Book Diary: Barry N. Malzberg – The Falling Astronauts

The Falling Astronauts by Barry N. MalzbergI am not sure whether The Falling Astronauts would even qualify as Science Fiction, seeing how the only thing that differentiates the world the novel describes from ours is that the space program is a bit more advanced. The novel’s sensibilities do not appear very SFnal either – Science Fiction usually is not as bleak and darkly cynical as this (it rarely ever is today and certainly wasn’t back in 1971 when this novel was first released), it’s supposed to show us a bright future, or at least warn us off dangerous developments, so that we can we avoid them and build a better future instead, not to impress on us the vast indifference of the universe towards everything human.

The Falling Astronauts is a novel with an unlikeable protagonist who does unlikeable (or at best, unremarkable) things interacting with other unlikeable characters – it is quite funny in parts, but even so it is not an enjoyable read by any stretch of the imagination. Which, in this case, is actually a good thing, because there is a method to this: You might not like Malzberg’s bleak outlook on life, the universe, and all the rest, but Malzberg could not care less about that, his novel is just as indifferent towards the reader as space out there is to the paltry attempts of humans to “conquer” it. Precisely this indifference, though, will hardly let anyone unaffected, forces the reader to engage with the novel somehow, even if it just by throwing it at the wall in disgust. Or maybe by discovering that The Falling Astronauts cuts closer to home than might be apparent on first sight…

What Richard Martin, the novel’s protagonist, is most afraid of is to become a machine, just a cog in some huge apparatus, reduced to mere functionality, stripped of his humanity, because this is was the “agency” (as the obviously NASA-inspired space organization is called here) does to its astronauts to make them fit for space, able to bear it indifference. But, unspoken but looming in the background of that fear, is the suspicion that the world and society he and everyone else are living in on Earth has become just as alien and inimical to humanity, just as cold and empty as space. Viewed in this harsh light, he and everyone else already have become the automatons he was afraid of turning into, and all that his trip into space did to him was to strip him of all pretenses, make him see the bare, bleak truth about the world he lives in.

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