Imagine there was a novel which combined James Patrick Kelly's amazing short story "Think Like a Dinosaur" with Alastair Reynolds's brilliant novella Diamond Dogs. Imagine that novel was written in 1960 by a respected and influential science fiction author, editor, critic, and teacher with multiple Hugo and Nebula awards to his credit.
Now imagine how disappointed I felt when I finished reading Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys.
Rogue Moon tells the story of one Edward Hawks, Doctor of Science, who is running a secret teleportation project funded by the Navy. The teleportation device isn't a Trekian "transporter," rather it's a vacuum-tube-and-magnetic-tape version of an atomic scanner and 3-D "matter printer." The person, or object, to be transmitted is scanned — destructively — and converted to a signal which is then beamed to a receiver which reassembles it. They've even worked out a dodge (which becomes important) by which a second copy is assembled in the laboratory and popped into a sensory-deprivation tank to allow telepathic rapport with the transmitted copy.
Where are they transmitting people to? The Navy's secret Moon base, which was set up to study a bizarre and deadly alien structure found on the Lunar surface.
This isn't some far-future tale, by the way; it's pretty explicity set in 1960 or thereabouts.
The chief problem with the whole project is that the volunteers who get teleported to the Moon and try to enter the alien complex all die in horrible ways. The shock drives their "spare" copies on Earth mad. So not only are brave and highly-intelligent young men getting their minds destroyed, they aren't making any progress exploring the alien artifact/structure/whatever it is. Hawks is in danger of losing his funding.
Enter Al Barker. He's smart, arrogant, a war hero, Olympic skier, auto racer, and is literally suicidally reckless. He's perfect for the Moon project because he's been trying to kill himself for years. Barker's mind can handle the experience of dying repeatedly, until at last he makes his way past all the lethal deathtraps in the Moon complex, so that others can follow and begin studying it.
The Barker copy on the Moon has an epiphany about his life and gets over being suicidal, only to be informed by the copy of Hawks who has accompanied him on the final attempt that there's no way for them to teleport back to Earth and anyway there are already copies of themselves there, so they have to die now, one final time.
Okay, why was I disappointed? How can one not like a book about secret Moon bases, alien deathtraps, and retro-tech teleportation devices?
Simple: that's not what the book is about.
Seriously. We don't even learn about the teleportation system and the Moon base until more than a third of the way into the book. Barker's repeated attempts to get past the deathtraps in the alien complex are left entirely off-stage until the very end. All of the cool stuff is shoved to one side so we can savor the Fifties pop-psychology portraits of Barker and his high-maintenance girlfriend Claire Pack.
Here's a scene in which Dr. Hawks — who for the moment we will refer to as Wernher Von Braun — is meeting Al Barker, who we'll call John Glenn.
". . . Before she went, I had to knock the Frenchmen about a little bit," John Glenn said, and now his meaning was clear. "I believe one of them had to be taken off by helicopter. And I've never forgotten how one goes about keeping one's hold on her."
Annie Glenn smiled. "I'm a warrior's woman, Wernher." Sudenly she moved her body, and Glenn let his hand fall. "Or at least we like to think so." Her nails ran down Glenn's torso. "It's been seven years, and nobody's taken me away yet." She smiled fondly up at Glenn for an instant, and then her expression became challenging again. "Why don't you tell John about this new job, Wernher?"
[. . . ] John Glenn nodded. "Oh, yes, Doctor — I meant what I said earlier. Don't let anything she does or says let you forget. She's mine. And not because I have money, or good manner, or charm. I do have money, but she's mine by right of conquest."
Seriously? This isn't a question of different times, different standards. My parents were born about the same time as those characters would have been, and I can't imagine them, or any of their friends, or any actual human being then or now talking that way. Especially not when they're getting ready to discuss matters of super-secret super-science.
Later on, Claire dares Hawks to seduce her, and when he reacts like a normal sane man would, she runs off with the sleazy Human Resources director who introduced Barker to Hawks in the first place. Again, if Tom Wolfe is any guide there were plenty of discreetly-managed scandals behind the scenes of the Space Race, but I simply can't imagine Annie Glenn telling Wernher Von Braun "You've got to take me tonight," and then eloping with one of the contractors.
This isn't the usual problem with older science fiction stories. These characters aren't wooden, or juvenile, or two-dimensional. Quite the reverse: Algis Budrys is laying on Fifties Freudian psychology and "sophisticated" (in the cocktails-and-adultery sense) behavior with a builder's trowel. I'm not exaggerating when I say that nearly half of the book's page count is devoted to characters talking about their childhoods or sex lives. Hawks has his own relationship with a woman who picks him up hitchiking, and spends a lot of time telling her about his youth.
Oh, and Barker's big epiphany on the Moon is that he's been taking suicidal risks for twenty years because the other frat boys at Yale used to give him a hard time about being part Apache. Really.
The problem is the mismatch between those elements and the actual mystery at the heart of the book. There are alien deathtraps on the Moon and a teleportation device and a secret space program ten years before Apollo, and I'm supposed to care about Barker's relationship with his girlfriend? Barker, like John Glenn, is interesting because of the stuff he's going to be doing in the story. Few people would read Glenn's biography if he had remained a Marine aviator and eventually retired to do consulting work. We care about him because he flew in space. And we care about Barker because he's getting teleported to an alien deathtrap on the Moon. Which means that by not showing us that part, and focusing on the frankly tiresome soap opera elements, Budrys makes me care less and less about getting to the ending.
I'm probably being too hard on Algis Budrys, because he wasn't the only SF writer of that era who was replacing technobabble about rockets and circuits with psychobabble about complexes and repressions. Lots of SF writers — and editors — fell in love with the idea of psychology finally becoming a quantified, predictive science like physics or chemistry. (It's probably mean-spirited of me to suggest that my fellow nerds, then as now, were searching for the magic formula which would finally let them understand how other people behave.) And all the cool kids at the slick magazines were doing it, too.
Now I'm going to put on my writing-workshop pants and try to figure out how I would have written Rogue Moon. Start with the problem: the alien deathtrap. Show a volunteer getting killed. Then show him somehow alive on Earth, but insane. Then bring in Barker, and have Hawks explain what's going on. And do all this relatively quickly, in the first chapter or so.
Then actually show Barker making attempt after attempt. Show the strain it puts on him, but also the irresistable attraction it holds for him. His girlfriend leaves and he doesn't really notice. Hawks urges him to stop but Barker cleverly appeals to the higher-ups funding the project.
Finally, as in Budrys's version, Hawks joins Barker for the last attempt. They make it past the final barrier. But instead of a cheap epiphany, Barker simply shows a new serenity. The duplicates of Barker and Hawks on the Moon celebrate uproariously before walking out the airlock to die. The copies back on Earth, who survive, don't attain this enlightenment, but are aware they have missed it. End story.
I guess the only lesson to be learned is to avoid falling for current pop-psychology fads. When you're writing about people, base it on your own observations of how they act, rather than the latest Theory of Everything.
Oh, and don't hold the cool stuff back so long. Teleporting to the secret moonbase to face alien deathtraps!
(And if you're teleporting to a secret moonbase to explore alien deathtraps, you might enjoy some light reading for your trip: buy my ebook!)