Thursday, August 19, 2021

No Man’s World

No Mans World, by Martin Caidin
No month stated, 1967  E.P. Dutton

Part of a sequence of Space Race novels Martin Caidin published in the ‘60s and early ‘70s,* No Man’s World takes place in the then-future year of 1971: Russia has won the race, first landing on the moon in 1968 and setting up a lunar base “for the enrichment of the entire world.” Meanwhile the United States is still struggling to keep up, and the novel concerns the first-ever Apollo lunar mission, the objective being to set foot on the moon and get America back into the game. 

Caidin then is just projecting out the early years of the Space Race; as anyone who studies the subject knows, Russia really trounced the US when all this first began. First with Sputnik, then with various men and women in space. Younger people today probably don’t realize how huge President Kennedy’s challenge to the nation was in 1961: to get a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Having been born in 1974 and thus after all of it happened, I personally didn’t realize how big of a feat it was until I started getting into the subject. But when Kennedy made his challenge, America was in a serious game of catch-up with Russia. Getting a man on the moon seemed like an impossible task, given that America hadn’t even gotten a man in orbit yet. 

Of course as reality panned out, America slowly but surely caught up with Russia and then overtook it, just as President Kennedy had said would happen. Caidin, writing in the mid-1960s, is conservative in his predictions: he doesn’t see America launching a successful lunar bid until 1971. Reality would soon prove Caidin’s predictions too conservative, with the Russians not only never even making it to the moon but Americans going there a handful of times by the late ‘60s, with a few more trips in the early ‘70s. It’s curious that Caidin was so conservative in this regard, but I’m betting he was writing when the Gemini Program got started, thus he had no idea how successful (and quick-moving) the program would be. For in fairly short order NASA not only caught up with Russia but surpassed it. 

No Man’s World clearly didn’t make much of an impact on the reading public, as it only received this hardcover edition. It’s way overpriced on the used books marketplace, too, so I had to get it via Interlibrary Loan. Plus I had to request an extension on my hold, as this is a doorstop of a book, 414 pages of small and dense print. I know, 414 pages doesn’t sound like a lot, but I think with bigger print and less “stuffed” layout this book would probably come in closer to 600 pages. In a way it’s almost a prefigure of Tom Clancy’s doorstop techno-thrillers; while ostensibly No Man’s World is about the first American lunar launch, it also encompasses polticial infighting, espionage, and even melodrama in a love-triangle subplot. 

The first fifty pages are pretty hard going, and doubtless turned off a lot of readers of the day. We meet Colonel Lev Barkagan, commandant of the USSR lunar colony, the man to have lived longest on the moon – there 3 years, and commanding the base ever since. The moon is a harsh climate that he hates, and there’s lots of buzzkilling here with all the men stinking and the monotonous toil of living on the moon. There are twenty-seven cosmonauts in the base, and many have died on the way here and during their stay. This interminable opening describes the hellish moon and Barkagan’s methods to survive on it. It possibly gave readers of the day the impression that the main characters would all be Russians…lots of backstory to Barkagan’s start as cosmonaut in 1961, his first space trips, training at the lunar training ground, and finally the trials and tribulations of the lunar base cosmonauts. A lot of Russian names and backstories are thrown at us at once. 

Things pick up significantly with the introduction of our Apollo crew: Commander Rance Allenby, Command Module Pilot Gene Stanley, and Scientist Leigh “The Brain” Raymond. Allenby and Stanley are cut from the same cloth as their real-life counterparts: veteran flyboys who have made the jump over to the space program. Allenby started in the Gemini years, and Stanley a little later; he also happens to be a ‘Nam vet, whereas most of the real-life Gemini and Apollo guys had been in Korea. As for Raymond, he’s a scientist, one who learned to fly so as to become an astronaut. According to Tom Wolfe, this means he could never achieve “The Right Stuff,” but regardless the other astronauts respect him…even though Raymond has a monumental ego. In fact we have a long flashback to how his wife learned to hate him, given his complete disregard for other people. This element of characterization, so heavily built up in the opening chapters, is basically dropped. 

No Man’s World is almost as much a technical manual as it is a novel. Caidin thoroughly – one might even say pedantically – spells out the entire operation of the Apollo craft, from launch to lunar landing. But in hindsight I realized that it was only in later years that all this would seem routine; Americans became used to Apollo launches in the later ‘60s and early ‘70s, but this novel was published before an Apollo or Saturn V rocket even had a public launch. In fact, Caidin was likely writing in ’66 or earlier, so before the Apollo 1 disaster, which isn’t mentioned anywhere in the novel. Thus Caidin was writing speculative fiction in this regard, based off what he knew was coming with the Apollo program. For that matter, the ship is constantly just referred to as “Apollo,” with no numerical designation as with the real launches, and also there’s no naming convention for the command service module or the lunar module (ie Columbia, Eagle). 

Another indication of when Caidin was writing is that Rance Allenby is given a backstory – clunkily delivered in expository dialog by Stanley – that mirrors the real-life Gemini 8 mission with Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott. Just as their Gemini almost crashed after docking with an Agina station in orbit, so too did Allenby’s. Also, Allenby’s career trajectory is very similar to Armstrong’s: he started flying at a young age, served as a decorated fighter pilot in Korea, then turned his hand to test piloting before entering NASA with the beginning of the Gemini Program. (All this too is delivered in clunky exposition!) Allenby’s backstory diverges from Armstrong’s in the personal arena, though; in another clunkily-delivered bit of backstory, we learn that he married his college sweetheart, had a son with her….and then she died in a freak skydiving accident! This bit was so random it made me laugh out loud. It’s made even worse because it’s all relayed via a dream sequence, Allenby sleeping on Apollo and flashing back to the event several years before where his wife decided to surprise her family at an airshow, having taken secret skydiving lessons and looking to give them a big surprise, but her parachute failed and she plummeted to her death. 

All this is relayed in backstory and exposition as “Apollo” rockets toward the moon, with arbitrary digressions on this or that and a lot of technical stuff. Finally around page 200 things pick up(!). The first steps on the moon are pretty interesting. In this reality, Russia’s already been on the moon for three years; Allenby and Raymond even see their lunar monorail in action as they glide over the surface to land. Per Houston, Allenby is to take the first steps on the moon, as commander of the mission. But when they land Allenby pulls rank and tells Houston there’s a change of plans, that Raymond will be first. Houston acknowledges that Allenby has the control, as he’s up there and they are down on Earth. Allenby as it turns out has no interest in being remembered in the history books; he explains to Raymond that because the Soviets are already here, America’s lost the moon race. Their only chance to make a big statement for the world is for the first “astronaut-scientist” on the moon be an American. So he requests that Brain hoist an American flag and venture down on the lunar surface and announce, to the TV camera beaming this back to millions on Earth, “For God and country.” 

So this is another curious projection of Caidin’s. In reality, Harrison Schmitt was the first scientist to walk on the moon, on the Apollo 17 mission. Who today could name him? But I guess in Caidin’s imagination this was the only way America could at least get one big development over the Russians; there’s a subplot, not much explored, where a military general bitches at a congressman that America could’ve had a shot at being first on the moon if not for budget fights and restrictions. I don’t see this entire “race to be second” as believable, though. It doesn’t fit the American spirit (or at least the American spirit that once existed). If Russia did get to the moon first, the US would’ve strived to get there sooner than three years later, at least. Caidin tries to work up an underdog sort of spirit to the entire Apollo program here, but it’s just not believable, particularly when the astronauts themselves are dispirited about the situation. 

Caidin brings a tense Cold War element into the tale with the wily Russians “going silent” upon the American landing on the moon; soon thereafter Moscow releases a statement that it’s lost all communications with the lunar colony. And yes, that’s “colony;” the Russians of course have claimed the moon for themselves, given that they’ve landed here first. Meanwhile on the moon, the lunar bug is surrounded by three “Cats,” massive vehicles the Russians use to get around on the moon; they sound very much like the vehicles seen in Moon Zero Two. Allenby again bucks Houston by insisting that both he and the Brain will go out to talk to them, disregarding Mission Control’s orders that one person stay in the lunar craft. But the two are given a frosty reception, Colonel Barkagan flatly announcing that the moon is Russian territory and they are trespassing. 

Barkagan orders Allenby and Raymond to get back in their lunar lander and join up with Stanley on the command module, which will be passing overhead in 45 minutes. Raymond proves he’s not just a meek scientist when he challenges Barkagan, the “low gravity” rifles his men bears notwithstanding. Allenby has to tell him to stand down, leading to a lot of hostility between the two crewmembers; Allenby is “yellow” per Raymond, who is in disbelief when the commander “puts his tail between his legs” and gives in to the Russian demands. This after Barkagan’s men have even broken apart the American flag Raymond just planted. So they return to Earth in great dispirits, Allenby reasoning with Raymond that it was a losing proposition; the Russians weren’t bluffing, and the whole world heard what happened via the radio link. 

After this things get lame again. Incredibly, we’re faced with overlong chapters in which various characters exposit and exposit, from newcasters (who go on in pages and pages of unbroken dialog) informing us of developing situations to even a part where the Russians argue their case at the UN. Finally things sort of build up again when NASA decides to go in a venture with the UN and scrub “United States” off the next Saturn launch and put “United Nations” on it, so as to poke the Russians a bit – see if they’re still so cocky to challenge when the astronauts represent “all nations” and not just the US. Rance and his military pals are chagrined by this; there’s a fair bit of UN hatred here, in particular how it caves under any pressure and will be quick to turn its back on the US. So I guess that was a thing even in the ‘60s! 

But as Allenby said, the Russians aren’t bluffing, and this next NASA crew meets with trouble: Barkagan has his men cut down the commander when he refuses to leave the moon. The scientist-astronaut is taken prisoner. Things are finally coming to a boil. But Caidin cuts back to Earth and puts the brakes on again. At this point a major character commits suicide…and we learn about it from a letter Allenby is sent. This is Caidin’s approach to writing in a nutshell. We already had a bit of backstory devoted to this character at novel’s beginning…backstory that didn’t pan out…after which the character was sort of relegated to secondary status, only to end up offing himself, uh, off-page. One would think that important dramatic developments like this would warrant more narrative space than UN speechifying or newscaster blathering. 

Things again threaten to pick up when Allenby and an Air Force general begin to roll out a massive operation, in which a veritable armada of Saturn rockets blast into the sky, even setting up a space station in “Polar orbit” so that more ships can be quickly assembled for a military assault on the moon. But there’s also some subterfuge afoot, as the Americans successfully fool the Russians that they have more men on the moon than they actually do. This time however the US heads for the dark side of the moon, claiming this area for themselves and thus provoking the Russian bear. Barkagan eventually assembles his Cats and makes his way over there, leading to a skirmish that’s almost altogether ruined by Caidin’s prose style; there’s absolutely nothing thrilling or gripping about it. But by skirmish’s end both Allenby’s team and Barkagan’s team must work together, to either “die separately or live together.” 

The novel ends with Caidin introducing a new element: while Barkagan and Allenby have learned to work together, the Red Chinese meanwhile throw their hat in the space ring and nuke the Russian base, then go about challenging the US position with their own space launches. Rather than get into a major world war, everyone decides to back off from the moon, though Allenby and Barkagan are already looking to Mars as the next desitnation. And with this, mercifully, No Man’s World finally comes to a close. 

Now, as for Caidin’s prose. I think I used the word “clunky” a few times above, and I’ll use it again here. I’ve said it before, but this guy’s prose reads almost identically to that of Mark Roberts or William Crawford. Everything from sentence construction to reliance on exposition, not to mention the obsession with all things aeronautical. Caidin was a sort of infamous pilot himself, so it’s possible he was friends with fellow pilots Roberts and Crawford, or at least knew of them. But Mark Roberts was fond of incorporating the names of his friends in his books, as he did with Crawford in The Penetrator #9; I’ve yet to see a Roberts novel in which Caidin is mentioned. Anyway, given that Caidin was publishing earlier than these two I’m going to assume they were just greatly influenced by his style. 

All of which is to say Caidin’s writing leaves a little to be desired. The reliance on exposition is bad enough, but the overly-thorough technical stuff gets to be a drag, too. It also doesn’t help that he introduces interesting touches but fails to follow up on them. For example, we learn that the Brain’s wife hates him, and is in love with Allenby, but this doesn’t amount to much in the narrative. Same goes for various minor characters who are introduced at great narrative expense but who soon disappear from the text. In most cases it just comes off like Caidin showing off, like the newscaster who drones on and on for his report on the American lunar landing, but before we even get to it we have a lot of interminable background about his start as a reporter and what all he learned about the space program and whatnot. Unfortunately this stuff takes precedence over telling a gripping story with compelling characters. And some of the sentences are incredibly awkward, ie “[Allenby] annointed his inner pain by melting into the intricacies of the space-time velocity vector that would boost them out of lunar orbit to begin the long journey Earthward.” 

As mentioned, No Man’s World only received this hardcover edition, and it’s pretty evident why. It seems to be pretty much forgotten today, with not even a scanned version on the Internet Archive. So if you’re interested, do what I did and request it via Interlibrary Loan. Just don’t pay the exorbitant amount online booksellers are asking.

*The others being Marooned (first published in 1964, then revised as a film tie-in in 1969), Four Came Back (1968), and The Cape (1971).


MrToddWilkins said...

I read this when I was younger,and all my brain recalled was some sort of a sequence where a Saturn V with boosters is launched? And something about the Chinese launching 17 men on 17 missiles or some such.

dfordoom said...

Caidin's books tend to be expensive on the used book market. I'm still trying to snare a copy of his CYBORG, the book on which THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN was based.