William D. Atwill’s new book explores the highly orchestrated drive to the moon that focused America’s Cold War energies. The space program, tightly controlled by NASA and enthusiastically marketed by the press, became a metaphor for American power and righteousness in the race against the Soviet Union. American writers of the 1970s, Atwill argues in Fire and Power: The American Space Program as Postmodern Narrative, were skeptical about the potential cost of the space race and concerned about the media’s uncritical acceptance of the conquest [End Page 359] of space as the latest incarnation of the myths of the West and of America’s manifest destiny. Names like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo “were attempts to ennoble this latest effort through allusions to the heroic rhetoric of previous civilizations with global designs.” But this new, technological heroics “came across as rational, calculated, sterile, passionless, routine, and rehearsed,” its primary figures not anarchic individuals but anonymous company men.
Atwill discusses six writers whose narratives interrogate the space program’s “troubled status” as history amid the media’s inscription of it into the imagination and memory of a culture. The novelists-Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Wolfe, Pynchon, and DeLillo-diverge widely in their politics and aesthetics as well as in their approach to the space program. Their texts include two novels of social realism (Mr. Sammler’s Planet , Rabbit Redux ), two narratives of literary journalism (Of a Fire on the Moon , The Right Stuff ), and two postmodern nonlinear narratives (Gravity’s Rainbow , Ratner’s Star ). Framing his analyses of fictional narratives, Atwill narrates his personal history in and of the space program, beginning the book with an account of his nightmares, a legacy of a childhood spent watching launches in Florida, and its final chapter with a memorable anecdote about a real estate development called Rocket City.
Among the strengths of Fire and Power are its fresh angle of vision on the fiction of the 1970s and its elegant writing. Atwill persuades readers that the personal belongs to the cultural and the textual: “Clearly, my childhood in Florida was punctuated by the aerial and the predacious, and who I am as an adult has a great deal to do with a personal history inextricably linked to the rocket and the world it shaped.” This history gives Atwill a new way to approach and connect fiction writers as divergent as Mailer and Pynchon; despite differences of genre, philosophy, and focus, all six writers appear to belong together in Atwill’s rich meditation on the meanings and metaphors brought together in the space program. Against the faceless company men of NASA, for example, Atwill recognizes a “shared desire to privilege the individual and the autonomous” refracted through Bellow, Updike, Mailer and Wolfe. He finds a deep skepticism about “the very status of history” throughout the fiction of the seventies. In a prose style that is unusually graceful, vivid and responsive, especially for academic criticism reflecting on some of the complex theoretical issues of our time, Atwill creates an interesting argument. [End Page 360]
The book’s primary weaknesses are the opposite face of its strengths. It moves at a brisk and lively pace, but it could stop more often to browse in the most fertile fields through which it passes. It could explore, define, and connect far more than it does. For example, media constructions of history are mentioned or sketched but nowhere explored as a kind of narrative order different from those invented by the fiction writers. Absent development of this argument, Atwill’s comments about the troubled status of history-a “common concern” for all the writers he discusses, he says-appear ungrounded; these comments too are sprinkled through Atwill’s text rather than gathered and amplified. The chapters are uneven in their contribution to existing scholarship: those on DeLillo and Pynchon are sound but not ground breaking, while those on Mailer and Wolfe are original and very strong. Despite these limitations, Fire and Power makes a convincing...