ON THE SURFACE, James A. Michener's latest epic novel is the story of the American space program, from its roots in World War II to the magnificent Voyager 2 probe of the ringed planet Saturn.

In typical Michener fashion, the novel examines every aspect of its subject: the men who build and fly the rockets, the women who marry them, the scientists, the politicians, the journalists, the astronauts.

But that is only on the surface. For what Michener is really writing about is something far deeper. This is a novel about faith, religious faith, even though it is not a novel about religion.

Back when I was a teenager I wrote a science fiction novel about the first voyage to the moon. Like most first novels, it was never published, and a good thing it wasn't. But I recall that one of the characters in that naive novel said that the world is divided into two kinds of people, those who have faith in space flight and those who don't.

Michener has also hit on that theme, expanded on it, deepened it. Space contrasts several varieties of faith, from the simplistic faith of the German rocket engineer who believes that technology can solve any problem, to the faith of the astronauts who believe that flying farther and faster is the greatest good in the world.

And then there is the cynical, corrosive manipulation of faith by those who prey on the fears of the public for their own selfish ends. Michener has created a villain, a charming, satanic fraud who calls himself Strabismus and makes his living first by milking the "flying saucer" racket and then by making himself into a Bible-thumping evangelist who attacks science in general and evolution in particular.

For what Michener is portraying in this novel is America today. He has laid bare, with a newspaper reporter's pitiless instinct for the truth, the central issue of modern American society: we have, on the one hand, an incredibly rich and powerful scientific technology that can transform our world; on the other hand, we have a deep-rooted fear of the new, the unknown, and this fear has manifested itself in a reversion to anti-scientific attitudes, exemplified by the attack against the teaching of evolution by fundamentalist religious zealots under the guise of "scientific creationism."

Like most of Michener's earlier novels, Space is a saga that shows a wide panorama of events. He follows four families, one German and three American, from the dying days of World War II up to roughly the year 1981. Historical characters such as Wernher von Braun, Deke Slayton, and Lyndon B. Johnson are there. But it is the men and women of the space program who are center stage. In particular, two astronauts and their wives become the major characters. One is the rowdy Texan, Randy Claggett, and his blowsy wife, Debbie Dee. They are both constantly annoying the strait-laced bureaucrats of NASA and the even fussier journalists who cover the space program. The other is "straight arrow" John Pope, the best flier of them all, and his intelligent, level-headed wife, Penny, who eventually becomes a U.S. senator. The contrast between these two men, who are so dissimilar in so many ways and yet who are fierce friends who share a common view of the world makes Space worth reading, all by itself.

But there is so much more to the novel, as well. Much has been said of Michener's encyclopedic approach to fiction. His novels are stuffed with characters and incident, historic detail and local minutiae. At critical moments, the characters tend to lapse into speechifying rather than natural dialogue. He is not regarded as a stylist, nor I suspect, would he want to be taken as one.

Michener is, if nothing else, a solid reporter. He studies his subject matter thoroughly and writes about it in unadorned prose. Better than most writers, he gives his readers an understanding of the men and women involved in the mighty saga of space. He shows how a frustrated fighter pilot in Korea can grow into an astronaut who flies to the moon, and how his wife can build a career in Washington for herself during those years. He shows how an angry young naval officer can parlay his heroism in battle into a seat in the U.S. Senate, and how he can be a brilliant leader who slowly lapses into mediocrity.

And he shows other sides of American life: the son of the scientist who grows up to become a drug trafficker. The bright young student who starts ghost writing theses for other students, then goes on to become a UFO "expert" and finally an anti-evolution preacher. The beautiful Korean journalist who interviews the astronauts in motel beds. The son of one of the German rocket engineers who becomes a concern musician, partly because his father refused to allow him to play in an Alabama football band.

By using the space program as a cutting edge, Michener has shown a cross-section of America today -- all the bright promise of our glittering technology, all the dark dangers of know-nothing anti-intellectualism, all the choices that we face today in our continual striving to build a better tomorrow.