By James A. Michener
As the tide starts to turn near the end of WWII, the men of Peenemunde make plans to escape to the Western front of Germany with hope of being captured by U.S. soldiers rather than the communist Russians. They know that the rocket technology they have been working on will determine the global superpowers long after the end of WWII. Although initially developed to carry heavy payloads of explosives across the ocean, the scientific revolution of rockets quickly becomes a peacetime political statement of strength by demonstrating dominance miles and miles above the ground. The scientists, soldiers, and senators that once sought wartime glory have adapted their skills to a new goal – the stars. Thus begins the space race, the Gemini orbiters, the Apollo moon missions, and even the development of the space shuttle, designed for multiple journeys into orbit and safe landings back on Earth. As with all innovative ventures, growth comes in fits and starts, and with plenty of contention and backlash. Nevertheless, the unbelievable expansion of human limits seems to outpace the limits of human imagination, and dreams that were once childhood fantasy have suddenly become reality.
“Space” by James A. Michener details the approximately 40-year span from when rocket technology was still in its unpredictable infancy to the time when it became manageable, consistent, and even mundane. His story focuses on the lives of four men and their wives, each central to the space effort in some way. By the end of the novel, readers are as invested in the characters as they are in the plotline because Michener meticulously develops each character through extensive exposition and backstory. Due to the relatively short time-span of the story, each character features throughout the plot from beginning to end. The depth of character is matched by the complexity of the plot. Michener details the technology, training, political maneuvering, and sheer brazenness that make up the space race. The level of detail never feels tedious, and the pace of the novel never lags. Each page brings new intrigue, knowledge, potential for disaster, or actual disaster. Michener also writes in a way that feels like divulging secrets, which gives the reader a sense of privileged access to classified information. He takes the reader behind the scenes, into the science, and across the universe.
This book was fantastic. I’ll admit it did take me about the first 100 pages to really get into the story, but once the story started to focus on science and stars rather than soldiers, it was right up my alley. I was a bit disappointed at times to remember that this is a work of fiction. Much of the plot moves through real scientific developments, but it also somewhat exaggerates the early space adventures. Even with the make-believe adventures, this book is multifaceted enough for everyone to find something to like. It may take a bit longer than usual, but it is definitely worth your time to read this book.