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.