The End of the American Future
On Mid-Century Dreams of Spaceflight, Beatniks and Limitless Possibility
In 1979, the science fiction writer Fredrik Pohl released his autobiography. The front cover juxtaposes two images of the author: a black-and-white photo of Pohl as a child sits beside a much larger illustration of the author as an adult, the backdrop a swirl of color that could just as easily serve as the background for a starship streaking through space. It’s the title of Pohl’s memoir that resonates the most, still memorable decades later. In five words, it beautifully sums up an impressively paradoxical condition: The Way the Future Was.
In the case of Pohl’s book, which traces the evolution of science fiction over several decades, the title can be taken literally. But it also addresses a larger question, describing that feeling one gets when a previous version of the future has been made irrelevant by later events. It’s a concept that lurks around the outskirts of science fiction, but is by no means limited to it. Think of the title of hip-hop artist Mike Ladd’s 2000 album Welcome to the Afterfuture; think of the name of the Scottish indie rock band We Were Promised Jetpacks. Graffiti in the surreal near-future city in which Warren Ellis and Ivan Rodriguez’s comic Doktor Sleepless was set read, “You owe me a flying car.” So, then: how do you deal with nostalgia for a future which never happened? How do you wrestle with a decades-long promise that spoiled while you were waiting?
This is a question that suffuses two recent works of nonfiction: Margaret Lazarus Dean’s Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight (May 19th, Graywolf) and Riley Hanick’s Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways (out now, Sarabande). Stylistically, Dean is precise and attentive, finding the lived-in details in her narrative whether on the ground or in orbit. Hanick opts for a more poetic approach, taking a trio of significant figures in mid-20th-century American history and telling their stories in a style that shifts between emotional intimacy and grander poetic observation. But the two are closer than they first appear. Each one, broadly speaking, takes as its subject the promise held out by a grand-scale initiative, whether it be the artistic movements of Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock or the ability of space travel to command the attention of the United States.
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A history of American space travel over the past few decades is one of optimism giving way to compromise and tragedy. And the end of the space program as we know it has itself fueled a number of compelling narratives in recent decades. Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s 2003 graphic novel Orbiter, in which the remains of Cape Canaveral housed a tent city, told the story of a defunct space program forced to question its dormancy when a long-vanished shuttle returns from parts unknown. Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar took as its starting point a near future where the idea of the moon landings being a hoax has become an accepted part of school curricula. And Norman Spinrad’s 1991 novel Russian Spring presented a 21st century where the United States had abandoned venturing into orbit and beyond. This novel is a particularly interesting example of bygone futures, as it was written before the fall of the Soviet Union, but published afterwards, making its description of a 21st-century Soviet space program oddly anachronistic. (Or, given your take on contemporary Russia, Spinrad may have been more prescient than he was given credit for in the mid-90s.) In each case, these scenarios are treated as minor tragedies, societal problems that need to be fixed if a nation (and a species) are to reach their potential.
Dean’s book showcases the flip side of that. Leaving Orbit isn’t her first foray into writing about space; her 2007 debut The Time It Takes to Fall also focused on the space program, albeit in fictional form. In Leaving Orbit, she’s focusing on a series of very real events: the last flights undertaken by the space shuttle program. Dean visits NASA, speaks with employees there, and muses on the effects of the program’s end on the local economy—and, more broadly, the national character. She talks with Buzz Aldrin at a literary festival, neatly debunks those who believe that the moon landings were faked, and chronicles the communities that spring up around spaceflight, both geographically and online. And she’s acutely aware of her work sitting in dialogue with the future, with chapter titles including “A Brief History of the Future,” “The End of the Future,” and “The Future.”
While her approach isn’t necessarily postmodern, Dean does write with an acknowledgement of the literary work that’s been inspired by space travel in the past. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (adapted for film in 1983 by Philip Kaufman) looms large, but even more significant is Norman Mailer’s writing on the Apollo missions. Dean often juxtaposes her own reactions to rocket launches and NASA’s Florida location with those of Mailer’s, who is in many ways—gender, temperament, and narrative approach among them—her opposite number. By the end of Leaving Orbit, she makes another important distinction: “Norman Mailer’s generation got to see the beginning of things and mine had gotten the ends.”
Dean finds other parallels between matters scientific and cultural. She writes:
It can’t be a coincidence that the sixties era of creative nonfiction overlaps so perfectly with the heroic era of American spaceflight, the big egotistical voices turning journalism inside out at the same time the innovators in Houston and Huntsville and the Cape were redefining what machines were capable of, what human beings were capable of.
Dean is herself a teacher of creative nonfiction. About a third of the way into the book, she discusses her attempts to describe to her students a moment from Apollo 16, when astronaut John Young commented on the need for the space shuttle. Dean notes that they “don’t understand the difference between Apollo and shuttle.” (Those who work in the space program don’t use a “the” before shuttle, a linguistic quirk that’s only initially distracting.) A larger question hangs over the book: if the rise of Apollo was echoed by a corresponding leap forward in a creative discipline, what does the lack of a national space program suggest is coming? Dean’s book ends on a hesitant note: with the end of shuttle, many of the NASA employees she meets are laid off; the private SpaceX program that succeeds it seems less grandiose, less likely to inspire paeans and thoughtful meditations in prose. She closes with a reflection on the art of writing about space, alluding to a lineage that encompasses everyone from Wolfe to Walter Cronkite to J.G. Ballard. It’s an expansive literary tradition; one hopes that Dean’s book doesn’t mark the end of it.
In Leaving Orbit, Dean notes that the shuttle program itself was a scaled-down version of a plan to explore Mars. Given the book’s subject matter, questions of infrastructure and federal budgets emerge, and Dean arrives at the paradox that’s led us to this point: though shuttle was a far more versatile vehicle than those used in the Apollo days, it never captured the public’s imagination in quite the same way. There’s that sense of tradeoffs, of accepting less and less, until finally that specific program is gone.
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The poetry of infrastructure? Stranger things have been made into compelling literature. And Riley Hanick’s Three Kinds of Motion is, at first glance, a particularly prosaic example of creative nonfiction, with roadways at its heart. It leaps around in time, arranging and rearranging itself around four lives. Looming the largest are Jack Kerouac, in the years leading up to the writing of On the Road, and Jackson Pollock, with particular attention paid to his painting “Mural.” The showing of the scroll manuscript of On the Road in the same Iowa museum that houses Mural is the precipitating event of this narrative, conflating two sprawling, outsized mid-century works with a third, the interstate highway system, and the man responsible for it, Dwight Eisenhower. And lurking in the background of this book is Hanick himself, reeling from the end of a relationship, and struggling to reconfigure his relationship with art.
Hanick is largely concerned with juxtaposing Kerouac and Pollock. A third of the way through the book, he brings their two stories into a kind of convergence, beginning with a description of Kerouac’s journey across America with Neal Cassady.
They drive to the Bay, to Mexico, back to Denver, through flyover land and back to New York. It is 1947. “Mural” has had its first showing at MoMA during April and May.
In a book whose narrative leaps around in time, the Eisenhower passages represent the fullest expression of this freeform temporal style. Hanick provides an elliptical history of American roadways, beginning with dirt pathways that barely held together in a pre-automotive era to the construction of a highway system that spanned the nation and took decades to complete. In the midst of his leaps through time, Hanick loops in geographer Halford Mackinder, who in 1904 declared “the age of geographic exploration to be effectively over.”
Hanick’s book, then, serves as a kind of meditation on what can emerge, both culturally and physically, after an epoch of monumental discovery. And what emerges are monumental works, which can both envelop the viewer or reader. Each has inspired a host of possibly apocryphal creation stories, several of which are recounted here. Reading Hanick’s book and Dean’s book beside one another, one can find in them the seeds for contemporary mythologies: Jack Kerouac and Buzz Aldrin and Peggy Guggenheim as participants in some pantheon of 20th century American cultural history. Though Hanick also advises caution in certain corridors of narrative creation. “We would like to imagine the story of modern art as a series of overturnings or innovative radical gestures,” he writes. “But every story has its limits.”
That’s to say nothing of more basic concerns. Early in Three Kinds of Motion, Hanick recounts a scene from the time of the Works Progress Administration, which here acts as a kind of bridge between the artistic achievements and the infrastructural achievements covered in the book. One question is raised, concerning the WPA’s activities: “Who’s going to pay for all that?” And it’s answered later on the same page: “And we are going to pay for it.” Here, too, are echoes of the budget concerns that act as the antagonist of Dean’s book, and which act as a restraint on the full-scale idealism that runs through both works.
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Imagining a better future (and a bolder future) is an inherently idealistic action. And both Hanick and Dean seem to have been hooked by their subjects from an early age. Dean, born in the early 1970s, recounts her memories of watching the space program as a child, mesmerized by it; she also describes the signed photograph of Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt hanging on the wall of her young son’s room. Hanick’s relationship to his subjects is more complex: he reveals that it was his mother who first suggested that he write about the scroll used for the writing of On the Road, and confesses, “I didn’t know why Kerouac had become embarrassing to me and I didn’t try to explain it. I said it sounded like an idea and drove there later that week with a notebook.”
These two books can be considered as a reckoning with the icons of young adulthood, those that have shaped perceptions of what government and public service are capable of, or those which serve as aspirational goals in different disciplines of art. These books help justify their own visions of the future, whether it’s through a deeper understanding of their roots via research and experience, or through hurtling back through time to endeavor to understand the initial attraction to a particular work of art. That navigation extends further as well. It’s a voyage between the futures we thought we might live in and the ones in which we’ve found ourselves. It’s a search for a promise, and hopefully a map towards a more vibrant tomorrow; a hope for a future that will be, one more time.
Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight, by Margaret Lazarus Dean