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Classic review: Space

A fact-laden novel on the space program.

Space By James A. Michener Random House 640 pp., $7.99

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[This review from Monitor archives originally ran on Oct. 6, 1982.] In all his previous work James A. Michener's point of origin is the beginning of things. Whether his subject is Hawaii, the American West, or Chesapeake Bay, he lays out a virgin land and through a sometimes labored process of accretion fills it with people, customs, and objects.

Locale, therefore, dominates the action of his story and the development of character, a tendency indicated by the titles of his major novels. There is a brooding presence of landscape, a Hardyesque sense of determinism subjecting even the strongest of his people to a fate beyond their control.

So he might have opened this novel with a picture of planets and suns hurling through a million miles of emptiness. That would have given us a familiar Michener beginning. Instead, he moves to the last days of World War II and the men who had the early vision and professional promise to shape the American program in space.

The crucial decision to get into the action right away tells us something about this book that's different from other Michener novels. His focus here is not on the land and traditions of a given region, but rather on the people - the husbands, wives, and children - who were most affected by the space effort.

Four families dominate the reader's attention. One is a dedicated researcher who sacrifices everything for space exploration. Another is a US Senator serving on the powerful Space Committee. A third is a young athlete who becomes one of America's first straight-arrow astronauts.

The best-drawn of these families are a scientist and his wife who come to the US with Wernher von Braun. He is an untutored mechanic with a genius for designing and directing the V-2 rocket program in Germany. She had been a plain farm girl of peasant origin, but through determination to survive she saves her husband and herself from sure execution by the Nazis.


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