Rogue Moon was recommended to me on Twitter by Jonathan McCalmont who commented on the gloriously demented nature of the novel. In particular, he drew my attention to the misogyny that suffuses it. This is a novel filled with manly men beating their chests, locking horns and waving their cocks about. Their are a couple of women in the novel, but their portrayal is not particularly sympathetic. Claire, the object of some of the characters attentions (though, as Jonathan points out, is certainly the men’s equal with regard to ruthlessness), is portrayed in a deeply misogynistic way.
Furthermore, there is a blossoming relationship between one of the main characters, Hawks, and Elizabeth Cummings. It almost seemed that there was the possibility that the treatment of women may have been handled a little better. Indeed, Elizabeth makes the obvious point to Hawks that he isn’t a typical man in that “[he] treat[‘s] them [women] like people.” This might seem an obvious thing; after all, women are (shock!) people. Unfortunately, and I don’t know if it’s just how I read it, I felt that this scene moved on from this to being a bit “tchah, women, eh?” Still, at least it was in keeping with the rest of the novel.
“But hang on Richard,” as I’m sure you’re probably not thinking right now, “I thought you said that this was recommended to you? None of this seems much like a recommendation to me; in fact, it sounds pretty dreadful.” Well, yes, it is never going to be a key feminist text. Like a lot of genre fiction from before (and after, unfortunately) it was published (in 1960) it is unreconstructed in that regard.
It succeeds in other ways though. Unlike other novels which having significant failings when portraying women, its misogyny isn’t just another reason for me to dislike it. It becomes almost quaint or something to witness with wry amusement. And that’s not to suggest that I am complacent and think that the barriers that women faced at this time have all been broken down; far from it. But I do think that things have, without question, improved since the fifties and sixties and this is something of a relic.
Rogue Moon is centred on the investigation of a strange artefact on the Moon which destroys anybody that tries to investigate it. Dr Edward Hawks is seeking somebody that is capable of completing the investigation of the artefact. The problem that they have is that in order to get people to the Moon to investigate it, they use a matter transmitter which results in there being two versions of the same person. Though this would seem to mean that the death of the volunteer on the Moon doesn’t matter – the data that they collect from each attempt to investigate allows them to survive a little longer each time – the original subject is able to communicate with their duplicate whilst they are on the Moon. This means that they are able to experience their death second-hand. This drives everyone who tries insane in the attempt.
The novel opens with Hawks and his colleagues searching for a man who doesn’t fear death and will not go the way of their other volunteers. This is Al Barker, a thrillseeker and seemingly the perfect man for the task. He was recommended to Hawks by the power-hungry Connington.
It transpires that Barker is, indeed, the man for the job. Ultimately he succeeds in beating the series of traps, but the victory is a hollow one. The artefact gives little away as it is destroying men in their attempts to reach it, to understand. Though it may have been placed there by a higher order of intelligence than humankind, the rules that destroy people in their attempts to reach it seem entirely arbitrary. There is no emotion given by it as it tears the life from Barker and his predecessors.
The success is, however, something of a hollow one. Once Barker (and eventually Hawks) have navigated the obstacles placed by the artefacts, Hawks’ doppelgänger makes clear to the copy of Barker that return is impossible. Barker already exists on Earth, so he cannot return, even if the equipment they possessed were capable of bringing him safely to Earth. Before reading this, I had been reading Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick. Before starting this novel, it was also noted that in some senses the attempts that they were making to defeat an implacable, soulless foe ultimately leading to self destruction are not that far removed from Ahab’s futile quest. Whilst revenge may not be their motivation, I think that this comparison is entirely fair. Though they survive on Earth, the copies that there are of them are fully functioning human beings and their ultimate destruction is, I think, a huge price to be paid.
It also probably sets Rogue Moon above many of its contemporaries. Hawks, whe getting to know Elizabeth Cummings, tells her a little of his childhood:
“‘When I reported to class the first day of my junior year, I was full of anticipation. I had read a great deal of fiction about super-science and competent people doing competent things with it, and I expected more, I think, than even Hazlet could have crammed into a high-school physics class.'”
Competent men solving whatever problems the universe may throw at them was certainly a staple of science fiction at this time. I see less of it now, but I can’t be sure if that is more a reflection of my own bias in reading than it is because the field has moved on. While the people in this novel are never portrayed as anything as less than competent, they certainly do not succeed in mastering the structure on the Moon in any meaningful way.
The characterisation in this novel is of interest, too. It’s not especially deep but the ruthless nature of pretty much everyone is refreshing. Connington is hungry for an increase in his power, Claire is single minded in her desires. Hawks, in particular, holds interest for me. He’s a scientist, looking to push boundaries and he is not afraid to destroy somebody the lives of others in doing so. In continuing to send volunteers to the Moon he kills not only the physical bodies of (and their minds, these are perfect copies who will start to diverge as their sensory inputs are different from their originals on Earth) them, but he destroys the mental faculties of the original man. Nobody really comes out of Rogue Moon with a great deal of credit, but it’s believable.
I’d urge any fan of SF to read this. Granted it has a horribly dated attitude to its female characters, but the premise and execution of it are excellent. It is a novel devoid of flab and one which makes a valiant and, I believe, mostly successful attempt to pull itself above the herd at the time.
It’s not in print at the moment [edit… just as I was grabbing a link, I see that Gollancz have added it to the SF Masterworks range!], but it isn’t impossible to find it try [in light of edit this is if you want to read this before the end of the year]: second-hand on Amazon.