Book Review: The Dead Astronaut, ed. uncredited (1971) (J. G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, et al.)

(Pompeo Posar’s cover for the 1st edition)

3/5 (collated rating: Average)

“The dead astronaut: The phrase is filled with anxiety, the words themselves evoking the tension and anguish that gripped the whole world in that fateful month of April 1970, when a technical malfunction came close to costing the lives of astronauts Lovell, Swigert and Haise” (5).

The Dead Astronaut (1971) contains a range of 50s and 60s SF stories—from Ursula K. Le Guin to J. G. Ballard—on the broad theme of astronauts, that appeared in Playboy Magazine. For a  reader of genre for only the last decade (and a bit), it’s shocking to consider that Playboy, at one point, contained top-notch science fiction! That aside, The Dead Astronaut contains a range of soft and hard science fictional accounts of astronauts exploring and dying in space. There’s one important historical context point to understand before you read the anthology—despite the 1971 publication date, all the stories were written before Apollo 11‘s successful moon mission (July 29th, 1969).

The surprise of the anthology was Frank M. Robinson’s “The Wreck of the Ship John B.” (1967), a ruminative account of astronauts turning inward after years of an automated voyage… and the radical actions that must be taken to lurch them from their stupor. J. G. Ballard and Ursula K. Le Guin put in a brilliant shift. These three stories are the highlight of the collection.

Four of the ten visions were worth reading. As a whole, I cannot recommend the anthology. Track down the Ballard, Le Guin, Sheckley, and Robinson stories separately in their single-author collections (mentioned below).

Brief Analysis/Plot Discussion (*spoilers*)

“The Dead Astronaut” (1968), J. G. Ballard, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Ballard at the height of his powers, the best story in the collection… With NASA’s program long discontinued, Cape Kennedy is now a wasteland of swamps and stark “gantries rising from the deserted dunes” (11). In this decayed near future, Judith and Philip, married ex-NASA employees, await the descent of a dead astronaut. Relic hunters operate illegally in the crumbling complex, waiting for the homing signals to bring the satellites and capsules of the stranded  dead plunging to earth. The parts are dismantled and sold to the highest bidder. The mummified remains, like some future Tutankhamen, hold particular allure.  And Judith and Philip want the body of the trainee astronaut Robert Hamilton.

In the past Judith obsessed over Robert Hamilton, and Philip believes, years later, the only way she will let go is if she holds his bones. But there’s a sinister secret, and the relic hunters scatter as soon as they provide the couple with the burned remains. The relics, Ballard describes them as “medieval,” create a devastating danse macabre as the walls of the past come crashing down.

“The Dead Astronaut” is filled with Ballard’s favorite themes and tropes: the wrecked landscape as a manifestation of the interior space of the characters, the sinister implications of mechanization and media (the death recordings of astronauts are sold to illegal theaters), the obsessions and loneliness of humankind as worlds unravel.

It’s a gorgeous read. Highly recommended. It was collected in Ballard’s Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories (1976) and The Complete Short Stories (2001).

“Here Comes John Henry!” (1968), Ray Russell, 3/5 (Average): The introduction to the volume takes pain to indicate that Russell’s story was written before the appointment of Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. the first African American astronaut. Ray Russell wrote a handful of SF stories and the famous Gothic story “Sardonicus” (1961).

Captain John Henry Carter, a black astronaut, is “the first man to set foot on the moon and come home to tell about it” (27). The story is told from his perspective, and describes the voyage and the death of his Soviet partner, Ivan Genrikhovich Yashvili. Carter and Yashvili, of Georgian descent (like Stalin), find commonality in their heritage (slaves and serfs). However, a fuel error (that Carter presents as deliberate) means only one of them can return to Earth. Carter convinces Yashvili that they need to work together. Carter has other ideas in mind.

I am unsure what to make of this story. On one level, it’s fascinating reading SF from 1968 with a black main character. However, Carter, perhaps due to the trauma of his heritage and the racism he experienced, unleashes devastation on his fellow Americans. This story is definitely critical of the space agency and treatment of black Americans. I am also unsure how it connects to the legend of John Henry.

“A Man for the Moon” (1960), Leland Webb, 1/5 (Bad): It’s a bad sign when a story fades from memory only a day after I finished reading the collection. “A Man for the Moon” is a bland trifle of a tale about a reluctant astronaut selected for the first trip to the moon. Webb attempts to ground the voyage in a series of historical parallels with the crew of Columbus—crewmen who weren’t possessed with the  same burning desire to explore yet instrumental in the voyage’s success. Our astronaut has a series of conversation with Columbus’ navigator…. and I fell asleep. Avoid.

For other hamfisted historical Columbian analogies, see E. G. Valens’ SF poem Cybernaut (1968).

“Nine Lives” (1969), Ursula K. Le Guin, 4.5/5 (Very Good) clocks in as the second best story in the anthology. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives,” the reason I tracked down the anthology, explores mental ramifications of cloning. A group of ten clones are assigned to a remote mining planet, manned by a skeleton crew. At first Martin and Pugh, who run the station and spend years without more than radio contact with other humans, look forward to the arrival of the clones. But the clones look to each other for assistance, for love, for emotional support. Martin and Pugh are outsiders, unable to have the same connections that the clones are with each other. A disaster yields a new experience in the life of a clone.

Reflective and powerful. A disaster tale done right! Recommended.

“Requiem on the Moon” (1964), David Duncan, 2.5/5 (Bad): John Leonard and his colleague Charles Milford, operated a giant radio telescope on the Moon. John still talks to Charles. But Charles is dead, the unfortunate victim of the unfamiliar gravity of the moonscape. This plot point makes little sense — astronauts would be trained to operate in environments unlike that of Earth. Both astronauts are unable to remember in a time of crisis the diminished gravity on the Moon. Accidents happen but basic training would have prevented this one. A sense of grim loss permeates the middle section, as Leonard grapples with his loss in the bleak landscape of the moon. The emotional glow fades as the hackneyed positivist ending kicks into gear.

I’d previously reviewed David Duncan’s earlier Dark Dominion (1954). Despite the identical rating (my views of SF change over time), I think “Requiem on the Moon” is the superior read—it manages to evoke the loneliness on the moon. Duncan seems shackled by a lack of narrative imagination.

“The Sensible Man” (1959), Avram Davidson, 2/5 (Bad): Davidson tells a brief tale that jabs at American defections to the Soviets (think Arthur Adams and the Manhattan Project) and evokes that panic Americans felt of falling behind after the Soviets launched Sputnik (1957). Randal Wilcox murders his colleague and defects to the USSR–in his briefcase are the secrets of the American space program. Wilcox claims that every “sensible man” would join the nation on top. Little does he know that the USSR has another use for him, after his knowledge and secrets run dry.

If you’re an academic interested in the ramifications of Sputnik on the American psyche, this one might be for you. For the rest of us it is but a brief murmur in the reverberating screams of Cold War panic and best avoided.

“Skin-Deep” (1963), Brian Rencelaw, 2.5/5 (Bad). A new gadget allows the astronaut explorer to detect the dominate emotion of a new alien lifeform. On a survey mission, Croydon and Stark encounter spider-like aliens who emanate “LOVE” (104). Apparently no other diagnosis or research is needed other than the probe readout, and Croydon and Stark allow the aliens onto the ship with devastating results. Science doesn’t win in the end: the readout reads “LOVE! KISS! LOVE! DOGGY! LOVE! TEDDY BEAR!” as death descends (108).

“Skin-Deep” perpetuates the “nature is dangerous and must be destroyed or conquered” mentality and doesn’t offer any food for thought.

“The Wreck of the Ship John B.” (1967), Frank M. Robinson, 4/5 (Good): The surprise of the anthology! I knew of Frank M. Robinson, he’s best known for his generation ship novel The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991), but hadn’t read any of his earlier short fiction. I will track down his collection A Life in the Day of … and Other Short Stories (1981), which contains “The Wreck of the Ship John B.”

The captain of a colonization vessel on a lengthy deep space voyage confronts the slow withdraw of his crew. As the years pass and the automated vessel plows on, the crew slips into a mental stasis—lost in their thoughts, ignoring their companions, hiding behind privacy screens. The ideas, interactions, and texts that gave meaning no longer stimulate. The Captain, lurched out of his own stupor by the discovery of a space wreck whose passengers voluntarily hurled themselves into the vacuum, plots a crisis to reawaken his own crew.

Robinson postulates, as does Hilary Bailey and Michael Moorcock in The Black Corridor (1968), that future urbanism (that the spaceship reproduces) compels the individual to turn inward, to retreat from the oppressive world.

Recommended.

“Maelstrom II” (1965), Arthur C. Clarke, 3/5 (Average): As I age, Arthur C. Clarke’s brand of “hard” SF appeals less and less, and “Maelstrom II” proves my point. Clarke’s retelling of Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841) follows Cliff Leyland fateful attempt save some cash. Leyland takes the freight catapult (from the Moon to Earth) rather than the rocket shuttle. A disaster ensues, and in the doom and gloom of impending death Cliff makes the call to his wife, and talks to his children, a manly man to the end…. But, SCIENCE has other plans, and, despite trapped in an endless orbit with no hope of rescue, there’s a way out. And he must make a jump of faith. In my view, a “technological problem rescued by a moment of scientific genius” style SF only works when there are compelling characters. And there aren’t any here.

I still appreciate Clarke at his more reflective and less science driven, the fantastic Imperial Earth (1976) comes to mind.

“Spy Story” (variant title: “Citizen in Space”) (1955), Robert Sheckley, 4.25/5 (Good):  Previously reviewed with slight modification here.

The narrator of “Citizen in Space” believes the horrible police state he lives in is normal and not all that bad–normalization of evil. He is even disappointed that he is not important enough to receive be allotted additional spies (one gets the sense that most of America’s population is employed to spy on everyone else).  And, his spy happens to be inept.  Clearly a satire of 50s American McCarthy-era paranoia, “Citizen in Space” is definitely the funniest story in the collection: “I snapped off the intercom.  I should have felt wonderful.  Two full-time  Spies were watching me.  It meant I was someone, someone to be watched” (187).

Recommended. Check out my review of Sheckley’s eponymous collection. 

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23 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dead Astronaut, ed. uncredited (1971) (J. G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, et al.)”

  1. Somehow I got to be today years old before I knew there was a COMPLETE short stories of JG Ballard. This is good news.

  2. As part of my Robert Silverberg collection, I’ve procured a dozen Playboy’s from the 80’s and early 90’s. They were the highest paying market at the time (followed by Omni) and published big name progressive SF and mainstream authors of the day.

    1. Thanks for visiting!

      I started reading SF in my late teens — so ~2004. And devoted more and more time to science fiction throughout undergrad and grad school (when I started my site). As a result, my generation of readers finds Playboy’s publication of science fiction jarring as perception of the magazine had certainly changed by then. But yeah, browsing publication catalogs on isfdb.org certainly showed me the range of SF authors who published in the magazine!

      I have three other Playboy Press science fiction volumes: George Alec Effinger’s Utopia 3 (variant title: Death in Florence) (1978), Ted Thomas and Kate Wilhelm’s The Year of the Cloud (1971), and Keith Roberts’ The Inner Wheel (1971)

  3. As I recall, Algis Budrys worked for PLAYBOY in some lowly editorial capacity during the early 1960s, after he got married and moved to Chicago to work — alongside his then-buddy Harlan Ellison — for a minor publisher with a line in soft-porn. The minor publisher went broke, Ellison moved on westwards to Hollywood, and Budrys went to Playboy, and thence into PR work.

    Back in those days, PLAYBOY didn’t just publish SF, but short stories by heavyweights like Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike, IIRC. Also, weighty interviews with Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, Germaine Greer, and other notables of the time —

    https://longreads.com/2017/09/29/the-genius-of-the-playboy-interview/

    All this alongside installments of Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy. The promotional image of the PLAYBOY reader, I guess, was that he was supposedly reading all this stuff, while chilling in his bachelor’s pad and listening to his connoisseur’s hi-fi stero system play the latest LP from the Miles Davis (first) Quintet.

    Heh. Kind of a hoot to think about now.

    As for the anthology: Yeah, the good stories are the ones that people remember now and that you’ve pointed out.

    The Ballard story is indeed a perfect 1960s-era Ballard short, worthy to put alongside ‘The Terminal Beach’ and ‘The Voices of Time.’

    The LeGuin is from 1969, when she was starting to get big. ‘Nine Lives’ was originally published in PLAYBOY under the deliberately sexless byline, U.K. LeGuin (by editorial request, I believe). Nevertheless, it helped establish her as a strong short-fiction writer, alongside the novel THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, which also came out that year.

    I don’t remember the Robinson.

    As for the rest, pretty lackluster and best forgotten, as you say.

    1. I read, reviewed, and adored Ballard’s The Voices of Time (1962) collection. And the title story especially, so I agree on that point.

      https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2014/08/08/book-review-the-voices-of-time-and-other-stories-j-g-ballard-1962/

      I was surprised by the Robinson. While the ending was a little too happy considering the hardship the crew experienced (one would expect a lasting trauma from their state), the lead up was fantastic. As I mentioned in my review of The Black Corridor, how astronauts will keep their sanity in an enclosed and isolated environment is one of my favorite themes. And Robinson puts a great spin on it.

  4. Perhaps Frank M. Robinson is the true poet of the generation ship? I’ve only read one of his early gen ship stories, The Oceans Are Wide (1954). I don’t remember it that well and have been thinking of rereading since your gen ship read through. I’d heard about The Dark Beyond the Stars. But now your review of The Wreck of the Ship John B. really piques my interest. Did he chisel away at this theme in more stories? I need to know! And your musing on the gen ship as critique of urbanism I find very intriguing. Def something I am keen to explore further.

    1. In this particular instance it isn’t a generation ship, it’s a colony ship that will take multiple years to arrive with an only male crew. I haven’t read any of his other work. I look forward to reading The Oceans Are Wide (1954).

      As for the urbanism element, Robinson spells that out as an explanation for the crew’s actions. The main character understands what is happening after he reads a series of monographs on the effects of urbanism. I’ve been reading a lot about future cities as of late, and Robinson’s vision falls firmly into the urban environment as a force of dehumanization (as with Moorcock and Bailey in The Black Corridor). What’s so fascinating is that that standard argument is grafted onto an entirely different local — the cramped space of a colony ship where the crew are unable to escape each other.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts when you get around to reading it!

      1. 1967–the critique of urbanism was def in the air. Pioneered by the situationists in the 1950s it was becoming more widespread as the 60s rolled on. If you wanna find out more about the situ angle check out Simon Sadler’s The Situationist City:
        https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/situationist-city
        I’d love to know what Robinson was reading when he wrote this. I’m gonna get me a copy of this story asap.

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