Short Story Review: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “Death of a Spaceman” (variant title: “Memento Homo”) (1954)

This is the first post in a loose series on SF short stories I’ll be reviewing that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.

If you know any stories that might fall into this category published before 1980, let me know in the comments! I have compiled an extensive list (from Barry N. Malzberg to John Sladek) but my encyclopedic tendencies are mere delusions of completeness…

Up next: Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?” in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Samuel Hines (December 1952).

Amazing Stories, March 1954

Clarence Doore’s cover for the March 1954 issue

5/5 (Masterpiece)

Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1923-1996), best known for his Hugo-winning fix-up novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), wrote a fascinating range of short fictions between 1951-1957. I’ve previously reviewed a handful in The View From the Stars (1965). However, “Death of a Spaceman” (1954), a complex exploration of death and the delusions we tell ourselves and ones we love, might be the best of his I’ve read yet.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

Retired spacer Old Donegal (“Donny”) lies in his bed dying of cancer: his family “had all known it was coming, and they had watched it come” (7). In his rundown house with his long-suffering wife Martha at his side,  he waits for the inevitable release with his magnasoles on his shriveled feet propped up on his bedframe.

Slice-of-Life Realities and The “Real” World Out There

“‘Did you like horror movies when you were a kid?’ asked the psych. And you’d damn well better answer ‘yes,’ if you want to go to space” (17).

In this future, space travel is a dangerous blue-collar occupation (Note 1). After the terror of blasting off dissipates, you spend your time crawling through “dirty mazes of greasy pipe and cable” with the “omniscient accident statistics” flitting through your head (16). Spacers spend the vast majority of the trip soaring “in ominous silence” drinking smuggled booze (17).  And if you are one of those statistics and die in space, as happens with Donny’s son-in-law Oley, one’s spouse receives a mere pittance of financial remuneration.

Nora’s interactions with her father suggests a pernicious capitalism is afoot–the wealthy, who have walled themselves off from the working class, make their fortune off of spacers like Donny. And while they dole out their pathetic pensions for the spouses of the dead and go through the pretensions of sending their sons to space, Nora suggests they are only in it for the cash.

And Old Donegal tells himself that it was all worth it.

Ernest Schroeder’s interior art for the Amazing Stories, March 1954

The Delusions We Tell Ourselves and Those We Love

“Can I talk about dying now?” he wondered aloud. She pinched her lips together and shook her head. “I lie to myself, Martha. You know how much I lie to myself?” She nodded slowly and stroked his gray temples. “I lie to myself about Ken, and about dying. If Ken turned space, I wouldn’t die—that’s what I told myself. You know? (17)”

On his death bed Old Donegal cycles through a series of delusions. He plays games with his wife about returning to space. Martha, unwilling to outwardly acknowledge the extent of his illness, plays along. He refuses to voice the fact that his grandson (Ken) does not want to follow in his footsteps. He attempts, one last time, to convince his daughter Nora that the death her husband was a heroic event (16). He refuses to mention that men have made millions off his labor and the deaths of countless astronauts from the safety of earth.

And in this moment, as death approaches, he makes his peace with his flawed world, despite the reality of it all, as sometimes the lies we tell ourselves are all we have.

Narratological Interplay and The Way We Wish It Will Happen (Note 2)

The short story presents rich narratological layers. There’s overt interplay between “Death of a Spaceman” (1954) and Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” (1949). Both Donny and Willy are 63-years-old and self-deluded.  As it has been too long since I read the play, I’ll leave this element to someone else to explore.

I am far more interested in the way “Death of the Spaceman” interacts with pulp science fiction— i.e. “drivel written in the old days” about the “romance” of space (16). Donny negatively contrasts his own experience with the stories that are told about the stars and adventure.

Miller doesn’t set about smashing it all with a bludgeon  (like Malzberg would at the end of the next decade), but rather presents future experiences as prone to the same moments of painful self-reflection as life comes to its end. He charts the emotional roller coaster that waffles between moments of calm and the growing tension/anger/helplessness…. and after Donny tells all his “rotten messes” to the priest (20), he comes to the realization that we make who we are, sins and failure and sadness and all.

Note 1: James Gunn’s Station in Spac(1958) stories have a similar blue collar emphasis on the conquest of space. Gunn’s fictions, despite the same stark brutality, present suffering as a process in forging “Man” rather than  generating delusions.

Note 2: A play on Barry N. Malzberg’s “Apocrypha as Produced or: The Way We Wished it Happened” in Universe Day (1971).

A few anthologies where “Death of a Spacemen” appeared

Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1965 edition

Carl Smith cover for the 1966 edition

Robert Foster’s cover for the 1971 edition

Richard Powers’ cover for the 1971 edition

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

29 thoughts on “Short Story Review: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “Death of a Spaceman” (variant title: “Memento Homo”) (1954)

  1. Well, let’s see, we’ve had books titled “Death of a Salesman”, now “Death of an Astronaut”, what’s next, “Death of a Range Safety Officer?”, “Death of an Aerospace Lobbyist”? (or was the lobbyist the salesman, sometimes it’s difficult to discern the difference)

    • I suspect the on-the-nose similarity in title and thematic subject matter was the reason it was rebranded in later anthologies as “Memento Homo.”

      Tempted by the story? Read any Walter M. Miller, Jr. before?

    • A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) was originally short stories — one novelette and two novellas that all previously appeared in print before 1957 and refashioned into a novel in 1959. That said, he did see them retrospectively as “a novel” while writing the final section for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1957, but by that point the title story “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (1955) had been in print for two years — and featured in multiple “Best Of” collections. Pub history:

      I looked at your review but I disagree with your assessment–I’m a contemporary reader and enjoyed “Conditionally Human” (1952) as a fascinating example of 50s SF. I have a copy of the 1962 collection by the same name and loved the title story but never read the other two in in so I didn’t review it.

      Check out my review of The View From the Stars (1965) for some that went over less well with me (although it contained gems as well):

      • Of course you’re a contemporary reader. At least I hope I don’t communicate with a Zombie or an AI (in that case, you‘ve passed the Turing test). Having said that, you’re part of a very special group of readers and I wouldn’t extrapolate too much. Many of my peer group are sensitive to the issues I‘ve raised; I wouldn’t say that this holds up to everyone and I probably have generalized too far. Ah, sensitivity in formulations never have been easy for me 😁

        • As a side note more related to my own practice, there’s a reason I avoid the word using the word “dated” with a passion (I’ve found that it’s wielded as a bludgeon to only smash what the reader dislikes). That said, if a story is overtly racist/sexist etc. I try to point it out.

          Did you see the question I asked in the review: “If you know any stories that might fall into this category published before 1980, let me know in the comments! ” I suspect you’ve encountered some in your reading adventures. Always looking for more stories on the theme.

  2. I have to say that, on balance, I prefer “Death of a Spaceman” as this story’s title. One day I’ll get around to reviewing it. Maybe the week before Christmas, since free downloads of one-sitting reading are useful then.

    Fine review, Dr. B.

  3. “Death of a Spaceman” was a lovely story, so thanks for getting me to read it. What’s interesting is Amazing had a reputation for being pretty bad around that time. But that same issue had stories by Jerome Bixby, Ross Rocklynne, Frederic Brown, and Eric Frank Russell. I might need to read all those stories to see if they are better than Amazing’s reputation.

    Miller wrote another story about space exploration being unglamorous and hard, is “Crucifixus Etiam.”

    • Hello James, I was a tad surprised that it appeared in Amazing as well considering its focus on reflection and death rather than action and adventure (Miller’s F&SF appearances seem more like his natural home). I reviewed “Crucifixus Etiam” a few years back in the Miller collection I linked in the post–The View From the Stars (1965).. I remember being less impressed with that one due to the ending.

      What was your favorite part of “Death of a Spaceman”? Do you plan on writing about it?

      • If I can find the time, I’d like to review it. I posted your review on our science fiction short story discussion group on Facebook hoping we’d get a discussion going there.

        What I really admired was how realistically Miller showed Donny dying. He even mentioned enemas. I’m 69, so I think about what it will be like to die and how infirm my body might become. It’s already getting a bit gimpy and cantankerous. But I also liked how Donny was so desperate to choreograph his own end. And, of course, I like how Miller worked to deglamorize space travel, making it sound more like working on an ocean going cargo vessel.

        I love finding gritty SF short stories from the 1950s. On the group, I’ve been promoting “Deadly City” by Paul Fairman (writing as Ivar Jorgensen, “Lot” by Ward Moore, “The Last Day” by Richard Matheson, and “One in Three Hundred” by J. T. McIntosh – all from 1953. They all seem so out of place compared to the typical SF story of the time. I’ll have to add “Death of a Spaceman” to the group.

        • Well, I definitely look forward to a review if you put one together. I love that phrase you used — “choreograph” is own end. That is the perfect way to frame it. The story had the potential to dip into the overly saccharine but, for the reasons you described, it was possessed by a disquieting realism that engaged seriously with death and grounded the entire narrative..

          The parts with Martha, the long suffering wife, and the other wives of the astronauts reminded me of Napoleonic War vessels — and the officers going off to war. Like in the Hornblower books…. and while he was an officer with far better food and quarters than the crew, the novel also presented a deglamorized version of life on a sailing vessel (the putrid wounds, the diseases, the latrines, etc.)

          Thanks for the recommendations (other gritty SF stores from the same period).

          Thanks for posting the review on Facebook.

  4. The first classic SF take on blue-collar, maimed astronauts that comes to my mind is C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Altar at Midnight” from 1952, but much reprinted. It’s short and nasty —

    Kornbluth’s “Theory of Rocketry” from 1958 — one of his last stories — also comes at the theme from another angle. That one is about a high school teacher who’s got one of these future heroes in his class at Richard Nixon High School.

    It’s a bag that Walter Miller worked too, but I see you’ve already come across ‘Crucifixus Etiam.’ His last story, “The Lineman” (1957) is also solidly in this bag.

    Indeed, the blue-collar spaceman was kind of a staple of 1940s-50s SF, as those years are the latter part of the New Deal era. (You could make an argument for more than a couple of of Heinlein’s ‘future history’ shorts as being in this blue-collar astronaut bag, but I’m not going to. A little Heinlein goes a long way and while he’s not without interest, I find him way overrated.)

    The early Greg Benford novel IN THE OCEAN OF NIGHT is critical of NASA (or a NASA surrogate) and if you liked ‘If the Stars Are Gods’ it’s a similar kind of vibe.

  5. The Benford & Eklund I did read years ago as a novel, but IIRC I preferred the novella version.

    ‘Theory of Rocketry’ is hard to find. One big reason is, Kornbluth had already died from his premature heart attack in March 1958 (at age 34!) a couple of months before the story made it on to the newsstands in July 1958. From the viewpoint of publishers and the market at the time, Kornbluth at that point became an invisible man. For a long time the only place you’d find the story was if you came across either a second-hand paperback of the BEST of F&SF for 1958 or an obscure British collection from publisher Faber & Faber in 1968, THE BEST OF C.M. KORNBLUTH.

    In fact, what basically kept Kornbluth’s name and solo work alive was his buddy and collaborator Frederik Pohl, who kept pushing it back into print and finishing off the unfinished pieces Kornbluth had left (and by the time Pohl did that, he was a much better writer than he’d been back in the 1950s and somewhat more within range of Kornbluth).

    Anyway, what I finally did myself was I broke down and bought the 1997 NESFA volume, HIS SHARE OF GLORY:THE COMPLETE SHORT SCIENCE FICTION OF C.M. KORNBLUTH.

    That may be against your religion, as I seem to recall your criteria for reading a thing has to do with collecting the text in its historical original published form, with the original funky artwork. Whereas the NESFA edition is a relatively modern, curated book — though it does have a Richard Powers cover! More to the point from my POV, it’s the only place where all the Kornbluth stories can be easily found, as in his lifetime Kornbluth had only those three extremely skinny anthologies under his own name, and for a long time about a half to a third of his stuff was otherwise only accessible as it appeared scattered around obscure old anthologies edited by other folks.

    And a lot of it’s great stuff — Kornbluth is that extreme rarity, someone who seems to have almost fallen out of the womb as an accomplished writer.

    • Hah! You know where you can find ‘Theory of Rocketry’? In that old Laurence Janifer anthology you’ve got pictured (twice) as MASTER’S CHOICE/18 GREATEST SCIENCE FICTION STORIES. It’s the lead story there.

      • Ah, I have nothing against buying newer collections of older stories! I have the Ballard short story omnibus on the shelf. I don’t necessarily seek them out but I’ll buy them if I don’t known them already and see them on the shelf of a book store.

    • I agree. The Altar at Midnight is great. Additionally, thanks for the heads up on Theory of Rocketry–I’m very excited about reading this.

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  8. Thanks for the review Joachim—some great thoughts on old time sf as per usual.
    I wrote out a reply today, but it rapidly turned into a blog post so I’ve posted it to my site (
    I love Miller. My top Miller Stories. In no particular order: Conditionally Human, The Darfsteller, Dark Benediction, Dumb Waiter, Big Joe and the Nth Generation/It Takes A Thief, The Big Hunger, Death of A Spaceman, and of course, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Blood Bank I don’t remember well, but having just looked at the cool illustrations in its first printing I feel the need for a reread!
    Have you read The Hoofer ( I have, but I find it hard to recall. It’s a slice of life, like Death of A Spaceman, but maybe more like Kornbluth’s Altar at Midnight? Another reread.
    Thinking about Death of A Spaceman has set me in a more general mood regarding it’s role. Apart from Miller’s deftness in evoking a slice of life of the future (I’d love to hear some modern “slide” music and the ‘sarcastic wail of a clarinet painting hot slides against a rhythmic background’), what I find most fascinating about this work is as evidence of the subterranean percolations of Anglo-American sf in the 1950s. From my blog post:
    ‘I like the idea that Malzberg’s bludgeon is seen as the continuation and maybe even culmination of Miller’s more self-consciously literary crafting of pulp sf themes. Guy Debord spoke about the decomposition of the arts as their trajectory under the solvent pressure of capitalism and commodity relations. “From Miller to Malzberg” could be the title of a book dealing with the high period of the decomposition of Anglo-American sf: 1950-1970. Surely a timing to generate scholarly disputes by.’

    • As always, thanks for the contribution! And I enjoyed your post immensely.

      I’m a fan of Miller as well. I’ve read, and enjoyed, “Conditionally Human” and all the stories in The View From the Stars (1965) collection.

      The only Miller I’ve really disliked so far is “The Lineman” (1957) (his last published short story) that I couldn’t finish. Something about the space ship brothel, plus evil Communist revel group, etc. didn’t sit well with me. Although, it too had a slice-of-life feel and was relatively positive about unions.

      I really want to read “The Darfstellar” — I’ve heard that it’s one of his absolute best. “The Hoofer” wasn’t on my radar but now it is!

      But yeah, “From Miller to Malzberg” does seem like a great title. I look forward to whatever else you write along this vein!

      • I’ve finished The Lineman and I vaguely recall feeling the same as you. For all of his greatness his 1950s Catholic hetero male sensibilities shine through—even in his best work, though often not as objectionably.

        My response above was a bit more incoherent than I was going for! In part cleared up in my blog post and some of my replies there. For instance, I have no recollection what this was meant to be: “Thinking about Death of A Spaceman has set me in a more general mood regarding it’s role.” A general mood—what the hell is that? Finally at one with the cosmic absolute!?

        I should just keep on listening to that slide music all the kids are bopping to.

        And “The Hoofer”. Everyone read “The Hoofer” by Miller now.

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