Book Review: Station in Space, James Gunn (1958)

(Walter Murch and Jerry Powell’s cover for the 1958 edition)

collated rating: 3.75/5 (Good)

James Gunn’s Station in Space (1958) is an interconnected series of stories that form a cohesive chronologically organized whole tracking the development of human exploration into space (Earth –> first space flight –> first space station –> second space station –> Mars).  Because multiple characters reappear in later stories and the earlier events all have a direct bearing the work must be read in order.  The result is more a loose form novel than short story collection.

The most intriguing aspect of Gunn’s stories is the careful demystification of the glamor of space travel.  Many of the works begin like a juvenile à la Heinlein or Blish where space travel is fun and rosy and easy as picking corn before Gunn’s brutal realist streak seeps in and overwhelms the pages. I suspect that Gunn was influenced by the pessimistic short stories of his contemporary C. M. Kornbluth (The Explorers) but stays away from his brutal nihilistic satire.  Because Kornbluth is the superior writer I suggest reading a collection of his first.

Gunn’s view of the future is more optimistic than Kornbluth or Malzberg’s visions: despite the low life expectancy, the lies that propelled the beginning of the space program, the family strife that threatens to ruin the lives of astronauts, space travel is ultimately still “worth it.”  Each character goes to space an idealistic young welp.  The reality of the situation and coming to grips with the untruths he’s been told make him a man. Regardless of the hard truths, he devotes his life to exploration whatever its nebulously defined benefits.

Gunn’s prose is simplistic but effective at conveying the realism he desires.  The descriptions are never endless expositions (an unfortunate tendency of the 50s science fiction).  Despite the simplistic character arc described above, the transformative moment is rarely unbelievable.

Station in Space is an involving attempt at realistic prediction of our future in space from the pre-Gargarin (1961 voyage in space) era.  Despite the fact that many of Gunn’s predictions are off — astronauts don’t have to be sterilized to go into space, nor do they have drastically reduced life expectancies, or are only allowed minuscule rations — I recommend the collection for any fan of 50s science fiction.

At points the collection reads like a potential future which we never had.

Short story summaries (*spoilers*: due to the interconnected nature of the stories)

‘The Cave of the Night’ (1955) (15 pages) 3.5/5 (Average): Reverdy L. McMillen, the first man in space, is the new media sensation! But, after launch a radio transmission reaches Earth with dire news — Rev’s spacecraft is unable to reenter the atmosphere.  A race to build a new spaceship commences… but will they be too late?  Or, is the entire flight a hoax in the first place?  If so, what would be the ramifications of an invented martyr of man’s first attempts at successful space travel?  An interesting piece — initially, a straight forward tale of a rescue until suspicions arise.  The psychological implications of an invented martyr on the ignorant populace for the future of space travel is explored in more depth later in the collection.

‘Hoax’ (1955)  (28 pages) 3/5 (Average):  Amos, a young recent graduate of the space academy, sets off for the Donut (the Little Wheel space station).  He’s ignorant of the hardships that go hand in hand with a life in space.  Instead of an assignment which reflects his talents when he arrives at the station, Amos is assigned janitorial and other menial duties.  The staff of the station don’t think he’s cut out for the job.  In a state of desperation, Amos throws caution to the wind and sets off in a space tug to see if Reverdy L. McMillen’s body is still entombed in his vessel.  He discovers an empty shell.

‘The Big Wheel’ (28 pages) (1956) 4.25/5 (Good):  My favorite of the collection….  ‘The Big Wheel’ examines the ramifications of space travel from a distinctly different perspective, the working man.  Earth is plagued by a second great depression — a large percentage of America is out of work.  Bruce Patterson, against the wishes of his wife, joins a team of workmen building The Big Wheel (Earth’s second space station).  Bruce and his companions are housed in extraordinarily cramped quarters and suffer great hardships.  Eventually they realize that The Big Wheel will have little purpose — it is simply a work project sponsored by the US government to increase America’s morale during the depression.

‘Powder Keg’ (1958) (41 pages) 4/5 (Good): Phillips, a psychologist is assigned to The Little Wheel (which is a military instillation supposed to monitor nuclear activities on Earth — it also has its own nuclear weapons sent up by the US government).  A vindictive general wants the instillation shut down and the men who have spent large portions of their lives on board declared unfit for duty.  Phillips initially agrees with the general when he arrives….  Eventually he discoveries that there is an unique functionality to the way the men work in such a dangerous environment.  Also, The Little Wheel no longer has operable warheads — instead their parts are going towards the construction of a spaceship for a journey to Mars.  Gunn’s discussion of the psychological state of the astronaut who spends extended periods of time in space, constantly threatened by small meteors, without enough food and water, and exposed to radiation is found in all the shorts.

‘Space is a Lonely Place’ (1957)  (43 pages) 4/5 (Good):  Terry Phillips and Lloyd have joined the Mars project.  Previous attempts to reach the planet have failed.  Both are men who have aged greatly due to the hardship in space….  By this time a few families of the men on the space station have arrived.  Two parallel narratives unfold: Phillips and Lloyd watch the periodic transmissions from the crew of the Mars vessel.  The crew experience severe psychological distress due to the dangers on board — a central theme of Gunn’s.  Soon most of the crew descends into madness — the conclusion is radical but expected, Earth raised astronauts won’t be able to journey to the planets.  Instead, the children raised in space will be the new generation of explorers who will be able to withstand the psychological pressures.

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21 thoughts on “Book Review: Station in Space, James Gunn (1958)

    • I really enjoy the art as well. According to it appears that the artists didn’t make another cover….

      I will definitely be on the lookout for more of your novels — I had a lot of fun reading Station in Space. I’m truly honored by your visit!

      –Joachim Boaz

  1. It’s really in poor taste to say “I’ve never heard of this author before” just after yours truly posts a comment. James Gunn — it’s great to see you here! Most of us do know who you are, and we appreciate your many contributions to the field of science fiction!

  2. Just wanted to point out that for those who can’t find a paper copy, much of James Gunn’s backlist has been published by Ereads and can be found at that site or subisidiaries (Amazon, Ficionwise, Kobo). At first I couldn’t locate this book at Amazon, but switching the author search to James E. Gunn brought it.

  3. I have never read this book but I did read The Listeners by James Gun a few years back. I thought it was one of the better books that I have read.

  4. I just discovered this while reading the notes to your Malzberg essay. I strongly recommend you check out more Gunn, esp. The Listeners–it, too, looks at an s.f. situation in a very human-centric, less pulpy manner. Gunn isn`t just a terrific writer, he edited a fine series of anthologies called The Road to Science Fiction that I would use as texts were I teaching a s.f. course. I have several other Gunn books in my to-read archives [a.k.a. the piles and boxes from my last move]. You have terrific taste in reading.

  5. Finished this a few days ago. I certainly like Gunn’s near future realism.
    I would bump the first story up to a “good” rating. It and ‘The Big Wheel’ were my favourites. Indeed the conspiratorial theme of ‘The Cave of Night’ betrayed the influence of Kris Neville IMO; well, at least having just read his short ‘Cold War’.
    Also, I was a bit stunned when I came across the word “fuck” in the last chapter. Only because I believe this is the first time I have found it used in 50s sf. It’s like the new wave come early!

    • For whatever reason I missed this great comment Anthony! Sorry! (comments on older reviews don’t show up in the feed)

      I’ve been thinking about the stories in the collection again — and how I need to reread “The Big Wheel” which I remember enjoying. I think it’s worth comparing this story to the Miller, Jr. story I just read. Both are blue collar in their focus, both are about the narratives we tell ourselves, but differ, I’d argue, in their ultimate message. Gunn seems to think that all the hard work, while dangerous, forges a “MAN.” Miller is more murky — Donny in “Death of a Spaceman” continues to tell his own (delusional?) narrative, to the end… and he makes peace knowing it’s a story he tells himself and the ones he loves, and that story continues to give him meaning.

  6. Pingback: Old Man Henderson (1951) by Kris Neville – sf short story review | works & days

  7. Pingback: The Cave of Night (1955) by James E. Gunn – sf short story review | works & days

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