Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, May 16, 2014

1960: Rogue Moon (Budrys, Algis)

How “control” can, itself, control a man (4/5)

I’ve gotta respect Algis Budrys on two fronts: (1) he was a prolific reviewer and critic, like my humble self but much a more informed opinion and (2) if he didn’t like a book, he would serve up some choice language to do so. I had known about Budrys through his critiques before I had bought any of his books, I had read his bio on Wikipedia and SF-Encyclopedia, and combed through his works on ISFDB. He had always interested me, but I could never get my hands on his most popular novel: Rogue Moon (1960). It’s fair to say that my expectations were high, and when Jesse urged me to pick it up, I dived into my stack (an almost literal “dive” considering my stack’s disarray) and plucked Rogue Moon from its horizontal recumbent state to a vertical reading state (like matter, books have many phases, you know).

Rear cover synopsis:
“During all recorded history she has hovered near the earth, a timeless symbol for the lover’s ecstasy, a vast frontier for the adventurer’s curiosity. Goddesses and Gibson girls have tripped the light fantastic of her surface while sonneteers and scientists have scanned her changing phases.

Now man had actually reached the moon—and on it the explorers found a structure, a formation to 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.

Earthbound were the only two men who could probe the thing—Al Barker, a suicidal maniac, whose loving mistress was Death, and Dr. Edward Hawks, a scientific murder, whose greatest mission was rebirth.”


Dr. Edward Hawks is a certified genius with credentials to prove it. His latest and most brilliant invention, the matter transmitter, is being funded by the Navy through the laboratories of Continental Electronics, a combination which leaves Hawks impervious to scrutiny and untouchable by criticism by the company president, Benton Cobey:

I came in here one morning, and found a letter on my desk informing me you're all at once a Navy commander and in charge of operating and maintaining the installation. Meaning you're in a position to demand from us, as a Naval officer, any equipment you, as one of our engineers, decide the installation needs. The Board of Directors won't tell me the basis for the funds they've allocated. The Navy tells me nothing. (62)

Hawks, himself, isn’t immune to the power he’s been granted. He plies his hand at human resources under his laboratory command, shifting his long-time comrade-in-lab-coats Sam Latourette from a senior technician in the project to an outside, unrelated project. With the baggage of history behind him, Hawks promotes a more junior technician, Ted Gersten (Sam’s top assistant), so that Hawks can have the intrinsic relief that that he’s in “total control of things” (61), something he insists he must have.

Orbiting his thoughts is his most recent subject for matter transmission, one ex-athlete named Al Barked, a man reputed to have a death wish, just a sliver on the lighter side of lunacy. Recommended by Vincent Connington, Continental Electronics' Director of Personnel, Hawks initially tagged along with Connington to the precariously perched house of Al Barker. As much as the house teeters on the edge of the cliff toward the ocean, so too does Barker stagger the wavy grey line of sanity. Much like Hawks, Barker is plagued by self-doubt (stemming from his leg amputation, hindering his career as an athlete) but rather than finding comfort in utter control in Hawks, Barker has lost himself in the a downward spiral. Assisted in this spiral of destruction is his comely yet coquettish live-in partner, Claire Pack, who shamelessly flirts with any and all men in her own web of control. Hawks is hesitant with her sultry advances, while Connington, on the other hand, chases her about the estate in a game of sexually shy cat and mouse.

Having enlisted Barker for the callous assignment which he knows very little about, Hawks leaves the tepid atmosphere of drunkenness and frolic. On his way back to town, he gets a ride from a woman named Elizabeth Cummings, with whom he forms an awkward relationship that revolves around her merely listening to his problems. As she accepts becoming a mental pincushion for Hawks, he misinterprets the power he has in the relationship as love and tells her of his love prior to including himself in the very experiment into which he has been sending Barker.

Hawks’ matter transmitter does not only scan, transmit and reproduce an item… “what the matter transmitter will do is tear you down and then send a message to a receiver telling it how to put you together again” (64). In tearing down the subject, the subject is essentially destroyed and two copies are created: one in the lab and one on the moon. The subject copied on the moon will not share the same atoms as the body back on Earth, yet they will share exactly the same memories, feelings, and flaws as the original. Due to some yet-to-be-understood phenomenon, the Earth-bound copy will receive undiluted sensations from the moon-bound copy—a form of telepathy.

So, what’s the catch?

Well, the matter transmitter is being used to produce copies of men, one-by-one, so that they can explore a mysterious moon construction which kills any intruder in savage, unexplainable ways. When Barker is copied on the moon, he has already been sent to a certain death, but just how and when he will die he does not know, but his body back on Earth will surely experience his own moon-bound death again and again. Barker will act as the chartmaker for the mysterious moon object, and Hawks’ is directly responsible for sending Barker into that formation so that it will repeatedly kill him… for the sake of science and whatnot. So far, only tentative data has been analyzed regarding the specific dimensions of the object and the actions of each chartmaker which causes their own death:

It is, for example, fatal to kneel on one knee while facing lunar north. It is fatal to raise the left hand above shoulder height while in any position whatsoever. It is fatal past a certain point to wear armor whose air hoses loop over the shoulders. It is fatal past another point to wear armor whose air tanks feed directly into the suit without the use of hoses at all. It is crippling to wear armor whose dimensions vary greatly from the ones we are using now. It is fatal to use the hand motions required to write the English word 'yes,' with either the left or right hand. (89)

As flummoxed as Hawks and Barker are at the sheer insanity of the object, they persist exploring it in order to find a way through. But to what end?


Hawks is a man divided by his professional role as a technocratic authoritarian and his personal role as a trouble mind in need of a sympathetic ear. However, in each role he is driven by the need for control, whether by direct manipulation of the project’s direction and funds or assuming the dominant position in a personal relationship. Hawks even says, himself, “Intelligent men pride themselves on their control” (61). Further into the conversation, Benton Cobey asks him, “And you have to have that? Total control?” to which Hawks states, “I have to have that” (61).

Metafictionally, perhaps speaking about his own plight or Budrys forcing it into the story, Hawks later speaks of the matter transmitter’s elaborate control gear, “By setting up crude analogies … we can introduce a certain measure of control” (70). One additional metafictional description of control in Rogue Moon comes courtesy of Vincent Connington: “[T]here's a pattern to life … I mean, there's got to be a pattern, or how could you control things?”, to which Hawks says uncertainly in his dilemma, “I can see that it might be necessary to believe that” (136).

Doing a quick content analysis (some graduate school habits die hard) on the text, one can see a variety of uses for the word “control” in relation to electronics: control array (9), control tape (49), control gear (69), control equipment (70 and 173), microphone switch controls (74), control console (75 and 76), control wheel (76), control knobs (141), and control circuit (149). Nearly all of these mentions of “control” involve either Hawk’s direct manipulation, inclusion to his field of vision or inclusion to his speaking (except for “control wheel” [76]).

Hawks’ need for power seems to extend into his speech, where he controls any dialogue through his use of soul-revealing monologue. This could be (1) and extent of his thirst for control or (2) Budrys’ bungled attempt at adding characterization through lengthy borderline-soliloquies. I desperately want the former posit to be true for sheer sake of convenience for my argument, but my instinct says that the latter is true: Budrys included monologues for not only Hawks, but also for Al Barker and Claire Pack (both of whom are in their own personal battles with control). These cascading monologues become tedious between pages 112 and 132 but they rear their head again and again. Though I have to hand it to Claire for her honesty with Hawks:

Why don't you just shut up, Hawks? What do you do, go through life making speeches? You know what you are, Hawks? You're a creep. A bore and a creep. A first-class bore. (123)

The seductive, flirty Claire Pack is an odd character. She may be firm with Hawks, berating him for his impassionate conversation and unabated disaffection for her but when she’s with the wounded pride of the maniacal Barker, she is putty to be molded. Not only molded, but also slapped around:

Barker's hand cracked over, and Claire fell back, holding her cheek. Then she grinned. "You've done better than that. You used to do a lot better. But that wasn't bad," she admitted … "Isn't he grand?" she said huskily to Hawks. "Isn't he a man?" (32-33)

Aside from bipolar Claire, there are only two other females in Rogue Moon and both play minor similarly submissive roles: the receptive but unfaceted Elizabeth Cummings and Vivian, a faceless and subservient secretary for Dr. Edward Hawks. With Claire or Elizabeth or Vivian, Hawks plays an awkward fellow, his digressive monologues perhaps indicative of his discomfort with women:

I've never been able to understand them [women] very well. I don't know why they do most of the things they do. I've— As a matter of fact, I've had a lot of trouble with women. (127)

When asked by his love interest why he doesn’t make love to her, he is startled by the remark and comments, "For Heaven's sake, Elizabeth, I don't know you well enough!” (128). From this conversation, one can extrapolate a few things: (1) he is so baffled by women because they don’t have control knobs or (2) he is in fact a homosexual more interested in the recurring deaths of Barker—itself, another form of control over another man.

Now… what of the fun-house of death on the moon? What symbolism of control does it have in regards to Hawks’ desire for power and Barker’s deathwish? Perhaps an analogy for life (try as you may, life can defeat you in a number of unforetold ways), for perseverance (keep controlling things and eventually all things will be ordered in a chaotic universe), for sexual experience (a swing and a miss, move on), or for control (confront and be flummoxed by an alien artifact which has none of the ergonomic conformities that human technologies have).


There are some tantalizing aspects of Budrys’ writing, be they intentional or accidental, cognizant or by freak occurrence. The monologues played well into Hawks’ push for control and the use of the word “control” at the hands and eyes of Hawks was a sublime touch. If these occurrences are by fine stoke rather than misstroke, then the rest of Budrys’ bibliographic looks just as enticing as all the nuances in Rogue Moon.


  1. I'm intrigued. :)

    I also note the third volume in Peter Hamilton's trilogy has yet to make an appearance. Have you given up? Your review of the second novel didn't seem negative enough to be entirely off-putting...

    1. Been putting it off, not because I expect it to be bad but because I expect it to consume 5-6 weeks of my reading time :(