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Gentlemen of Space

Ira Sher

The Free Press / Simon & Schuster

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-743-24218-1

Publication Date: 04-15-2003

291 Pages; $23.00

Date Reviewed: 04-28-03 

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2003



General, Science Fiction


It's not that Georgie Finch of Ira Sher's 'Gentlemen of Space' is an unreliable narrator. He's only nine years old at the time of the events he recollects. He's impressionable, and he's at the center of a nation-wide infatuation with Apollo 19; his father, Jerry Finch is the civilian who won the essay contest that allowed him to be a participant in the mission, along with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Don't you remember the events of the summer of 1976, with the press conferences, the patriots camped out around Magnolia Court in Southern Florida, the Finch's apartment complex? Can't you to this day re-construct in your own mind your feelings about Finch before Bob Nightly's scurrilous 'The Secret Night School' colored them? Did your father enter the essay contest? How would you have felt if your father won, had left the planet, left you behind on the blue marble perched in the black velvet? It's so easy to stretch your mind back and remember, to rebuild the past, rebuild your parents as they were. Your father was a hero; your mother was as vivacious as Jackie O. You may have been just a child then, but now as an adult, you realize that you were also something of an adult, a camera that recorded raw footage and retained only what made sense, only what mattered, so that now, when you re-edit your life, it all comes together as it all came apart. I sure as hell remember those Apollo missions. They're etched in my mind, they're part of who I am.

Ira Sher's clever premise is only the beginning of the wonderful writing that makes 'Gentlemen of Space' not only a delight to read, but a joy to experience. I'd recently issued a call for what I called retroactive science fiction, that is, science fiction set in the past, over at Singularity, and no sooner had I published the article than this book came my way. Though Sher's novel deals with space exploration, and includes interludes that could only be called surreal, it's in no way a piece of genre fiction. It's a gloriously written exploration into not space but memory and identity, the need to belong and the need to be set apart. Georgie tries to tell his mother about the phone calls his father makes to him from space, but his mother isn't all that interested in space; she calls the moon "a palace of idiots." But Georgie keeps getting the phone calls even after his father has disappeared while on a moonwalk.

Sher's careful prose creates a perfectly blurry picture of the past, a memory castle where identities merge, memories shift, and the reader's perception of the world is casually re-engineered into something new and wonderful. In 'Gentlemen of Space' -- the title is the title of the essay that Jerry Finch writes to win his trip to the moon -- the child is indeed the father of the man, but in the process of remembering, the man becomes the father of the child. The wistful feeling of our lost place in space is touchingly drawn from the heart of both child and man. The weirdness of those times is brought to life as well. When the astronauts return from space without Jerry, all active members of the space program vow to wear their vacuum suits until Jerry is brought home. An enviro-bubble left behind on the moon offers hope, as does the possibility that the moon landings themselves are created on earth. The truth exists only in Georgie's memories of those moon-suited figures ambling around his apartment complex, tongue-tied but dedicated to preserving the Georgie's father even as the older Georgie re-builds the boy in a palace of words.

Sher's writing is gorgeous and elegiac, reminiscent of J. G. Ballard and Thomas Pynchon. He's smart enough to keep the novel brief, though it seems bigger on the inside than it does from the outside, just like another space vehicle made famous during the seventies. There's an unabashedly sweet tone at work here. The villain of the piece, Bob Nightly, a self-important journalist is shown to be pushy but not evil. Lyle Barnes, an ambitious high-school friend of Jerry's hoping to convert Jerry's success into a small-time political career comes off apologetic, not avaricious. When an author likes his characters so much, it's hard for the reader not to as well.

Sher is also successful at the balancing act between taut suspense and loving memoir. There's quite a bit riding on what happens from page to page, and Sher manages to keep the reader propelled without the usual suspense games of leaving off a chapter in some sort of cliffhanger. In fact, this book is much more suspenseful than many a thriller by virtue of its fantastical nature. No, it's not fantastical in the sense that we find out about monsters or find that space is, as Sher once puts it exotic because it's "infested with aliens". Rather, the fantastical nature of this novel is entirely in the narration. There are moments of utterly surreal underwater beauty, passages of re-sculpted mediated reality, slides from the present to the past, from memory to wishes that mirror our own fantastical nature. We're all making it up, all the time. Georgie -- and Sher -- know this intuitively, they convey it without effort. Reading 'Gentlemen of Space', you'll know it as well.