[Short] Book Reviews: Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys (1960) and Syzygy, Michael G. Coney (1973)

Note: My “to review” pile is growing. Short reviews are a way to get through the stack. Stay tuned for more detailed and analytical reviews.

1. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys (1960)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1960 edition)

4/5 (Good)

Over the almost decade of reading for my site, I’ve enjoyed Algis Budrys’ short stories and disliked his novels. After the moody and noir(ish) Rogue Moon (1960), I’ll continue exploring his oeuvre.

Rogue Moon, one of his best-known works, is an odd and oblique read. And odd in that reviewers seem to expect the science fiction al core should be given greater weight than the melodrama… Unlike the melodrama in Michael G. Coney’s Syzygy reviewed below, Budrys’ brand engages as each of his characters are possessed by disquieting psychological  obsessions (sadomasochism, egotism, hypersexuality, etc.).

The central SF concept—an artifact found on the moon that creates insanity to explorers who enter it—tantalizes as the metaphysical culmination of the psychological drama that occupies the majority of the novel. Rogue Moon focuses more on the characters and their attempts to prove themselves to each other than the exploration of the alien death trap.

Bound to be a polarizing read, I found the tone and creepy obsessions hard to pin down. Like Jesse over at Speculiction, I am unsure of Budrys’ authorial intentions.

Recommended.

Check out the following reviews for a better picture of the novel: Jesse over at Speculiction, John DeNardo over at SF Signal, and Mike at MPorcius Fiction Log.

My other Budrys reviews:

2. Syzygy, Michael G. Coney (1973)

(David Bergen’s cover for the 1975 edition)

2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)

I purchase Michael G. Coney’s SF, often highly unusual (see the fantastic short stories in the 1973 collection Friends Come in Boxes) and deeply affective (the 1975 novel Hello Summer, Goodbye), on sight. Unfortunately this was a miss…. It reminded me of the sinking feeling I felt reading John Brunner’s miserable Double, Double (1969) after reminiscing fondly on Stand on Zanzibar (1968).

At first glance, Syzygy‘s premise draws one in—the moons on an alien planet due to their erratic orbits synchronize once every fifty-two years. Coney foreshadows the transformative effects of the synchronization. Mark, a marine research scientist, is transfixed by a young man, who, at a dance becomes another person: “I wondered what was motivating him—in his normal role he was an eminently serious young scientist at my Research Station” (1-2). However, everyone who was alive 52 years earlier refuses to reveal what really happened. Rumors of spasmodic violence afflicting those near the ocean push the community into high alert as the it approaches.

The death of Mark’s lover young lover Sheila adds to the tension–who killed, or more importantly what, her remains unknown. And the community, possessed by a rugged individuality, grows suspicious as the Research Station co-opts their fishing vessels for research and evacuation procedures. As mysterious events pile up, a crisis brews!

Syzygy‘s world, although with touches of alien, feels far too much like a small English fishing village. And like various UK murder mysteries in small towns—I’m looking at you The Loch (2017)–the tangential side stories and rivalries and secretive characters tire the reader unless handled in an inspired manner. Coney’s drama reads like an alcoholic man’s wet dream—Mark spends much of his time lusting after the teenage sister almost half his age of his dead partner, who, despite all her teenage protestations and impulsiveness, deeply loves him…. Cringe-worthy melodrama aside, Syzygy, at moments, is downright creepy and mysterious.

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

25 thoughts on “[Short] Book Reviews: Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys (1960) and Syzygy, Michael G. Coney (1973)”

  1. There is a certain ingrained absurdism in THE DEATH MACHINE/ROGUE MOON. As Blish noted, every character is functionally insane.

    I’ve mostly read basically foolish/off-point Coney fiction, so was wondering a bit at your general enthusiasm expressed earlier. I still haven’t read the supposedly actually good early Piers Anthony novels for similar reasons.

    1. Yeah, I find Blish’s interpretation pretty on point — or rather your summation of it….

      Do you have a link to Blish’s actual review? Where did it appear?

      Before you judge Coney, track down some of his short fictions in the collection linked above.

      I also reviewed his fantastic short “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” (1977) recently: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2019/08/11/book-review-the-1977-annual-worlds-best-sf-ed-arthur-w-saha-and-donald-a-wollheim-1977/

      1. Blish’s review title is “Death and the Beloved” and was collected in More Issues at Hand, a book of reviews which he signed using his William Atheling Jr. byline. It was published by Advent, but I think there’s an ebook version available.

      2. Thanks for the suggestion about Coney. I probably should reread “Liquid Fuel” (it might’ve been a bad day forty years ago..there were a number of them, and I loved Joanna Russ’s “My Boat” and Stuart Dybek’s “Horror Movie” was suitably disturbing in the same issue of F&SF, as I recall them all.

  2. I think that’s a Waldenbooks rather than B. Dalton sticker on the Coney. Wow. Not exactly nostalgia, but interesting (at least to me, if no one else) how that that can throw me back some decades.

    1. I’m far too young to feel nostalgic about a particular sticker — I didn’t read SF until my late teens…. a tad more than a decade ago. Fantasy was my go-to genre when I really started enjoying reading….

      1. I came to sf more or less as a byproduct of being what I think of as a horror-fiction-seeking-device from about age 7yo onward. My father was a lifelong sf reader, so there were books and a very few magazines around the house…Robert Silverberg’s YA anthology VOYAGERS IN TIME was the first book in my father’s stacks I sat down and read, and so was being carried along by David I. Masson’s “Traveller’s Rest” and an excerpt from THE TIME MACHINE and Wilma Shore’s “Bulletin from the Trustees…” and other work…and Robert Arthur’s and to some extent Harold Q. Masur’s ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: volumes usually had some sf in them, along with fantasy, horror and, of course, crime fiction; Thomas Disch helped Arthur put one together, and Disch’s “Casablanca” (near-future sf) was the only piece of originally-published fiction in the AHP: anthology series. Also Arthur’s YA Hitchcock-branded anthologies mixed in some sf.

      1. I haven’t double-checked, but no…illos in F&SF were always rare…humorous articles and Heinlein YA novels serialized were the most likely suspects before 17 years of Gahan Wilson’s monthly cartoon began the tradition of those appearing in the magazine.

  3. Rogue Moon is my favourite Budrys’ novel. I like the way in which the text subverts reader’s expectations by devoting so little space to the actual exploration of the maze -which is what would happen in most sf novels.
    It’s true that all the main characters are probably out of their minds and that the gender politics are dated, but the novel is still worth reading. As as side note, James Blish, writing as William Atheling Jr., suggested that the obstacles the explorer’s face in the labyrinth might somehow recapitulate the plot of the novel.
    Another good novel by this author is Hard Landing. Thanks for your reviews.

    1. Thanks for visiting — and the kind words!

      Perhaps as we have all been acclimated to Big Dumb Object-style SF novels…. we anticipate the BDO to be the entire focus of the story. In a weird way, we get a reverse Rendezvous with Rama where the minutiae of actual exploration is the entire book, to the detriment of any attempt to formulate character.

  4. “Rogue Moon” was supposed to have anticipated the soon to arrive “new wave”.I didn”t think it was bad, but don’t remember much about it now , even though it wasn’t very many years ago I read it.

    1. Who claimed that it anticipated the “New Wave”? I mean, it felt like a film noir (very 50s) ran into a basic SF premise.

      …it does look inward (by looking outward towards the Moon and its facility).

  5. David Pringle, who chose it for his “Science Fiction the 100 Best Novels”.He said it was “in some ways it prefigures the “New Wave” of the late 1960s with it’s disturbing emphasis on psychology than
    engineering”.

  6. Hi

    I read both versions. I preferred the shorter one which I read in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I think because there was less space to indulgent the characters foibles, as you said, “Budrys’ brand engages as each of his characters are possessed by disquieting psychological obsessions (sadomasochism, egotism, hypersexuality, etc.).” this does make them hard to take.

    Guy

    1. Hello Guy, the characters are definitely hard to take — especially the sadomasochistic sequences…. i.e. “Show that you’re a man.” That said, I do think Budrys’ wanted each to have a particular psychological make-up–and perhaps distinctive insanity…

    1. “Very unsettling” is perfectly fine with me! It’s weirdly refreshing having a somewhat more pessimistic/disturbing early 1960s take on humanity and humanity’s exploration of the universe….

  7. [1.] As regards the psychopaths: David Hartwell, the now-deceased editor, between 1975-85 controlled a small publishing house, Gregg Press, that did hardbound editions of SF books, like Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION and this one, which had never had them. Budrys wrote an intro for the Gregg Press ROGUE MOON in which he said, yes, he very deliberately made its major characters psychopaths — or archetypes compelled by different specific drives — for the purposes of the novel he wanted to write, though if one were to somehow encounter Hawks, Barker, Claire Pack, Connington et al offstage – that is, existing in the real world outside the pages of his book — they might present more various, normal human traits.

    [2] Yeah, by focusing on its ‘characters’, Budrys’s novel doesn’t give its two big, linked SF tropes, Hawks’s matter transmitter and the alien Formation, the stock SF treatment, thus frustrating a lot of readers .

    Nonetheless, please note that ROGUE MOON was where the classic SF trope of the matter transmitter/transporter appeared for the first time in the genre. (Though if I deploy my inner Sam Moscowitz, a Poul Anderson space opera, WE HAVE FED OUR SEA, groped towards the concept a couple of years earlier). I don’t think anybody’s done more with the concept since. So Budrys was Firstest with the Mostest here.

    [3] It’s a deep concept, too. For instance, if Derek Parfitt, the British consequentialist philosopher, didn’t get some of his thought experiments for his argument against the idea of personal identity from reading Budrys’s novel, I’d be slightly surprised. Seriously —
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Parfit#Personal_identity

    [4] As regards the other big SF trope in ROGUE MOON, the alien Formation, Mike Harrison (M. John) recently wrote on his site: – ‘If you’re interested in the epistemology, phenomenology, and existentialist issues of adventure, and you like science fiction too, you couldn’t do better than read a novel called Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It is a much less woolly and more concise analysis of ”exploratory values” than either Roadside Picnic or Stalker, and preceded both ….’

    Harrison extends this a little, saying a few other interesting things about the novel here —
    https://ambientehotel.wordpress.com/2019/05/02/in-real-life-postscript/

    Still, he’s absolutely on point about the Budrys being the predecessor of the Strugatsky book and the Tarkovsky film. Hawks in fact gives a speech to Barker around halfway through ROGUE MOON that’s essentially the elevator pitch for ROADSIDE PICNIC: –

    ‘Perhaps it’s the alien equivalent of a discarded tomato can. Does a beetle know why it can enter the can only from one end as it lies across the trail to the beetle’s burrow? Does the beetle understand why it is harder to climb to the left or right, inside the can, than it is to follow a straight line? Would the beetle be a fool to assume the human race put the can there to torment it – or an egomaniac to believe the can was manufactured only to mystify it? It would be best for the beetle to study the can in terms of the can’s logic, to the limit of the beetle’s ability.’

    [5] Yes, the characters constantly give insane (and insanely lucid) speeches like that to each other. It’s not a naturalistic novel. You either like or dislike that. Personally, I came across ROGUE MOON and Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION when I was a kid – and some Stanislaw Lem later — and thought that if this was SF, then SF was the Bomb.

    1. Thanks for your long and detailed comment! It has certainly added to my knowledge and understanding of the novel.

      The matter transmitter element was probably my least favorite part of the novel — not a trope I look for or enjoy. That said, the intriguing range of psychopathic characters elevated the novel above its subject matter.

      Have you read James White’s All Judgement Fled (1967)? As of now, it’s my favorite BDO novel. And sorely underrated…. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2015/12/19/short-book-reviews-if-all-else-fails-craig-strete-1980-my-petition-for-more-space-john-hersey-1974-and-all-judgement-fled-james-white-serialized-1967/

    1. Death and the Beloved indeed. “Remember me to her.” This as the only true immortality we can achieve, however temporary and limited, was one of his other key concerns. (Sorry I didn’t get back to cite the publication cites of the Blish review, but ISFDB is usually helpful for this, citing reviews of various works.)(But if this sparked “Nighthawk”‘s comments, perhaps I’m not sorry. HARD LANDING gets another vote from me, as probably Budrys’s most underappreciated novel.)

      This concern gives the novel much in common with horror fiction, as well.

  8. The notion that the insane wouldn’t have insane notions of the value of sadomasochism, possibly expressed in stereotypical ways, such as Proving Manhood, is I think to not let the point that they are insane to sink in. The author isn’t endorsing this.

    1. Todd, I can’t tell which comments you are responding to. Make sure to press the “reply” to the precise comment you are engaging with so the discussion thread logic is clearer!

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