(Davis Meltzer’s cover for the 1971 edition)
The Falling Astronauts (1971) (from now on FA) is the first in Barry N. Malzberg’s thematic trilogy on the American space program. Although not as engaging or experimental as the other two masterpieces in the sequence — Beyond Apollo (1972) and Revelations (1972), FA is highly readable and a notable work in Malzberg’s extensive corpus. FA attempts to debunk the so-called cult (in part propagated by the media) of the astronaut (and his ideal family) and in so doing questions the ultimate purpose of the space program.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
The preface of the World Book Encyclopedia Science Service publication The United States Astronauts and their Families: A Pictorial Presentation (1965) neatly encapsulates the public’s idealistic conception of the astronaut’s work and personal life: “Man’s reach for the world of space is born of his insatiable curiosity about the unknown… his indomitable drive for accomplishment… his instinctive response to a challenge. Astronauts-Husbands-Fathers: these men are the men featured here but it’s essentially as family men that we portray them” (i). In the pictorial the message is clear: the astronaut not only has the perfect American family replete with intelligent children, happy wives who facilitate their greatness, speed boats and fast cars, but his job embodies an “insatiable curiosity about the unknown.”
However, in Malzberg’s searing vision the space program makes machines out of naive young men seduced by the idealistic message of scientific exploration, creates unstable individuals who can (and do) have mental breakdowns, and utterly wrecks their personal lives.
The first scenes in FA concisely introduce Malzberg’s central themes. First, the mechanization of man resulting from an increasingly technological age… In the first scene Richard Martin, our disgraced astronaut, experiences sexual relations with his wife (who may or may not be asleep) as, literally, a mechanical act: “DOCKING MANEUVER: He feeds himself into her slowly […]” (7).
In the second scene, Malzberg tackles the media propagated/agency advocated conception of the astronaut as the idealized archetype of the family man, the explorer, the American hero…
“He is not The Astronaut. This depersonalization must cease; he must heed the advice of the psychiatrists and keep his “name.” his “identity” in front of him at all times. “The Astronaut” came later; it was only a function. His name is Richard Martin. “Richard Martin.” In the bed he says it once, quietly” (9).
The narrative concerns Richard Martin’s recovery from a crisis while he was in command of the orbiting module on one of the Apollo missions to the moon. During a communication blackout while the other astronauts were on the surface, Martin experiences a mental breakdown — queue lengthy scene filled with strange Freudian undertones where Martin experiences intense arousal and desires above all else, to press the “BUTTON” (with whom he holds a lengthy conversation) that will return the module to Earth abandoning the astronauts on the surface to lonely death… The situation is eventually averted.
After Martin returns, the agency — fearing a fallout regarding the state of its astronauts if he’s immediately sacked — places him in charge of interacting with the press for another space mission. The position as a press liaison is the perfect vehicle for another one of Malzberg’s central themes: the quest for the truth. The press wants “the truth” but obviously, the press responds to the type of story wanted by their readers. Martin can only transmit what the space agency wants him to although the manner in which he does so adds another layer of meaning. At moments Martin wants to open up and discuss something of the horror of his previous mission. Likewise, one of the astronauts on the mission, Allen, wants Martin to tell the “truth” of “The Astronaut” experience: ” You’re working with the press now. The civilians. And you can talk to them as a civilian. You’ve got to get the truth out. The truth, do you follow me? […] Tell them what it’s like […] How it feels to be inside here, looking out on it” (41).
This mission will take three astronauts on yet another lunar flight. However, this time around the capsule will contain nuclear warheads for a nebulously defined (on purpose) scientific mission regarding Earth’s origins and discovering the nature of the moon. Although framed as a purely scientific expedition, undertones of Cold War type arms race posturing is evident.
Richard Martin empathizes with one of the astronauts, Busby. Due to the fact that Busby’s wife had recently died and rumors circled that he had cheated on her, he had almost been kicked off the mission. Here Malzberg is directly referencing the astronaut Donn F. Eisele who was almost left off of the second manned Apollo flight due to his involvement in an extramarital affair! Exposing the disconnect between the public expectations and idealization of The Astronaut — immaculate in duty and immaculate in personal life — and the “reality” of an astronaut’s experience is the conceptual core of the novel.
Richard Martin’s own personal life is case in point. The narrative follows the slow breakdown of his marriage. His wife is unable to tolerate the expectations heaped on her as the wife of an astronaut. Likewise, she loses feeling for Richard due to the drastic changes in his character resulting from his crisis in space and the dehumanizing forces of the agency.
FA is best read with the knowledge that Malzberg expanded the themes discussed in his two later novels in the thematically linked astronaut trilogy — Beyond Apollo (1971) and Revelations (1972). Because I read them out of order I found FA a fascinating look at Malzberg’s budding thematic development. Without doubt Beyond Apollo is more refined in structure and Revelations more searing (and unnervingly prescient) in its message, but all three should be read.
Although lacking in many of the more explicit metafictional techniques of BA and R, a few obvious (well, not as explicit as those in Guernica Night) authorial interjections seep through — namely, on the genre of science fiction. For example, pulp magazines: “[Science fiction] appealed to [Martin] because it simplified things enormously. In the science fiction magazines of that period there had been stories of men who had gone out into the Universe in great rockets to conquer civilizations and make them safe for earth; now and then these men had had problems of course but nothing which the great rockets to say nothing of a shade of physical violence could not resolve […]” (106).
FA is a successful attempt to “un-simplify” the realities of space travel — to counteract the idealistic narrative propagated by pulp science fiction, facilitated by unabashed scientific positivism, and gobbled down by the adoring public who hold their astronaut celebrities to impossible, almost inhuman, standards.
(David Bergen’s cover for the 1975 edition)
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
For an article I wrote on Malzberg (here)