You can read "Death of a Spaceman" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. online at Project Gutenberg or listen to a rather good audio production at YouTube by NewThinkable.
When we love a story, do we love the words, or love what the words point to? With fiction, we’re drawn into some stories and repelled by others. What makes us care for a story? What aspects of the story resonate with our sense of self. (I wanted to say soul, but that’s too overblown, something a teenager would say. What part of the mind/body responds to art?) Most people never go beyond I love it or I hate when reacting to a story. But what is it about a story that we love or hate, what is it that we’re responding to and what is responding?
Joachim Boaz over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations got me to read “Death of a Spaceman” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a story that moved me. How did an old science fiction story affect me emotionally? What words and sentences in “Death of a Spaceman” triggered responses in my sensorium? How can staring at black marks on a white page set off emotions? Would any other series of words that set off the same series of emotions be considered equal to reading “Death of a Spaceman?” Could I reduce that short story to a series of statements that would read like a recipe for setting off those emotions? And if it’s possible to translate the story into a recipe/algorithm? Could I create a recipe that I could use as an outline for writing an emotional driven short story?
Here is a tally of my reactions to aspects of “Death of a Spaceman” that made me like it.
- Old Donegal (Donny) is a 63-year old man. I’m 69. I seldom encounter old people like myself in stories.
- Donegal is bedridden, dying of cancer that’s slowly paralyzing his body. It started with his legs and has now worked up to his arms. My body is wearing out too, and I think a lot about the progression of disease and what it will be like to die. In the past couple of decades I’ve known many people that ended up bedridden and dying. I have spinal stenosis and clogged arteries that makes my legs numb at times, and I can imagine it progressing.
- Donegal’s dying is portrayed very realistic and gritty, and lately I’ve been loving gritty science fiction stories from the 1950s, stories that weren’t anything like stories I grew up reading as a kid in the 1960s, which nearly always featured young protagonists. One word jumped out at me that Miller used, enemas. Poor old Donegal is bedridden, and that’s very degrading and embarrassing, he would need someone to take care of all his bodily needs. And that’s something particular that’s always scared me about with getting old.
- Donegal is a retired astronaut who regularly flew to the Moon. He worked on the engines, and his work is presented as a mundane job much like an engine room mechanic on ocean going cargo ships. I’m a lifelong science fiction fan and when I was young I wished I could have had a spaceman’s life like Donegal’s.
- Donegal is doing everything within his limited powers to choreograph his own deathbed scene. My mother did that too. She desperately wanted to die at home and did. Seeing how Donegal tried to control things from his bed made me think about how much my mother must have work to maneuver her own ending. Will I do the same thing?
- As Donegal connives to get his wife to do what he wants but confesses that the sick and dying must also take care of the caretakers and survivors. I thought that was particularly insightful, especially for an old man who was probably pretty selfish his whole life. Donegal realizes that his wife Martha is suffering too and tries to relieve her of some of her worries.
- I admired how Miller presented Donegal and Martha pursuing their own goals in this dramatic situation. Martha also pictures how she wants Donegal to die and pushes him to see a priest. I always feel the best fiction presents every character with their own agenda. In the ballet between Donny and Martha we see each of them trying to lead the dance.
- Donegal and Martha are poor, living in a rented flat, making ends meet off a spaceman’s pension. But they live next to the Keith’s mansion, a rich family that owns the spaceship company Donegal worked for. This reminds me of the movie Dead End (1937) where a mansion townhouse is built right down in the waterfront slums. I guess even back in the 1950s such socioeconomic juxtapositions were possible. In both “Death of a Spaceman” and Dead End, the rich have a party where the sight and sounds spread over the poor neighborhood. That’s quite effective artistic imagery. Donegal by the way, likes hearing the party and the music but worries that it will drown out the rocket blast he hopes to hear as he dies.
- Donegal is also waiting for his daughter Nora and grandson Ken. He assumes Ken will follow in his footsteps and be a blastman on a rocket run. We learn that Ken is going to disappoint him. This reminds me of my father before he died. He was a sergeant in the Air Force and dreamed I’d take ROTC in college and become an officer in the Air Force. But this was the 1960s, and the last thing I wanted to do. Over the years I’ve slowly learned just how disappointed me must have been.
- Only Nora shows up. We know that Ken can’t face Donegal. We see Donegal slowly come to grips with this lost hope.
- We have a couple flashbacks of Donegal at work and home that flesh out his personality for the story. We also learn that the Keith’s have a son, and the party is his going away party because he’s joining the space academy. This sets us up for a very sentimental ending. All through the story Martha worries that the Keiths are disturbing Donny, but he actually enjoys hearing the party and thinking about them. His only worry is they won’t stop the noise in time for him to hear the last rocket take off. Near the end of the day the doctor shows up. I guess in the 1950s doctors still made house calls. The doctor’s role in the story is really to go tell the Keiths about Donegal dying and his last wish.
- There is quite a lot of content that develops Donegal and Martha as an old loving couple, and I really enjoyed that. And it’s quite entertaining how the priest and Donegal get on in their honest man-to-man fashion when Martha leaves the room.
- Up until the last moment the party keeps going full tilt noisy, and Donegal gets very worried. Then the music stops. A lone trumpet plays, and Donegal recognizes the trumpeter is playing the music for the lowering of the flag. He realizes the Keiths had this done it for him. Boy did this choke me up, bringing tears to my eyes. I had to go blow my nose.
- Donegal dies wearing his old space suit boots, listening to the rocket launch. The rich man’s son, the one going off to be a spaceman has the orchestra play “Blastroom Man” after the sound of the rocket launches fades. Donegal died with a grin on his face. Sadly, just after he dies, Ken shows up.
Okay, this is really over-the-top sentimentality, but I bought it all. I don’t think I would have appreciated this story if I had read it in my youth. As I deconstructed the story for my list it’s quite obvious what made me like the story so much, personal connections, emotional connections. And it’s quite easy to look back and see why I haven’t liked other stories in the past. No connections. I have admired stories I thought were beautifully written, had thrilling plots, or contained endless clever ideas, but without generating emotions, those stories were dry and academic, just intellectual feats of prose.
Stand up comics have an understanding of how to trigger laughs. I suppose short story writers have a sense of how to trigger emotional reactions in readers. Did Walter M. Miller, Jr. consciously know what he was doing when he wrote “Death of a Spaceman?” Or is fiction writing mainly the work of the writer’s unconscious mind communicating with the unconscious mind of their readers? Did Miller intentionally contrive every trigger that generated the emotions I experienced?
Is this art, craft, or psychology? Or all three. Amazing Stories, where this story was first published, was mainly targeted to male adolescents back in the 1950s. How did they react to this story? I wonder if I can research that?
Today, Miller is mainly known for writing A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was a fix-up novel based on three short works. Most of his science fiction output was shorter works published in the 1950s in science fiction magazines, and none of those stories were ever very famous. He’s pretty much known as a one-hit-wonder with A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is quite brilliant, especially the first story, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” that originally appeared in F&SF in April, 1955. I’ve only read a handful of his standalone stories. I need to read more and study Miller more closely.
James Wallace Harris, 12/3/20