Book Review: “Space” by James Michener (1982)

As my Kindergarten class entered into a monthly topic covering “Outer Space” and, I therefore, had to consider a hundred ways to teach math, phonics, and life skills through the lens of rockets, planets, and stars, I figured that it was also a good time to pick up this particular James Michener novel. Of the five Micheners I’ve read now (including Centennial, Mexico, Alaskaand Hawaii), this has proved to be my least favorite. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s horrible book, just that he’s done better elsewhere. I’d like to consider in this short review the plot of Sapce, its characters, Michener’s worldview as opposed to a biblical worldview, and a brief meditation of my own.

The plot to Space spans roughly 35 years, from World War II to the decade following the most intense years of the international “Space Race.” Michener’s fictional characters live within truly historical settings and events, often intermingling to true personalities whose name many would recognize. Regarding several critical events in the history of space travel, however, Michener chooses to simply gloss over them as if they were of only passing importance to his characters, though these were the very historical events I had hoped to learn more about. For example, though the crew of astronauts whom he follows are slated to fly on Apollo 18, they barely register the “successful tragedy” of Apollo 13, which spans no more than a single summary paragraph, despite the novel’s gigantic size. Some have compared Michener’s writing to fictitious documentaries, and I can certainly understand why, though by ignoring some of the most obvious and major events in space history, Space does not contain as much true history as might be gleaned from his other novels.

I was also a little disappointed with Michener’s development of characters this time around, for there was a glaring lack of strong male protagonists to love or identify with. John Pope, for example, is a cookie-cutter boy scout type with barely a flaw in either personality, character, or body. Claggett seemed to encapsulate the varying qualities of all the other leads: driven, hypocritical, dirty-mouthed, and adulterous—which of course makes him a virtual hero for Michener, because he’s about as “down to earth” human as a man can get. Mott was the closest thing to a likeable character as Michener got in this work, for his infatuation with seeing men land safely on the moon and live on Mars and fly safely past the twisting outer arms of the Milky Way in the vast expanse of the universe beyond is backed up by hard work and dedication, and it’s only his family that suffers as a result. Then of course there’s the great fraud, Dr. Strabismus, who knows a good money-making scam when he sees one. While he’s the thief that starts innocently enough by convincing a host of bored housewives and confused wackos that the US government is being run by alien “Visitors,” he’s also Michener’s key into spreading a thick wool of anti-Christianity across the eyes of his readers. While the Dr. is a good representation of all that is bad with the name “Christian,” he’s also the voice that declares that faith is a scam.

Michener’s humanistic worldview finds its showing in the can-do attitude and successes of his scientists—which are certainly historical realities that can’t be argued—but in complete separation from anything that might imply divine enabling or even simply the existence of God. I think this is most poignantly emphasized in the glaring absence of space’s pre-history in the opening chapters of the book. Oftentimes Michener opens his novels with the evolutionary history of his chosen setting, so I had entered this book anticipating to witness billions of years of evolution as our universe slowly expanded out from the theoretical Big Bang. But since such a discussion would have necessitated showing mankind’s great weakness and lack of control within the cosmos regarding these changes that predated us by so many billion years, it didn’t fit his desired mold which places man and his ingenuity at the center of the universe, at least potentially.

In reading it with a biblical worldview, however, I am ultimately satisfied with the scientific facts Michener peppers throughout the text. The most poignant example I can think of is this passage which follows Mott meditations as he contemplates the historical distance of a galaxy he’d just met:

He learned that because it was invisible and not discovered till late, the galaxy bore no name. It was referred to simply as NGC-4565 (New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Star Clusters, compiled by a Danish astronomer and published in 1888). It lay along an edge of the constellation Coma Berenices and was about twenty million light-years distant, which meant that what Mott was seeing in 1961 was what the galaxy had looked like 2 x 107 years ago, and it awed him to realize that in the multiplex of years since that moment, the galaxy could have modified totally, or moved into conflict with another galaxy, or vanished altogether. He was seeing an echo of some great thing that had once existed, and wherever he looked in the outer universe he was seeing the same type of thing: evidence that greatness had once been, but no proof whatever that it still was. (411)

I have long held the opinion that our great God created a world with a vast history. Just as Adam was created as a grown man, and just as the trees He planted in the garden were immediately able to feed him, so God also created a full-grown and “adult” universe. The earth He designed was an earth already in motion, spinning on its axis and orbiting the sun. The Milky Way was expanding along with the rest of the universe, just as it is today. Modern scientists might be able to “reverse” such an expansion and pinpoint a time when all existed together at a point just before the Big Bang, but that does not override the reasonable possibility that God created it that way just a relatively short while ago.

And God also created the stars. He created the stars, some “twenty million light-years distant,” yet visible in the blink of an eye, visible at the mere sound of His voice on the fourth day. “And the stars” (Gen. 1:16, ESV). Such simple, profound words! Our fascinating, awesome God created the distant flickering light of stars, the expanding gases of nebula, the long and dangly arms of galaxies that for all intents and purposes never existed! What an amazing God whose wisdom and creativity could never be denied or thwarted by the “facts,” or rather the theories of modern science.

One final point I’d like to make is a matter of self-realization that hit me as I read Space. I’m still at a relatively “tender” age, and I read a lot. Specifically when I get into non-fiction adventures like A Walk Across America or The China Voyage, I like to savor the fact that it’s not completely unreasonable to imagine myself taking these very same adventures myself, albeit in the highly-procrastinated version of “someday.” Backpacking across the nation for six months or sailing the ocean waves on a motor-less skiff are not beyond the realm of possibility for me, and it doesn’t even seem that outlandish for me, when reading political books, to imagine myself in some office, someday. But space? In all honesty, this was the very first time that I realized there are some things I will never, ever, “not in a million years” do. Becoming an astronaut, floating in zero gravity, bouncing on the moon—these are all things I, an average dude, am profoundly incapable of ever accomplishing. This realization, while making feel slightly older than I had felt last month, is not entirely disheartening. In fact, it’s a mite bit freeing. It opens up a corner of my brain that hasn’t gotten much exercise amidst all the distraction of this life, and that’s the corner of “Future Hope.” Recognizing my limitations here and now opens the door to contemplations of what awaits us when we are raised “imperishable” (1Cor 15). What a day that will be!

This book contained its fair share of intensely satisfying scenes and thought-provoking facts, though there were also large swaths that I now wish I had just skimmed. It contains innumerable statistics that would astound anyone uninitiated in the science of extra-terrestrial travel, and such discussions of the intricacies of those ventures in the enormity of outer space are bound to keep the reader interested. As a novel less entertaining than Michener’s others, however, I don’t mind recommending that you skip this one.

©2016 E.T.

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