I forget how or when, but Rogue Moon somehow made its way onto my official Must Read pile. (It probably involved The Coode Street Podcast somehow.) After a recent run of epic fantasy, genre busting short stories, and occasional weirdness, a Golden Age, big mysterious object story seemed like a pleasing diversion; the “hold” button for the local library was just one click away. Soon I was curled up with Budrys, a voice from the past and renown SF critic, and expecting a quick jaunt through the Competent White Men Solving Engineering Mysteries past of science fiction. It was not to be however – confounded expectations lay in my future.
Rogue Moon is apparently the inspiration for an Alastair Reynolds short story called “Diamond Dogs.” They couldn’t be more different, even though the starting point is nearly the same. Both build themselves from an inexplicable tower on a moon (our Moon in Budrys’ case) that basically acts as a real life arcade game, though where our games are designed to separate quarters from players through constant game death, these towers are designed to separate souls from bodies with constant real death. Both presumably teach some sort of skill that, honed through constant repetition, eventually sees the player through to grand triumph. As one might expect, Reynolds’ story involves bizarre, Sterling-esque body modification, Gothic mischief, and cyborg mayhem, as though he read the Budrys book and said to himself, “Once more, with feeling.” (In this case, “feeling” means “as though David Lynch and William Gibson had a literary love child and it involved cybernetic dogs.”) Rogue Moon is, well, certainly not that.
We are dealing with the above mysterious death tower, sitting there in baffling glory on the dark side of the Moon, and we are dealing with competent white men. Beyond that however, all Hard SF bets are off. In a precursor to the New Wave, Budrys prefers to check his Golden Age tropes at the door and dig into man’s inhumanity to man. In short, this is a character sketch of four very messed up people that is catalyzed by the big mysterious object. (There is a fifth character who carries about her the whiff of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she’s basically a potted plant who just reflects the weirdos around her. This really isn’t her story.) We watch three men struggle to justify their manliness, a woman who defines herself by manipulation and seduction, a deeply dysfunctional love triangle between all but one of them, and some form of redemption for some of them, as the crazy Moon death tower kills and maims clones of the most manly of the men. The reader can expect nothing but charm from this one.
I think that reaction to Rogue Moon is going to split cleanly along lines demarcated by SF reader expectations. Anyone wanting to read another Rendezvous with Rama is going to be annoyed. Those who prefer just a smidgen of science with their examinations of the human condition will be overjoyed. John Ringo fans may end up cross-eyed in a corner, making that “b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b” sound by wiggling a finger over their lips. Enough people consider this a classic that serious SF students should probably check it out, but it might be best to know what’s coming.
Rating: The Damned United. I picked it up for the football (Leeds United!) and stayed for the insane character sketch of the one and only Brian Clough.