ (Ballantine, 1960) – reviewed as ‘cerebral’ by Leslie Flood in ‘New Worlds’ (no.118, May 1962). Flood perceptively notes that, ‘often ambiguously conclusive, each of these stories utilises a familiar science fictional idea for its framework, but immediately penetrates to the deeper issues involved.’ An observation equally applicable to ‘Rogue Moon’. Flood adds that ‘a grimly ironic but highly logical twist’, extends ‘a vastly intriguing human (or in one case, robot) problem, subject to the stresses of violence and hatred, love and humanity, oppression and tyranny, freedom and justice.’ The robot story is “First To Serve” (‘Astounding SF’, May 1954) about the creation of a military robot superior to humans, which, it is ultimately decided, it too terrible to be allowed to exist. And “The End Of Summer” – from ‘Astounding SF’ (November 1954), which was also anthologised into the prestigious ‘Penguin Science Fiction’ (1961), where editor Brian Aldiss described it as a ‘brilliant account of one of the chief drawbacks to immortality.’ With radiation inducing cellular regeneration, memory-loss became a by-product of that regrowth, so that 1,000-year olds carry portable memory spools.
But the selection also indicates how well Budrys can use the technique of understated suggestion. “The Distant Sound Of Engines” takes up barely six pages, a tale originally featured in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’ (March 1959). Lenny, the narrator lies in a hospital bed. As a result of an auto accident his legs have been amputated. In the next bed, a heavily-bandaged burns victim, continually sedated, raves to him of impossible fantasies. Lenny once worked in a diner where he trained himself to memorise orders, then promptly forget them. He listens to the man’s formulas and theorems, and then erases them from his memory. It’s never explicitly stated that his companion is an alien survivor from a UFO-wreck, that the priceless data he’s attempting to transfer is being so casually discarded. No, Lenny is more concerned with planning out new driving routes across America. It’s a breathtakingly concise sleight of hand.
Around the same time, publishing his story “Yesterday’s Man” in the launch issue of ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ (March 1958) UK editor John Carnell notes that Budrys is ‘a paradoxical young man – as muscularly handsome as the hero of any science fiction story, but so quietly self-effacing that his hair-raisingly powerful writing style is a distinct surprise to many readers.’ Some of his other earlier stories, exhibiting these qualities – such as “The Congruent People” (in ‘Star Science Fiction no.2’, 1953) appeared as by AJ Budrys, while, in keeping with other writers of the time, he used numerous aliases, including Frank Mason, David C Hodgkins, Albert Stroud, Alger Rome (for his collaborations with Jerome Bixby), John A Sentry (an Anglicisation of his Lithuanian name), and William Scarff (used in ‘Tomorrow Speculative Fiction’). He was also both Ivan or Paul Janvier (for his ‘Gus’ stories), including the evolutionary theme of a lone esper telepath in “Nobody Bothers Gus” (1955) and its sequel “And Then She Found Him” (1957).
The latter was featured in a second collection, ‘Budrys’ Inferno’ (aka ‘The Furious Future’, Berkley, 1964 – reviewed in ‘Galaxy’ February 1965) alongside “Lower Than Angels” – ‘A Novel You’ll Remember’, previously cover-blurbed on ‘Infinity Science Fiction’ (no.5, October 1956) with a striking Emsh cover. While in “Dream Of Victory” (‘Amazing Stories’, August-September 1953) androids re-civilise the world after civilisation’s fall, only to find themselves usurped as humans struggle back, and “Between The Dark And The Daylight” (1958) which uses colonists genetically-engineered with tusks and claws to survive the rigours of a hostile world. Another story, “Silent Brother” (1956) – initially published as by Paul Janvier, deals with a benign alien symbiant. Michael Moorcock reviews the collection twice under his ‘James Colvin’ alias, reaching outside of what Budrys terms the ‘root-bound view of SF’ (in which SF writers are only compared to other SF writers) to write about “The Man Who Tasted Ashes”. He identifies ‘vague overtone of Graham Greene, with its central character a disgraced minor diplomat living in Washington who’s commissioned by an alien race to kill a foreign ambassador and start WW3.’ Moorcock declares it ‘perhaps the best story, with a good twist’ (in ‘New Worlds’ no 143, July-August 1964, a review of the Panther paperback follows in no.163, June 1966).
Never less than a prodigious talent and a master short story craftsman, his non-fiction work – erudite book reviews and authoritative essays are also highly regarded. He first contributed critical prose to Horace Gold’s ‘Galaxy’ from 1965-1971 (collected into ‘Galaxy Bookshelf’, 1985). One essay playfully draws comparisons between the work of his own aliases – Paul Janvier and John A Sentry, and ‘the mainstream’! (April 1965). The column later transferred to ‘Fantasy & Science Fiction’, collected into three Ansible Editions volumes, ‘Benchmarks Continued: 1979-1982’ (2012), ‘Benchmarks Revisited: 1983-1986’ and ‘Benchmark Concluded: 1987-1993’ (both in 2013). While his editing skills were apparent in the ‘Tomorrow Speculative Fiction’ magazine series which appeared annually 1993-1997, and more controversially the ‘Writers Of The Future’ anthology series 1985-2000. Although they appeared through L Ron Hubbard’s Bridge Publications, he nevertheless used the series to promote many worthy new talents.
For those who care about such dubious awards, ‘Rogue Moon’ (1960), his novel most regularly singled out for critical praise, was narrowly beaten in the Hugo stakes only by Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’. And, although ‘Rogue Moon’ was adapted into a 1979 radio drama by Yuri Rasovsky, Budrys’ ‘Who?’ (Pyramid, 1958) probably reached an even wider audience. Four months after a disfiguring K-Eighty-Eight explosion, American weapon-scientist Dr Lucas Martino is handed back by his Soviet captors, wearing a gleaming steel skull. It’s left to US security to verify that the man in the iron mask, ‘this ball-bearing on legs’, is actually who he claims to be. Martino himself faces an identity crisis, resolved by a proto-Ballardian acceptance through finding a new persona based on what he’s become, rather than what he’d been. Again, there’s more than just Cold War mind-games here. Hilary Bailey asks ‘the remaining mystery to my mind is still how Penguin justified publishing this psychological spy story under an SF label (in ‘New Worlds’ no.147, February 1965), while critic John Clute claims the novel ‘quite successfully grafts an abstract vision of the subjection of man to existential tortures onto an ostensibly orthodox SF plot.’ It was translated into a 1973 espionage movie directed by Jack Gold, starring Joseph Bova as Martino, with Trevor Howard as Russian interrogator Colonel Anastas Azarin, and Elliott Gould as American intelligence agent Sean Rogers.
As all this indicates, with Algis Budrys, very little is straightforward…
--- 0 ---
‘A man is a phoenix, who must be reborn from his own ashes,
for there is no other like him in the universe. If the wind stirs
the ashes into a clumsy parody, then the phoenix is dead forever’
Yet even halfway through the book, none of the central characters has so far set foot on the moon. The alien structure, 100-metres diameter and 20-metres high, is located on the moon’s dark side. During the Cold War time of superpower rivalry in which it was written, this lunar hemisphere was still unseen. The Soviet flyby probe Luna 3, launched in October 1959, brought the first blurry glimpses of the Moon’s far side, although SF had already populated it with some playful fantasies. So Budrys’ tale was current. In the novel, no manned rockets, either Soviet or American, have made a landing. The Neil Armstrong moment has yet to come. Instead, following a chance photo taken by a stricken US probe, the alien structure was detected, and Continental Electronics’ experimental matter-transmitter was adapted to reach it, before the Russians could.
Unmanned rockets drop components to the lunar surface, through which technicians are beamed to construct a base. When Budrys describes the test-station they’re projecting from there’s an impression that he’s envisioned it completely. That the operatives are moving around within a fully thought-out environment. But there’s more to the writing than the strictly descriptive. The teleport technology itself was not innovative, even the famous movie based on George Langelaan’s ‘The Fly’ (1957) preceded it. But Budrys took the idea further. Although it predicts ‘Star Trek’s beam-me-up technology, it’s interpreted as a form of death and rebirth. There’s an intriguing, but largely unexplored sub-plot in which Hawks replaces a member of his team – Sam Latourette, who has terminal cancer. Sam offers to have ‘a dupe of me run off from my file tape’, presumably for posthumous use. So, after his death, new Latourettes could be duplicated! This potential form of immortality remains unexploited.
In earlier eras of SF, Space Heroes confronting an alien enigma on the Moon’s surface, would simply resolve the issue by using atomic cannons and hand-blasters. For Budrys they must rely on resourcefulness, intuition, and the correct psychological mindset. Because it’s more intellectual puzzle than it is fast-action romp. As Barker prepares for his first projection, he’s briefed on the fate of previous test-subjects who were killed or driven insane by entering the structure, ‘thus far, we have a charted safe path and safe motions to a distance of some twelve meters. The survival time for a man within the formation is now up to three minutes, fifty-two seconds.’ Barker is to be computer-mapped on Earth, the data beamed up, and instantaneously reconstructed by the lunar receivers. But in Budrys’ system the anaesthetised original subject – Barker L, stays on Earth as the receiver forms a series of doppelgangers on the Moon – Barker M’s, with a mental link connecting them.
To Barker, it represents both a gladiatorial contest, and a game of chicken. A challenge to his alpha-status, for a man ‘must never be afraid to meet the tests of his manhood.’ His first venture, and first death, is related only through tense and freighted subsequent dialogue exchanged in Barker’s remote and inaccessible property where their first tense meeting had taken place, and as the four-way sexual intrigue explodes into violent confrontation around him. Despite Barker nearly beating him to pulp, Claire leaves Barker, and heads East with Connington, apparently breaking her own code. Who the victor now? While only gradually Barker reveals the existential truth that the structure doesn’t respect his definition of masculinity, that it doesn’t care about his individuality, instead ‘I was… no-n-nothing!’ When each of his subsequent duplicates on the Moon is killed in turn, progressively surviving 4:38, 6:12, 6:39 and 7:12 minutes, Al Barker back on Earth experiences and remembers each death.
Finally, as durations go up to 7:49, 8:31 and 9:30 minutes, Hawks joins Barker in teleporting to the moon. For seven pages of the ninth chapter the prose flares up from 1950’s monochrome into full-colour psychedelic phantasmagoria as the two make their way through the deceptively shifting labyrinth, to emerge successfully from its far side. Arthur C Clarke’s “The Sentinel” evolves from its short story seed through successive stages into the full hallucinogenic symbolism of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Budrys lunar artefact is not like that. It’s a different kind of story. There’s no attempt to explain, or seriously question the obsidian hulk’s enormous puzzle, its construction or purpose. No theory is offered. It exists to be the catalyst for the characters. Meanwhile, those on the moon can never return to the Earth. They have become shadows, zombies, the living dead. So, switching the original ‘you’re a suicide, I’m a murderer’ equation, it is Hawks who deliberately ends his life. While the Hawks and Barker on Earth reach a kind of understanding.
When it was reissued as one of Gollancz ‘SF Masterworks’ series, David Pringle recognises the novel’s long-term influence, pointing out that its ‘potent motif would echo throughout SF, from Robert Silverberg’s ‘The Man In The Maze’ (1969), Philip K Dick’s ‘A Maze Of Death’ (1970) to Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Peace On Earth’ (1994) (in ‘The Ultimate Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction: The Definitive Illustrated Guide’, 1996).
Yet Budrys had fallen into novels via an abbreviated version of a longer post-catastrophe manuscript published as ‘False Night’ by Lion Books in December 1954 (preceded by the sixth chapter appearing as the short story “Ironclad” in ‘Galaxy SF’ March 1954). The full text was revised as ‘Some Will Not Die’ (1961), in which a sequence of protagonists chart the future of a plague-decimated America. By then ‘Man Of Earth’ (Ballantine, 1958) had already appeared – ‘a fascinating Science Fiction novel of a man who chose his own physical structure’ set on a terraformed Pluto. Then came ‘The Falling Torch’ (Pyramid, 1959) – ‘He Had To Free An Enslaved Planet – Or Die!’, in which an Alpha Centauri colony struggles to liberate home-world Earth from its alien conquerors. Again, superficially hard SF adventure, some have interpreted it as a Cold War allegory with its roots in the fate of his own homeland. Caught up in shifting post-war geopolitics, Königsberg had by then been annexed as an exclave of the Russian Federation, as Kaliningrad.
Following ‘The Amsirs And The Iron Thorn’ (Fawcett, 1967, expanded from a serial in ‘If’) – featuring a genetically-controlled colony on Mars, and a decade’s gap, his next novel ‘Michaelmas’ (Berkley/Victor Gollancz, 1977) adds thriller elements to cyberpunk anticipations of the internet. Its media-figure title character Laurent is cerebrally plugged-into gestalt AI Domino, linking him to every electronic communications network in the world. Despite a largely favourable reception, it was only after a period working on the ‘Writers Of The Future’ project, that Budrys delivered what was to be his final novel, ‘Hard Landing’ (Bantam, 1993), tracing the melancholy fates of stranded UFO humanoids as they fade into Earth’s societies under various guises.
To John Clute, writing before his subject’s death, Budrys ‘is a congenial, sociable man in public, his friends are many. He faintly resembles Michaelmas, the quiet, portly and deeply intelligent reporter in the novel that takes his name, and who is revealed to be the secret, compassionate ruler of the world. But there is another side to Algis Budrys, which comes out in novels such as ‘Who?’ and ‘The Falling Torch’ and ‘Rogue Moon’. These are austere, intricate, bleak tales, in which the obsessed, solitary heroes tackle metaphysical and political problems of the darkest hue, and triumph only ambiguously’ (‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia’, 1995).
Algis Budrys died aged 77, on 9 June 2008, a writer perhaps more respected by his peers than loved by the wider literary audience. He was a writer’s writer. That seems more than enough.