BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Copies of daredevil-with-a-death-wish Al Barker are sent to the Moon to explore a mysterious and deadly alien artifact.
PROS: The artifact was an intriguing puzzle; the story kept interest levels up.
CONS: Characterizations left something to be desired; too much character background and not enough puzzle.
BOTTOM LINE: A good book, but stick to the novella on which it was based.
People often wonder why movies are remade but fail to even realize that the same phenomenon happens in the world of publishing as well. Every now and then, a short story, novelette or novella will be expanded into a novel length story. So it was with Asimov’s “Nightfall” and “The Ugly Little Boy” (both expanded with the help of Robert Silverberg) and so it is with Algis Budrys’ “Rogue Moon”. The 1960 novella was expanded into a novel and nominated for the 1961 Hugo Award.
The premise is an intriguing one. A mysterious, alien artifact is found on the Moon and discovered to be deadly to anyone who enters it. With the help of duplicating technology, people are sent in to investigate it, usually dying within seconds of the last explorer. In this way, the artifact is mapped out little by little. The copies of the people maintain a mental link with their counterparts back on Earth, but unfortunately, that link often drives them insane. (Bummer.) The project’s lead scientist, Edward Hawks, thinks the solution is in the type of men that they are sending. So he finds Al Barker, a daredevil with a serious death wish. Barker is duplicated again and again as he explores the artifact and, ultimately, himself.
I read the novella some years back and had a mostly positive recollection of it (more later). I wanted to read the 180-page book length version because it was short and it was inspiration for the truly excellent short story “Diamond Dogs” by Alastair Reynolds. I kept the novella close at hand so I could occasionally do the compare/contrast thing.
First my impressions of the book.
Overall, this was a good story. The puzzle that is the artifact was very intriguing. (That’s the same thing I liked about “Diamond Dogs”, by the way.) Add to that the ability to duplicate people on the Moon and you get a nice healthy dose of wow factor. Some interesting issues are brought up with the duplication process. For example, is it ethical for a sick man to be perpetually reborn through duplication? Can the technology be used to self-perpetuate itself? All fun stuff to think about.
I did wish that this wow factor was a more integral part of the book. In the end, the alien artifact is just a Big Dumb Object (Hi, James!), but more damaging was that too much of the book centers on the characters of Hawks, Barker, Claire (Barker’s lover), and Vincent Connington (the personnel director). While their stories are somewhat interesting, I really wanted to see more of the BDO.
These were minor detractions. Overall, as I said, the story is a good one. But how does it stand up to the novella on which it was based?
The book expands on the novella by extending the dialogue or descriptions, re-ordering scenes and changing scenes entirely. In most cases, the changes made little or no difference. For example: on a date, Ed Hawks describes a point in his youth where he had to make a decision. In the novella, Ed had to choose between honesty and dishonesty in his attitude toward school. In the book, Ed was in Physics class with a poorly trained substitute and had to choose between taunting the teacher like the rest of the class, or trying to make the best and learn what he could. Is one of these better than the other? I didn’t think so.
One thing I remember from reading the novella is the awkwardness of the opening scenes where Hawks recruits Barker at Barker’s swinging bachelor pad. The scene reminded me then of a James Bond movie, replete with the requisite flirtatious, bikini-clad, nympho babe (Claire) lying on the diving board. Barker is a reckless daredevil who expends incredible amounts of energy to appear macho. Even Claire, admittedly the object of Barker’s conquest, comes off as unpleasant. I found these characters, and indeed most of them, unlikable – as if they are contentious just for the sake of being so. This book-length re-read only solidifies that memory.
Again, minor nits. Rogue Moon is a good book, but it does not add anything significant to the novella on which it was based. In fact, I’d go so far as to say read the novella version instead of the book.