Short Fiction Review: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “The Hoofer” (1955)

The following review is the 15th 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.

I read this story in celebration of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s birthday (1/23). While best known for his masterful A Canticle for Leibowitz (fixup 1959) novellas, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his other short fictions, including his previous appearance in this series “Death of a Spaceman” (variant title: “Memento Homo”) (1954).

As always, feel free to join the conversation and read along with me on the search for the depressed astronaut.

Previously: Poul Anderson’s “Third Stage” in  Amazing Stories, ed. Cele Goldsmith (February 1962). You can read it online here.

Up Next: John D. MacDonald’s “Flaw” in Startling Stories, ed. Sam Merwin, Jr. (January 1949). You can read it online here.

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “The Hoofer” first appeared in the September 1955 issue of Fantastic Universe, ed. Leo Margulies. You can read it online here. I read it in S-F: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Judith Merril (1956).

“The Hoofer” inhabits a similar future as “Death of a Spaceman” (1954) where space travel is a dangerous blue-collar occupation and coming home from the “Big Bottomless” parallels the traumas of a wartime veteran. With deceptive and powerful simplicity, “The Hoofer” follows Big Hogey Parker, with bottle of gin in hand that aggravates the physical symptoms of space travel–“glare-blindness, gravity-legs, and agoraphobia” (77), on his bus journey home a “week late” (79). He has a secret he fears to share with his wife. And the effects of space travel only explain some of his deep sadness within.

Like any good character study, careful details and implications flesh out the conflicted personality of Big Hogey and how he rationalizes his sins. Like many denizens of the expanse, he perceives the world down below as obfuscating the reality of the cosmic forces: “the sun, the real sun, was a hateful eye-sizzling horror in the dead black pit” and the “fat red sun” as perceived on earth “was behind the gory mask, and what it had done to his eyes” (81). And despite the horrors that tear into our minds and masks, there’s a desperate glory to space travel that he yearns for despite his family that awaits below.

And Big Hogey’s inability to understand the trauma of exploration leads him to break his familial promises: “one more tour, baby, and we’ll have enough dough, and then I’ll quit for good” (83). But Big Hogey doesn’t want to quit for good. And so with “sun-scorched face” he approaches the family farm and the rest of his life that awaits (77).

Like Old Donegal in “Death of a Spaceman,” Big Hogey cycles through a series of painful self-reflections and confrontations with delusion: his desire to return to space, his inability to confront his wife over his profound failings, his alcoholism, and the physical transformation of the spacer who returns to Earth. And like Old Donegal, he cannot escape the mask that finally slips into place.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s own struggle with his wartime experiences and PTSD–he took part in the bombing of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino in WWII, which proved a traumatic experience for him (citation)–shines through in “The Hoofer.” It feels emotionally real. I feels devastating in its implications. The application of the war experience to space travel adds a fascinating wrinkle to the dominating narratives of 50s science fiction as positivist that crop up in science fiction scholarship and popular dialogue. And, of course, if you’re tempted by this story and haven’t read “Death of a Spaceman” (1954), read both!

Highly recommended.

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34 thoughts on “Short Fiction Review: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “The Hoofer” (1955)

        • Good good! They explore similar territory in remarkably effective ways. There’s a chance that “Death” might be my single favorite Miller, Jr. work — even better than some of the novellas in Canticle (albeit, it’s been a LONG time since I’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz).

            • Yeah, it’s considered (and I agree) one of the absolute best post-apocalyptic SF novels (although it’s a fix-up of previously published short fiction as he only wrote short work). Like Miller in general, it’s far more ruminative and poignant than most other takes on the theme (inspired by his own Catholic upbringing, struggles with his faith, alcoholism, and wartime experiences).

  1. I came across a story that takes an unromantic view of space travel: “The Journey” by Murray Leinster, which first appeared in Star Science Fiction #1 edited by Frederik Pohl. It’s from 1953.

    • Hello James, I was thinking of reading this one and realized that copies of the first Star Short Stories are $25+ online! I own the fourth volume but it cost a few dollars. And, to the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a copy available on Internet Archive. I want to read it but I don’t think I’m going to dish out that much money for the first volume in the series…. do you have a PDF or know of an online copy? If not, that’s fine. The story was never anthologized elsewhere else I’d just track down another volume.

  2. I just read parts of the novel “Out of the Silent Planet” (1938) by C. S. Lewis, who was adamantly against space travel. Indeed, his dabblings into SF seem to have been motivated by that.

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