This book is one of the SF Masterworks
series of classic sf novels so it clearly is not something to be sniffed at, plus it was cited by Alastair Reynolds
as a favorite so I duly added it to my reading list (a year or so ago!) and finally got around to it. Really not
what I was expecting to be honest.
Set in 1959 it is the story of a scientist who sends a man to the moon to investigate a mysterious alien construct (Big Dumb Object
) picked up by a satellite photo. Unfortunately rocket science is not sufficiently advance to transport men to the moon so they have to resort to a sort of teleportation instead. This entails that the traveller is converted to a signal and then transmitted to a receiver on the moon. The only snag is that the alien construct mysteriously kills him before he gets very much investigation done, so the scientist finds a man - Al Barker - who has a special mindset to duplicate and transmit to the moon. He dies soon after arrival and a little exploration but then they send him again and again so he gets a little further in his exploration every time. That is the gist of it, great sci-fi concept, but...
Normally characterization in an sf novel is something to be applauded as it is all too rare in sf novels, for example Asimov, Clarke and Philip K. Dick are brilliant sf writers but character development is not their forte. Algis Budrys has done something highly unusual here, he spent a lot of time developing his characters and less time writing the science fictional parts. However, I don't think this worked out well as none of the characters he essayed here are likable or particularly interesting. The central character Dr. Edward Hawks is a melancholic academic type, apparently entirely devoid of humor. The other protagonist Al Barker is a self centered annoying bastard who reminds me of Jay Gatsby
of all people. The book also features a superfluous romantic relationship which is less believable than the teleportation technology. For some reason the characters spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing each other and themselves to soporific effect. The narrative only livens up when they get around to beaming up to the moon and Al Barker dies over and over again (much to my satisfaction).
In spite of my complaints above the sci-fi aspect of the book (and the shortness of it) makes it a worthwhile read. The ramification of this type of instantaneous transportation very well thought out. I personally feel the implication of this technology is handled better than the much more recent Altered Carbon or Pandora's Star (though I much prefer both this books to Rogue Moon). The alien artifact is more of a plot device than anything else, so don't go expecting a Rendezvous with Rama or Ringworld here. With reference to the artifact concerned I do like this passage though:
"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. In that way, at least, the beetle can proceed intelligently. It may even grasp some hint of the can's maker. Any other approach is either folly or madness."
So a recommendation with some reservations then, a 3 stars rating seems about right.