Monday, November 12, 2007

Reliving America's Space Program

I did not read James Michener's Space when it was published in 1982. I supposed I was just too caught up in science fiction. Besides, I lived through the period, beginning as a grade-schooler getting up extra early to watch first the Mercury then the Gemini launches.

Recently someone gave me a copy and, in the absence of anything else to read, I jumped in. Suddenly it was all coming back: the Gemini launches, the hero astronauts, the Apollo missions, the grand plans for DynaSoar, the spinning wheel space station, and all the rest. I decided to review it because it's an interesting read, a mainstream dip into alternative history, and it's a good book for other novelists to read.

Why other novelists? Because the novel has faults, some of them detailed below. These faults can be instructive if you are the kind of writer who stops and thinks, "Okay, how would I rewrite this?" In mentally revising sentences or paragraphs, and you'll probably learn something you can take to your own work.

From the reader's perspective, Space is a solid novel that puts you there and, more importantly, takes you away from the present veil of tears. The range of characters and viewpoints is almost intimidating; as a reader, I had to stop more than once and recall a character's vita when he or she showed up after an extended absence. I think the difficulty had to do with Michener's technique, because I certainly didn't experience this problem with characters in an 11-novel series by Harry Turtledove I recently finished.

Popular though he is, Michener is not a master stylist. Nor is he a writer who handles every transition smoothly. The episodic tales he is telling here render such difficulties almost irrelevant. Plus, there are immense leaps of time and distance involved for which suitable transitions may not have been possible. Besides, such problems are almost to be expected in a novels that opens during the beginnings of rocketry in WWII Germany and winds up in the Space Shuttle era, Space, and also deals with more than a dozen major characters (including the largely offstage Werner von Braun). And some of the "problems" are probably things only another writer would notice. It's still a good read, albeit bumpy at times. Readers are willing to forgive him the rough spots to get at the story.

Backgrounding and character are Michener's greatest strengths in this novel. He gives the reader a good feel for all his locations--Coco Beach, Canaveral, Huntsville, Germany, Houston, the dark side of the Moon, etc., and now and then the spirit of the 1960s space effort washes over you. He follows history closely, and the technical aspects are not overdone, so non-technical readers won't get lost. As for the characters, from Dieter, the German engineer without credentials, and the cowardly German "General," through the homegrown American astronauts and their wives, each character has room to grow and most are carefully delineated by the author. The real people who show up, like Deke Slayton, are rendered believably enough.

I think Michener did himself and the reader a disservice by not getting more into the characters of some of the women. He gives Penny, the political aid who becomes a politician, a great deal of depth, but Debbie Dee (a redneck woman if there ever was one) and other astronauts' wives are sort of moved around and speak their parts without much liberty. Cynthia Rhee, the Korean journalist who was born in Japan comes across as the most realistic of the women, even though her role is a mixed one of groupie, reporter, manipulator, and husband-stealer. Perhaps Michener is enough of a product of his time that he can't use strong women characters.

Even though the novel was published in 1982, I'm surprised there weren't more affairs, but that side of things seems to have been dropped in the lap (so to speak) of good ol' boy astronaut Randy Claggett. Randy's wife Debbie Dee and a couple of the other wives seem to have plenty of motivations and opportunities to jump the fence. Of course, they are constantly under pressure from a media guy to live the image of faithful, All-American Wives, from which each had a lot of gain. (Judging by the characters Michener developed, though, this pressure would have given at least one woman all the more reason to stray.) As you might expect, there are several subplots.

My favorite is one involving a senator's daughter and a con man who plies first the UFO trade, then hippie stuff, and finally becomes a wealthy televangelist, the senator's daughter definately at his side. The senator and his wife are part of an interesting subplot, as well. Which reminds me that I would have written more about the cultural changes outside the space program, but I'm not Michener. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that Michener plays with alternative history here and there. He substitutes his own characters for some real-world astronauts, and includes a deadly mission to the dark side of the Moon that never happened, but could have. Fascinating stuff! Plus, Michener pays homage to science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein.

If nothing else, Space is a great way to relive the opening of the Space Era.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

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