The Falling Astronauts by Barry Malzberg was first published in 1971. It is the first Malzberg novel that I have read. I read the ACE edition with cover by Davis Meltzer.
It took me quite a long time to get through this novel. And I am not going to give it a rave review. Basically, I think this novel might not really even qualify as actual science fiction, but I am rarely thrilled with such pigeon-holing. All of the characters are unlikeable, which is fine. I am used to disliking characters. However, in this particular novel, this is really a significant problem.
The novel is about the repercussions of the government agency in Washington and their space program. Without being stated, it is obvious Malzberg is alluding to NASA. Also, it takes place during wartime, presumably the Vietnam War. Some comparisons are made here between the government and public interest in the war versus the interest in the space program. Very heavy-handedly, the reader is to understand that the space program regardless of its facade of noble goals or scientific advances is utilitarian in nature. The agency, in its methods and goals, dehumanizes and devalues humans – the astronauts who actually run the missions are treated as little more than machinery. Their training turns them into machinery, tools, pieces within a greater (and more important) machine.
However, lest readers feel this is a direct attack on a specific organization, there are indeed hints in the novel that this attitude of the agency is actually a reflection of the entire societal structure within which the space agency operates. Further, if this is so, a parallel assessment can (in theory) be drawn regarding the soldiers sent off to fight in the war effort. Several times Malzberg includes references to “the war,” which could suggest this being read as a subtle anti-war novel.
The evidence for the dehumanizing of the astronauts is shown in their emotional and mental breakdowns. Particularly in the character Richard Martin. The novel begins with a sex scene – one in which the sex is described to us in very mechanical terminology. Literally: docking procedure. Gears, transmission, whines of engines, hiss of static, etc. And this segues into the depiction of Martin having a ruined marriage. His wife blames him and, more so, the Agency/Administration. It has ruined his life, her life, and their life. How so? Because he is a machine; dehumanized and mechanical. On the most recent mission, Martin had a mental breakdown which almost resulted in a significant tragedy. The actual events were hushed up and when he returned from the mission, he was given treatment as a malfunctioning machine might be given. Finally, he was proclaimed by the agency to be “all better.” In reality, he carries extreme post-traumatic stress and he struggles with the remembering the “person” he used to be, as opposed to the mere individual he is now.
Malzberg’s writing is very interesting. I like the actual style of writing qua writing. It is remarkable and refreshing – his sentence structure and chapter-structure actually take a little bit to get used to. I was re-reading a few sentences here and there when I started the novel. Malzberg also uses a lot of subtle allusions and connotations that you have to pause a breath to consider before racing on. Nevertheless, the reason why I give this novel such a low rating is because scenes just go on and on and on. I mean, some of them feel interminable. The whole novel is quite heavy-handed and with these scenes that just never end, the novel suffers.
Also, as I mentioned above, if the novel is built on the problematic of the agency dehumanizing astronauts, making such unlikeable and miserable characters does not really make me feel any great amount of care or concern for this problem. I am not saying that is actually what Malzberg was aiming for. I am just saying that it is hard to connect at all with characters and their problems as a whole when as a reader I just do not give a rip what happens to them, anyway.
There are sections where Malzberg’s wit shows through. But all the words in between these sections really make the novel even more dismal than the situation it presents. There are sections where Malzberg has Martin describing the room he is in, the interactions and relationships of the persons in the room, and so forth. It is at these points that the writing really seems insightful and skilled. Describing the intangible feelings in the room without seeming emotive or dreadful is tough to do, and I can praise Malzberg for that.
Discussing television/news programming, the character Oakes says:
“You see, as far as I can deduce anyway, these things were so devalued a long time ago that they’re just another kind of television. People don’t believe what they see on television anymore so this becomes part of the general mix. It’s very hard to get people really involved these days. They’ve seen so much. And television, I’m sorry to say, is a very poor medium for what we like to think of as reality.” – Chapter XXI, pg 175
That is my favorite quote in the book. I like that it is valid in 1971 and in present day. It’s something to think about, surely, particularly on the topic of the simulacra/simulation theory. Enter: Badiou, Deleuze, Zizek.