First published in 1989, a few years after the space shuttle Challenger catastrophe, Phases of Gravity is a speculative fiction novel – not science fiction, like the book cover and jacket text might suggest.
Richard Baedecker is a former Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon 16 years before the story unfolds. His crewmates were Dan Muldorff and Tom Gavin, two more fictional astronauts. It’s not clear which mission they were on, but it sounds like Apollo 14 or 15, thereabouts. There is mention of real astronauts, like Armstrong, Aldrin and many others that we remember from the Apollo program.
Dan Simmons must know astronauts since he can describe their lifestyles and attitudes quite well. His descriptions work and paint a fairly clear picture of what is happening. But that’s the only good thing about this book.
Baedecker is clearly in a mid-life crisis, and the story is full of stereotypical behavior of a 50-year-old man whose glory days are 16 years in the past. What do you do for an encore after you walk on the moon?
He comes home and drifts. He gives speeches, but he doesn’t care about the content or the audiences. He wants a Corvette. He travels to India to visit his son in an ashram. He tried to repair the relationship with his son that has suffered a lifetime of neglect. He has a tryst with a long-legged girl half his age that does not like to wear a bra. He visits a fellow astronaut who also never got a grip on his life and became a born-again Christian evangelist to escape the void. He goes on road trips to nowhere. He chases the girl and we wonder what she sees in him. He flies an old helicopter even though he hates flying helicopters.
All this is told without any discernible plot. Nothing really happens in this book. The timeline is messy. The story flashes back to the time when he trained for the Apollo mission. We are on the Apollo mission. We are in the present. We are a few years back. There is no good pattern to how the timeline flows, and I found myself often confused as the reader when I had to figure out, from one paragraph to the next, where and when Baedecker was now in this scene.
The structure of the novel does not work. The protagonist is a washed out middle-aged guy with nothing to live for and nothing interesting going for himself, trying to live off the four days on the moon a long time ago. Perhaps this is the plight of the moonwalkers. I don’t know.
But even if it’s real, even if Apollo astronauts didn’t know what to do with their lives after they returned, it does not a story make.