The actual moon landings. Photo: NASA/AFP/Getty Images
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This is how we walk on the moon: Benjamin Johncock's The Last Pilot

Despite the decades that have gone by, the early days of space exploration hold an enduring fascination.

The Last Pilot
Benjamin Johncock
Myriad, 320pp, £8.99

In four years, half a century will have passed since human beings first set foot on the moon; it’s been more than 40 years since Gene Cernan became the last man to step off the lunar surface. And yet, despite the decades that have gone by, those early days of space exploration hold an enduring fascination. In part, it’s the cold war drama, a race between the “reds” and the “free world” to establish dominion not only over the earth but across the universe, too; in part, it’s the thrill of technology pushed to its absolute limit, often at the cost of human life. And it’s also the simple wonder of what it meant for men to leave not only the surface of the earth, as the Wright brothers had done in 1903, but to leave its atmosphere, to look back at our only home from the blackness of space.

And – at least in the US – they were all men: men with “the right stuff”, as the novelist Tom Wolfe put it. It is among these men that Benjamin Johncock inserts his fictional pilot Jim Harrison, flying with the US air force out in the Mojave Desert. These are the early years of the space programme, not long after the Russians had put the first Sputnik satellite in orbit and when John F Kennedy announced, in 1961, that the United States would put a man on the moon by 1970. A reader could reasonably ask what any novelist could add to what has already been written about this time. There is plenty out there and a lot of it is awfully good.

On the surface, Johncock’s novel might look clichéd. Jim Harrison drives a sports car, smokes like Mad Men’s Don Draper, enjoys a drink and says things such as: “This is flight surgeon horseshit, Deke!” (Some may recall that line from Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13; it’s one of the works to which Johncock gives credit in his acknowledgements.) His wife, Grace, holds the fort at home, her life limited by the demands of his job. But sometimes clichés are just, well, true – and the lives that Johncock builds for Jim and Grace transcend their setting. Often his descriptive writing has a clean grace that recalls Cormac McCarthy. When Grace and Jim finally have a longed-for daughter, Florence, who they thought would never come, the novel works a good balance between life in the sky and life at home – and when Florence gets sick, there are hard choices to be made.

Johncock works a couple of neat tricks here: he makes the struggles that Jim and Grace must face at home just as tense as what’s going on in the Mercury and Gemini missions and he uses the real men of the space programme to fine effect. Names such as Schirra, Lovell, Aldrin and Slayton (Wally, Jim, Buzz and Deke) recur but this never feels like a pantomime show of heroes. And one real character who is often forgotten in this cavalcade has a wonderful role to play: Pancho Barnes, a remarkable woman who was an aviation pioneer in her own right – she was the grand-daughter of Thaddeus Lowe, who in essence founded the US air force when he pioneered the flights of manned observation balloons for the Union army during the American civil war. As the proprietor of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a bar and restaurant out in the Mojave, she catered to those early test pilots and knew them well; her wisdom and courage drive the book forward, as does her foul-mouthed charm.

Harrison is one of the pilots to fly the X-15, a hypersonic jet that reached the edge of outer space.

He thought about what he’d seen up there, across the top, above the dome. Black space, blue earth; the globe curling away beneath him. He’d looked down on everything he’d known, for a brief window, a few minutes. He’d flown weightless, on reaction control, hand on the stick squirting hydrogen peroxide from the thrusters. He felt free. Then he dropped back down into the atmosphere and the earth pulled him down.

It’s that pull back down to earth that’s the real challenge for Harrison in this novel and perhaps that’s not too surprising. But Benjamin Johncock’s story and characters take flight: this is a very promising debut. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear