Budrys writes in a concise, clear style that makes it clear he’s considered the many implications of his idea of a matter duplicator and transmitter. Not only is there a clear working out of the details of scanning matter, recording its information, and the attendant problems of sending the signal from one duplicator to another, but Budrys goes into the political implications. The U.S. matter teleporter on the moon is kept a secret from the world in this novel. The shadow of the Cold War hangs over a lot of Budrys’ work – understandable given his history as a Lithuanian exile. The main focus of the novel is the psychological and social implications for those who are scanned and transmitted. Budrys does not go into the economic implications of his device.
The uneasy relationships in this novel, the tensions in the dialogue reminded me of film noirs where characters spend a lot of time talking about and dissecting each others’ characters. Most of this novel consists of characters irritating each other, deliberately provoking each other, testing each other. Only two relationships in this novel – between Edward Hawks and his assistant Sam Latourette and that between Hawks and his platonic girlfriend Elizabeth Cummings – are not touched with this quality. Even the relationship with Latourette is not free of tension. He is replaced at Hawks’ request and, dying, he asks Hawks to duplicate him.
This novel is about questions of human identity, how humans change the universe in their heads and how each individual conception of the universe can only endure in another person’s head, philosophies on how life is to be faced and the purpose of life, of the relationships between men and women, in short, it really is a novel that fits the cliché about being about the “human condition”. Hawks and alien maze explorer Al Barker (I found the maze thoroughly alien and surrealistic) annoy each other. Hawks is calm, motivated, in his one way ruthlessly dedicated to exploring the maze (though he warns Barker of the dangers and gives him plenty of chances to back out). To him, humans are elements in an equation. He views things as cause and effect and constantly angers people by seeing the motives (the causes) behind their behavior (effects). Hawks is dedicated to proving his superiority as a man, to beating death before an audience and is baffled by his girlfriend’s behavior. Barker’s lover, Claire Pack, a self-described bitch, constantly annoys men, flirts with them to get Barker to fight for her. Vincent Connington, personnel director for Hawks’ company, throws Barker and Hawks together in a successful, but unsatisfying bid to get Pack. Connington views people as elements to be used for a desired reaction.
It’s a complex novel. In the end, Barker learns that a man must live by his own standards and goals and realizes the truth of Hawks’ statement to Cummings that a man has to work with what he is as a “lump of carbon can’t rearrange its own structure.” Hawks’ double on the moon chooses death on the moon over the chance he will returned altered (due to the inadequate transmission equipment on the moon) to Earth. The book is understandably concerned with the question of identity like when Hawks refuses to duplicate the dying Latourette. The novel is infused with the Campbellian notion of an impersonal, lethal, unfair universe and the pensive grandeur of the struggle to understand and conquer it. A puzzlement is the title of this novel. It seems to relate to nothing in the story.