1982, Books, Fiction

Space (1982) by James Michener

The older I get the more I seem to be winning the battle – or at least not losing the battle – with my completist streak. I am writing a review of this flawed novel after having read only 470 pages as a celebration of defeating my completist impulse yet again. I do not need to finish every book I’ve ever started, especially when they suck.

Reading Space, I wonder if I was too kind to the first Michener I read, Hawaii or whether this one is just shitty Michener. (It may be just shitty Michener, as it really isn’t in his formula and it lacks the thing that I suspect made him so popular: focusing on the perspectives of different cultures in one novel when most mainstream American authors did not do that.)

The flaws that were evident in Hawaii are evident here as well: the novel is way too long, this is too much a celebration without a critical eye (more on that in a moment), etc. But there are a few really big flaws that make this novel pretty brutal and, ultimately, lead me to abandon it slightly over half way through, after my nth complaint to my girlfriend when she encouraged me (for the nth time) to stop reading something I hated. (Thanks!)

One major flaw is that the characters are really under-developed, despite Michener spending 176 pages (I’m serious! 176 pages!) on their collective backstories. They archetypes rather than people, meant to represent particular types (as Michener sees them) who serve the space program in one way or another. Some of them have roles that are highly unrealistic (such as the wife of one astronaut who is the lead council for the space committee) but most are just portraits of people, rather than people. The worst character is Stanley Mott, the protagonist, if we can say there is one. Mott appears to substitute for 8-10 different real people in the actual space program as his skills change to suit the needs of Michener’s narrative. A man like this who served this many jobs in the space program could not have existed or, had he, he would have been bad at at least one of his endless number of new jobs. We’re supposed to believe this one guy is a brilliant engineer, a brilliant scientist (despite being portrayed as ignorant of various things many, many times) and an amazing people person? I have yet to meet anyone like this. He’s absurd. He’s just a plot device.

Michener also has a weird – and very American – distrust of theoretical scientists in favour of the more “blue collar” engineers. It’s very weird, given how both of these jobs were incredibly important for the space program. But, like any red-blooded American, Michener wants to celebrate people who work with their hands more than people who think. Even the men with PhDs in this novel are not nerds. It’s really weird.

But probably the biggest flaw (depending on how much you hate shitty characters) is Michener’s (once again wholly American) celebration of the great myths of the space program. Michener casts what appears to be an entirely uncritical eye about everything that happened – it was necessary because it happened. Even only half way through the novel, there are numerous instances where Michener presents scenes that should be assumed to be offensive to the 1982 reader (maybe not, as I was only 1) but which Michener presents without any kind of critical eye or irony or anything like that. This includes both his treatment of women and his treatment of non-white people (the latter a real surprise for Michener given Hawaii). Yes, depicting is not condoning, but it’s hard to tell that Michener is not condoning this behaviour because he seems to think everything in this is necessary so that America can land a man on the moon.

What’s the justification for the space program according to Michener? Propaganda, I think. If that’s the real justification for the space program, Michener should have been a little critical of that idea, even back in 1982, no? And that’s the problem with this novel: everything the US did to get into space is justified and the way they did it – or, rather, the way the dominant narrative as to how they did it – is presented here unquestioned, as if it was myth of the American space program – a bunch of able-bodied, can-do Americans working together to beat the Russians to the moon – that is of interest. Michener’s novel is mythology, not literature and with those flimsy characters, it’s not even good mythology.

Which brings me to section from 458 to 470 wherein Michener attempts to address why there weren’t any black people in the space program. (Clearly, Michener did not do enough research to familiarize himself with the history that inspired Hidden Figures.) Michener wants you to believe that the honourable white men responsible for the space program were accidentally prejudiced against black people but…but!…when upstanding members of the black community brought this to their attention, these honourable white men did everything they could – everything! – to find qualified black men to be in the space program. Only there weren’t any. At all. In the entire United States of America. Michener wants us to believe that in 1965 there wasn’t a single African American qualified to be an astronaut or a member of Mission Control. So these honourable white men used affirmative action to put some less-than-capable black men (not women, of course) to put some black faces in the picture because, in the eyes of Michener, affirmative action was all about appearances and not about combating systemic racism.

I mean, fuck this guy. I thought Michener was pretty progressive in Hawaii but it’s hard to believe the same man wrote this. I guess what seemed progressive in the 1950s seems regressive now but it’s hard to believe that the man who wrote Hawaii

actually believes that the only point of opening up job opportunities to people of colour is so that the workforce is proportional to the population
This section was the last straw. After I read it, I lay in bed thinking, is this really just what the Senator believes, or is it what Michener believed or is it what Michener thought America believed (and so must be reflected back)? Whatever the case, Michener presents it like everything else in this book: as necessary. All so that a couple of “genius” can-do white Americans can walk on the moon. (To what end? He never says. At least, not in the half I read.) Having read this, Michener now strikes me as one of those white men who refuse to acknowledge both male privilege and white privilege and continue insisting that everyone got the same systemic advantages they did.

Save yourself the mental energy. Read The Right Stuff instead. At least that’s honest.

3/10

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