One of the first things that strikes Mailer about the people in the space program is their use of jargon: Their words are usually devoid of personal expressions, and the astronauts feel uncomfortable when asked about their personal reactions. Being part of a team, part of NASA, means to suppress individuality. As Mailer puts it, “Yes, real Americans always spoke in code. They encapsulated themselves into technological clans.” The result, however, is to make the moon shot seem unreal. Surely Mike Collins, the astronaut who would stay in the spacecraft while his colleagues descended in a specially designed vehicle to the moon, must have felt some envy or regret over not going himself. Yet Collins will not allow himself to suggest he might be disappointed. Part of the problem is that the astronauts have to play several roles at once. The complexity of their situation is unprecedented, Mailer supposes, and this accounts for their unwillingness to risk anything like an original or a daring thought. Their press conferences are boring to most of the press, yet Mailer probes for a rather intriguing speculation on the astronauts’ dilemma:Now it was as if they did not know if they were athletes, test pilots, engineers, corporation executives, some new kind of priest, or sheepish American boys caught in a position of outlandish prominence—my God, how did they ever get into this?
Several of the astronauts have been test pilots. They are superb physical specimens ready for the rigors of space travel. Some of them have engineering degrees; some are already administrators. They are treated as heroes, and they are also somewhat embarrassed by their publicity. Mailer puts all these facts into a single sentence and a style that both sums up and expresses their awkward circumstances. Even on the subject of their own deaths they are silent, or they attempt to downplay the dangers of their mission: Rather than speaking of their “personal disasters,” they employ euphemisms such as “contingency.” This use of language to mask reality is profoundly disturbing to Mailer, who points out that Nazis and Communists have made a similar use of words, resorting to terms such as “liquidation” to refer to “mass murder.” As a writer, he fears the damage to the human psyche when “words, like pills, were there to suppress emotional symptoms.”
Mailer’s forte is to find the contradictions of the moon voyage. On the one hand, the astronauts have been picked for their prowess and virility. On the other hand, for most of their time in space they are “passive bodies.” In their preparations for space travel, they have submitted to every kind of hazardous experiment: He suggests, “They were done to, they were done to like no healthy man alive.” They eat out of plastic tubes filled with mushed edibles resembling baby food. They are as awkwardly confined in their bulky spacesuits as a trussed-up baby still in diapers. They are protected by every kind of technology, yet their voyage could well lead to their deaths. In this respect, they are simply intensified...
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Of a Fire on the Moon appeared at the very end of the 1960’s, at a time when technology was coming under attack, when serious questions were raised about the advisability of spending billions of dollars on space exploration when the needs of millions of Americans were not being served by the government or the big corporations involved in NASA programs. At the same time, as Mailer points out, technology promised an easier life. There would be “spin-offs”—all kinds of new products developed out of space exploration that would benefit the domestic economy. A large segment of the public also looked upon the astronauts as heroes—although a new kind of conservative, carefully spoken figure who had almost nothing in common with the characters of science-fiction moon voyages.
Mailer took it upon himself to describe and to embody the contradictions of his culture, giving the space program a sympathetic hearing while also criticizing it and asking hard questions. At least since his ground-breaking book Advertisements for Myself (1959), Mailer had taken on the role not only of the political pundit but also of the novelist open to every trend in the national psyche. Covering political conventions, prizefights, demonstrations, and other public events, Mailer turned himself into a character, often describing his reactions in the third person as Henry Adams did in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1907).
Of a Fire on the Moon is a transitional book in the development of Mailer’s literary persona. It marks a gradual shift away from his emphasis on himself to an immersion in the lives of others. Beginning with his biography Marilyn (1973) and culminating in The Executioner’s Song (1979), he has moved from journalism to “novel-biography” and “true-life novel.” Each of these books—starting with Of a Fire on the Moon—takes Mailer toward the realization that his ego, which is very much present in Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 (1969), must be jettisoned. Of a Fire on the Moon is an important achievement, balancing an ingenious imagination against the space program’s impressive technological and organizational accomplishments. Reading Mailer’s book results in a deep appreciation not only of space exploration but of the adventurousness of the author’s prose as well.