As Rogue Moon proceeds, Barker remains functional as his duplicates repeatedly enter the lunar “formation,” advance a few meters, and die. The artifact, which may be incomprehensible, isn’t really the novel’s point. Hawks tells Barker, “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?” The novel focuses on the aims and relationships of its characters, who are, the reader grasps, all psychopaths: Hawks will do anything to achieve his aims, Barker is hollow, and so on.
Hawks is capable of softer emotions, however, which provide the novel with its highly original conclusion. The scientist meets a young woman, with whom he opens up. At the novel’s end, as a Barker duplicate undertakes the final trip that will reach the artifact’s far side, a Hawks duplicate joins him. They emerge alive, but Hawks tells Barker that there’s no life for them on Earth–that belongs to their duplicates–and walks off to die alone on the moon’s surface. In the book’s final lines, the Hawks on Earth finds a note in his hand “and read the blurred message with little difficulty, since it was in his own writing, and, in any case, he knew what it said. It was: ‘Remember me to her.’”
Budrys wrote one more significant novel, Michaelmas. Its hero, Laurent Michaelmas, is ostensibly a wealthy, middle-aged news anchorman; 20 years before, however, he was a countercultural computer hacker who wrote a program, Domino, that’s since grown into a sentient artificial intelligence distributed throughout the planet’s digital networks. Domino empowers Michaelmas to be the world’s hidden manager.
The theme of identity recurs. An astronaut believed dead is resurrected–he’s a copy, of course–and Michaelmas, too, meets a replica of himself. Four features distinguish Michaelmas. First, it is the most polished example of Budrys’s craft: the language is highly literary–striking metaphors and similes abound–and the narrative voice swoops imperceptibly from third person past to first person present; wonderful characters–an Ossetian cosmonaut, an aging newsman, a Turkish limousine chauffeur, and many others–are painted in quick, deft strokes; and the plot gallops across a single, eventful day and three continents. Second, there’s Michaelmas himself: absolute power corrupts absolutely, in Lord Acton’s phrase, and great men are nearly always bad men; yet Michaelmas is secretly a great man who remains benevolent and uncorrupted. Third, there’s the persistent underlying note of melancholy: mourning his decades-dead wife, Michaelmas has no affectionate relationships other than the one with his creation, Domino; and our universe, it turns out, is just a fluke of information theory, tuned into existence by beings who themselves may be only drifting particles elsewhere in the multiverse.
Finally, there’s the fact that Michaelmas depicts a near future that’s now an alternative version of our immediate past. In many ways, it’s a more attractive world, with a U.N. manned mission to the solar system’s outer planets and less terrorism, war, and crime. In a similar way, it could be argued, Budrys’s science fiction presents an alternative version of the genre–a promise of better possibilities that were never quite realized. Indeed, the bulk of Budrys’s writing was published a half-century ago and isn’t in print, though it’s easily obtainable from online booksellers or brick-and-mortar secondhand stores. You should make the effort. This is what science fiction can be but hardly ever is.
Mark Williams is a contributing editor to Technology Review.