While it was a good read, I'll fall short of listing it among the genre classics - the company it often gets. I didn't get bored while reading, but something kept making me avoid picking it up from a stopped point. May be I don't enjoy reading about death; since we're all going to die someday, why prepone its consideration?
I collect some quotes from the book in a separate post.
Story summary.There are at least 4 distinct themes here:
- Examining a mysterious formation on moon, apparently of intelligent non-human origins, apparently spanning more dimensions than we can perceive. If it has a purpose, we cannot comprehend that.
Only thing known is: it kills anyone who enters it from the only known place it can be entered from. Death is usually violent, at varied distances from entry, in the act of performing innocuous acts like raising a certain arm above a height. And different human explorers see different things inside it.
While the story revolves round this, the actual exploration occupies relatively little text. By the end of the story, first successful path from its entry to exit would have been traced where the human explorer come out alive.
- Complicated life stories of Dr Edward Hawks & Al Barker (more of the later).
Hawks is the man who invented a matter transporter that can ship both living & non-living things to moon, & only non-living things from moon. He's now in charge of exploring the formation on behalf of US government. He not only manages the transport infrastructure, but also recruits volunteers for the mission that guarantees death!
Al is a rich daredevil adventure with a wrecked personal life; considerable text is devoted to his life story. He's recruited by Hawks for exploring the hazardous formation.
- Examining the philosophical question: how will you react if you were to experience your own death?
The device used involves a certain way of using the matter transmitter. You scan an individual, killing the original in the process. Then you transmit the (analog) scanned data to moon where it will be materialized into the individual as represented by scan, possibly with minor bugs like a certain trivial memory of childhood is lost! You also materialize another copy of the individual in the lab on earth - but with the delay corresponding to signal transmission delay to moon.
Now these two individuals - M(oon) & L(ocal) - are telepathically linked for a few minutes. Since M is going to be killed examining the formation on moon, L is the way you examine what he saw (formation allows very limited, obviously gamed!, communication with outside world).
So after materializing L, you deprive him of all local sensory inputs - so his telepathic experience will be uncorrupted.
Problem is: everyone who's been through the process comes out insane! They cannot withstand the experience of their own death. Till Al comes along. He will experience multiple deaths during several missions, & will eventually succeed.
In the process, we get some apparently wise sayings on death. I didn't mull over them.
- Examining the implications of duplicating an individual.
Say a copy of you is sent to moon. Two of you live independent lives, after the initial few minutes of telepathic connection. After some years, the job of you moon copy is done. If he returns to earth, what kind of conflicts will your two copies have to undergo?
This part actually occupies very little text, near end, & is actually brushed aside by saying - the copy on moon practically cannot be allowed to return to earth.
Fact sheet.First published: 1960.
Nominated for Hugo Award 1961 in novel category.