Short Story Review: Charles W. Runyon’s “First Man in a Satellite” (1958)

The following review is the 11th installment of my series searching for “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. And that is okay. I relish the act of literary archaeology.

Preliminary Note: I am getting a bit carried away by this project. The historian in me rears its obsessive head. I experience intense enjoyment reading any and all stories on the theme regardless of their quality. I know my readers might want me to feature some higher quality stories. Right? While I have a few average to solid stories in the docket read and waiting for reviews, I plan on tackling some harder-hitters in the near future (more Malzberg, Ballard, Sturgeon, etc.).

I had fun writing about this one! As always, feel free to join the conversation.

Previously: Roger Zelazny’s “Halfjack” in Omni, ed. Don Dixon (June 1979). You can read it online here.

Up Next: J. G. Ballard’s “The Cage of Sand” in New Worlds Science Fiction, ed. John Carnell (June 1962). You can read it online here.

2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)

Charles W. Runyon’s “First Man in a Satellite” appeared in Super-Science Fiction (December 1958), ed. W. W. Scott. You can read it online here.

For two years of my youth in the early 1990s, I lived in Washington, D.C with the National Air and Space Museum a few blocks away from our tiny home in Dupont Circle. While I could not yet read, I knew how long it should take for my parents to read each and every exhibit label to me. And, agape at Able the monkey’s space couch and preserved body, I asked the predictable question: “did she survive the voyage into space?” “She did,” my mother would said, “she died soon after.” “And the monkeys before her?”

In the years before Runyon’s “First Man in a Satellite” hit the magazine stand in December 1958, multiple monkeys had been heaved into the dark ether. Here are a few of the primate casualties in the name of progress and crushing Communism. In 1951, Albert V died due to parachute failure. Albert VI survived the initial landing (the first monkey to do so) but died two hours later. A few days after the magazine hit the stand, Gordo died due to mechanical failure of the parachute recovery system. 1959 would finally bring a change in the fate of our primate friends–Able and Miss Baker flew a successful mission (Able died later due to a reaction to anesthesia while Miss Baker lived until 1984) (Wikipedia).

But before Able and Miss Baker were jammed in their rocket nose cone, “First Man in a Satellite” tells to story of Max, the first human space test subject. Like the sad cavalcade of test monkeys in suits with medical instruments and diodes and rudimentary skills, Max joins their parade towards the grave—“a passive guinea pig, bunch and probed in a satellite that circled earth” (24). Max, one half of a “tumbling and song and dance routine” with his girlfriend Marie, fears a day when he will no longer be able to perform. He takes an offer too lucrative to resist. But he must keep knowledge of his mission from Marie and allow himself to be hurled into orbit alone for science.

Only able to talk to those on earth for part of each orbit, Max struggles with his intense isolation, longing for his girlfriend, and paranoid thoughts of a potential descent into schizophrenia. His medical monitors relay everything back to Earth. But an accident happens. And his air is running out. And, for whatever reason, a real pilot wasn’t selected for the mission. Are pilots too valuable to be risked? A real pilot would have saved the mission! Was Max, like the monkeys and the mice and the dogs and the frogs, a sacrificial victim from the beginning?

Rather than a searing condemnation of institutional failure and distain for human life, Runyon resorts to a half-hearted sentimentality and the promise of post mortem hero-worship as an ameliorating suave for the impending disaster. I get the sense Runyon wanted to condemn the dominate 1950s rhetoric that secrecy and sacrifice is justified in the face of national security but dabbles and wobbles in pulling it all together. There’s so much here for forceful satire. Runyon seems content telling the reader at least Max knows he’ll have a statue and, in those final moments, the voice of his girlfriend in his ear. In Runyon’s future, kids, like me in Washington, DC., might ask their moms and dads while looking up at his statue or the shattered remains of his capsule, “did he survive the voyage into space?” “No,” they will sigh gazing at eager awestruck eyes, ‘The Rhesus monkey [before him] did’ (30) for a little bit at least.” “Why didn’t they send a pilot?”

Over the years I’ve acquired two Charles Runyon novels–Pig World (1971) and Ames Holbrook, Deity (1972)—but could never get through a few pages of either. Between 1958 and 1978, Runyon published 18 stories in a range of magazines from If to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. SF Encyclopedia describes his work as “action-filled, without extensive displacement or speculative content.” “First Man in a Satellite,” Runyon’s first published SF story, follows this pattern.

Worthwhile for completists of 50s takes on the theme of negative/subversive takes on space travel and/or human experimentation only. At least the Ed Emshwiller interior art (below) knocks it out of the park!

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10 thoughts on “Short Story Review: Charles W. Runyon’s “First Man in a Satellite” (1958)

  1. Speaking of satellites, do you know Michael Shaara’s “Four-Billion Dollar Door,” from SATELLITE, December 1956? It’s a sardonic story about astronauts getting to the moon and having . . . technical problems. Never reprinted as far as I can tell. Seems at least adjacent to the theme of your project.

    • Hello John, thanks for stopping by. I have not heard of “Four-Billon Dollar Door.” I’ll put it on the list immediately. I found an online PDF of the magazine so hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

      I have a copy of Michael Shaara’s collection Soldier Boy (1982) but don’t think I’ve read any of his fiction. Do you know of any of his other stories that might be the most representative of his talents?

      • I’ve read SOLDIER BOY, though I can’t put my hand on it at the moment. More pertinently, I can barely remember much about any of the stories individually. They were yer basic sharp, ironic, well-tooled artifacts of their time and place, the 1950s digests. I do remember Shaara’s commentary in that book. He said that after almost a decade, he could no longer stand the constraints of the SF field, so he stopped. He got a teaching job and continued writing, but not for the SF magazines. His career move was eventually vindicated by the reception of his novel THE KILLER ANGELS, about the Civil War, which brought him a Pulitzer Prize and probably a lot of money since it sat on top of the NY Times best-seller list for quite a while. But back to his SF. I believe he said that one step in his disillusion was the failure of his story “Death of a Hunter” to sell at the top of the market (it wound up in FANTASTIC UNIVERSE), since he thought it was more substantial than his usual. So you might want to try that. But read the commentary as well–it is more interesting than the stories.

  2. Ha! The cover of Super Science Fiction advertises TWO Silverberg stories, Anyway, Runyon, if I remember correctly, was more of a mystery writer as he used to pop up regularly in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

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