All it takes to find a novel set in outer space is a stroll over to the science-fiction section. Yet tales about contemporary astronauts written for anyone over age 8 can be as scarce as Tang at a Whole Foods store. Oh, there’s “Space,” by James Michener (who had apparently run out of terra firma by 1982), but most books about people with the right stuff hew respectfully to memoir and nonfiction.
This summer, though, while the U.S. manned space program sits in mothballs, two first-time novelists are publishing books featuring astronauts. Both open with men far from home when accidents occur.
Christian Kiefer’s lyrical novel, “The Infinite Tides” (Bloomsbury, $26), opens with Keith’s first space walk while assigned to the international space station, operating a mechanical arm of his own design. Back inside, he finds out that his teenage daughter has been killed in a car accident. As he sits at the computer screen where he’s learned of Quinn’s death, “a point of light drifted in the air before him, a faint luminescence like a distant star. . . . His first thought was fascination. Then confusion. Then he recognized it at last as a drop of fluid, a liquid of some kind suspended in the recycled oxygen of the compartment. Then he could see another and then another, as if a collection of tiny stars were forming in the air a few scant inches from his face.” Keith can’t exactly rush to the hospital, and by the time he arrives back on Earth, his wife has left him. Forced by grief and crippling migraines into an extended leave from NASA, Keith spends his days drinking beer, reliving memories of Quinn and having a perfunctory affair with a neighbor. He describes being in space as “falling without moving,” and that condition follows him back into gravity’s pull. Kiefer, a poet and English professor, is terrific at describing the details of space travel and the emptiness of grief.
Sunny, the heroine of Lydia Netzer’s “ Shine Shine Shine” (St. Martin’s, $24.99), is the blondest and sleekest trophy wife in her Virginia neighborhood. When she had her first child, sadly known as Bubber, “she had an epidural, and gave birth with her lipstick perfectly applied. This time she planned to have an even bigger epidural, and give birth in pearls.” When a friend asks about her dying mother, Sunny replies, “She’s fine. . . . Totally fine. You can almost see her getting better, every single day.”
“But I thought she was on life support.”
“Yes, and it’s working.”
But when a car accident knocks off Sunny’s wig and publicly exposes the fact that she’s completely hairless, her shiny facade falls away. She starts taking stock of the Stepford existence she’s forced on herself and her family. Bubber, who is on the autism spectrum, has been medicated up to his eyeballs and wears a helmet. Her brilliant but socially awkward husband, Maxon, has just set off for the moon with the robots he’s designed to colonize it.
The novel traces Maxon and Sunny’s relationship from their childhoods in Burma and Appalachia to outer space, revealing the futility of chasing an ideal of what’s normal. Netzer’s title echoes the folk song “Mr. Rabbit,” which says, “Every little soul must shine, shine, shine.” Her outer-space segments lack Kiefer’s precision, but “Shine Shine Shine” breaks free of the gravitational pull of traditional romantic cliches.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.