Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, May 28, 2012

1971: The Falling Astronauts (Malzberg, Barry N.)

Stagnant character, stagnant author (3/5)

My exposure to Barry M. Malzberg has been limited. I've only read his novel The Last Transaction, which was a character-fueled trip through the sex-driven private life of a US president. The amount and description of the sex is off-putting, but as least it was pertinent to character's state of mind. This EXACT SAME formula is used in The Falling Astronauts, but rather than the private life of a president, the focus is on the private life of a fallen astronaut. The similarity between the two unlinked book has me thinking that Malzberg just likes to lightly mold a near-future science fiction tale around his core concentration of sex--a sign of a weak author, in my opinion. Not too many novels use the 4-letter C-word, but it feels like Malzberg uses it with relish.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Colonel Richard Martin had been to the Moon and back, but he would never be sent on a mission again.
Martin had suffered a nervous breakdown while he orbited the Moon, and he couldn't be trusted to pilot an expensive space capsule anymore. So no Martin handled public relations for the space program, and after one more Moon launch his connection with the program would be completely ended.
But on one could foresee the strange disaster that would turn the coming space mission into a nightmare that only Martin, is anyone, could end..."

Martin wasn't sent to rove the lunar landscape, but he was given the command of the orbiting module. Alone in the cabin during the communications blackout, Martin is seized by a gripping impulsion to ignite the retro-rockets, leaving his two crewmen stranded on he lunar surface for dead, and sending himself rocketing into deep space or into the sun. The BUTTON beckons his attention, berating his refusal to act as an individual. Mentally breaking down, the rest of the mission is scrapped but the details are never released to the press.

Returning to Earth, Martin is again with his ill-adjusted wife who cannot tolerate the social atmosphere on the space program. Simply labeled as an "astronaut's wife", Susan is childless and anti-social. Her hatred of the atmosphere drives her weak relationship with her husband to the point that he can't even discuss his work problems with her. Shut out of her life, Martin is left to his own mental wreckage as his wife leaves him.

The declining interest in the space program has seen more and more press ignoring the details of each consecutive flight, which may be why Martin was temporarily placed as press liaison. His distant, curt manner is unsettling to the reporters who generally lack interest in any of the happenings at the project. One reporter in particular, Perkins, has a very crass attitude when posing questions, accusing the staff of hiding secrets and harboring information which should be shared with the public. Martin's patience wears thin with Perkin's ill manner, but the rest of congenial press sympathize with Martin's uncomfortable position.

The space agency is gearing up for another lunar flight when martin assumes his press liaison position. Martin would rather avoid all socialization, but the parties revolving around astronaut induction is one he isn't able to miss. The wives make their own awkward scene while Martin makes a few loose connections with the crew of the next flight: commander Allen is a husband but also a curiously friendly fellow, lieutenant colonel Davis is a pompous sociologist, and colonel Busby is a widower who shares the same position as Martin one had--module command.

The main focus of The Falling Astronauts in the internal drive which drove Martin to his temporary insanity and how he deals with the fallout during his desk job at the agency. His disconnection with other people is symptomatic of the acceptance of his personal limitations... and his failure. The sheer amount of training Martin endured had a negative characterization upon him; he sees himself as an individual, but the agency has trained him to be a part of a machine. His attachment to BUTTON in the lunar orbiter is part of his conditioning to be a machine, which should contrast his emotional attachment to the two members on the moon:
The single mechanical button overrides the importance of the two organic souls, his crewmates and fellow astronauts. The crux of the matter:
The ship... takes orbital fire and he feels his own guilt like a rosy glow inflaming his body; as the ship has taken power, so he has become a conductor for culpability and he feels himself burning: burning with darkening fire whose stains, if it were to surface, would mark him eternally. (109)
The sociological aspect is often a focus, be it with group dynamics or general opinion on social interaction: "We make patterns; you always have configurations in human relationships totally apart from the personnel involved... The human factor is paramount." (53) Much of it point to our own patterns reinforcing or destroying the greater social fabric, but the importance of the individual is casually ignored. Martin understands the power one man has and he can project this sometimes demoralizing force onto what Busby may feel when he, too, will be in lunar orbit alone; however, Martin's disconnectedness finds him uncaring.

Amidst all of this social deconstruction and the internal debasement of Martin, the reader is shown glimpses of sexual deviation, shadows of their own reality only hinted at to the reader. Martin's own sexual deviation goes untold, but he mentions scatology four times and imagines this desire on his leaving wife once. A cross-section of the astronauts on the coming mission reveals only Allan's inability to cope with the stress of the program, which is veiled in a private interaction with Martin. The occasional hinting of sexuality is much more favorable than the blunt sex scenes, but combine the two and the reader begins to wonder what is making the author tick. Having read only two Malzberg novels, they share a very similar plot and emit an odd trait which reflects unfavorable upon the author.

The characterization I mention is a heavily condensed form than found in the novel. It often feels like the book is going nowhere; the reader waddles in the murk that is Martin's depression, slogs through the tides of disconnectedness with his personal and professional life, and stand on the precipice of the one-dimensional character of Martin. The stagnation has a purpose but behind the characterization there is very little going on, not even the supporting cast can lend a hand to its pacing.

If there's a Malzberg novel which deviates from his curious fixation, I'll happily pick it up, but Malzberg needs to present a different facet of his creativity which highlights science fiction as a dynamic genre, a realm of possibilities which he drags the reader through with a sexual agenda. Again, it's more of a distraction that anything when the author has so many routes of characterization to the same conclusion, Malzberg takes the easy way out time and again.

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