Years before Star Trek, Algis Budrys was thinking about transporters and considering the possibilities more deeply than many an adventure and horror writer who has called upon the idea of teleportation. But even so, molecular disassembly and reassembly of living men at a distance is only one tool in Mr. Budrys’ kit.
The primary metaphor of the book appears in the guise of a “death machine” found on the far side of the moon. So called because within minutes of entering the structure, all stalwart explorers suffer an unenviable fate.
The machine itself is vague, indefinite, multi dimensional. Once inside it, different men see different things: planes of light, crystal seas, veils of shadow and terror. The only certainty is that once inside, men die. Raise a hand above your shoulder and you die. Turn in the wrong cardinal direction and you die. Fall to your knees or crawl across the wrong bit of territory, you die. The rules are recordable, but otherwise incomprehensible.
At one point the characters equate themselves to insects crawling inside a discarded tomato can, an artifact as far beyond the ken of the ant as the alien structure is to man.
For me, the death machine is a metaphor for the universe itself. All men see the universe differently, all explore it or approach it in different ways. There are certain discernable rules about how the universe operates, but the one thing it does with unquestionable certainty is kill us, each in our own time and way.
Then there is Mr. Budrys’ transporter. Like many teleportation devices in speculative fiction, this one is a convenience to place explorers quickly on the moon, to place them there in numbers as expendable agents of a US still in the grips of a cold war with Russia. But there the similarity ends.
The writer of Rogue Moon recognizes that if you record enough information to recreate a man at a distance, if you tear him down molecule by molecule and reintegrate him in the next room or on another world, two important facts must follow:
First, the original man is destroyed. The reintegrated voyager is a duplicate, but a duplicate so exact that even the thoughts underway at the death of the original are completed in the brain of the newly built copy. The presence of a recreated lifetime of memories provides the illusion of continuity.
Second, in the act of teleporting there is no reason why the information gathered about the transportee cannot be recorded, even used again and again to resolve as many duplicates as needed.
These facts allow Rogue Moon to explore ideas about whether we are what we really think we are. How accurate are our memories? How true is our sense of a continuing self? And how frightening is death if the thing dying has only the illusion of having been alive?
But at its heart Rogue Moon is an exploration of character and spends more of its time in the personal lives and conflicts of Dr. Hawkes, Al Barker, Claire, and Connington than on the moon.
Each in their own way is extreme, manipulative, using the rest to accomplish their own impulsive or willful ends. And at the last, none shines as more human or “humane” than the rest. There is only the sense that they are us. They are us standing under the stars and looking up at the ultimate death machine, calling out defiantly to the universe that “one day, I or another man, will hold you in his hand.”
by Algis Budrys
Copyright © 1960 by Algis Budrys
Published by Nelson Doubleday
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