Super-famous non-writers who turn to writing for fun are undeniably irrating to the rest of us. We might love William Shatner in science fiction circles, but that doesn’t mean we’re crazy about his TekWar books or his fanfic-y Star Trek novels.
So is it possible to take seriously a science fiction story written by Tom Hanks that was just published in The New Yorker? Here’s what happens when we try.
J.D. Salinger—among a few other things you may have heard of—was interested in the idea of the “amateur reader,” a person who doesn’t worry too much about how or why a piece of writing was constructed, but just liked it for, you know, gut reasons. In Seymour an Introduction, his characters talk about it like this: “…not all readers are skilled readers…and critics tell us everything, and the worst first…” And in keeping with both the spirit of Salinger’s concerns and gentle condemnation of critics I’ll give you the worst first: the Tom Hanks short story in The New Yorker is, as Katy Waldman suggested on Slate “not very good.” What she means (I think) is that it’s not anything special. The prose isn’t particularly original, the ideas—from the perspective of someone looking for “literary” value—seem a little old hat.
But, the thing about the story—“Alan Bean Plus Four”—is that if you read it like an old school science fiction story, it’s suddenly not half bad. Am I suggesting that reading science fiction stories systemically lowers your standards? That suddenly you don’t care about character development or deeper themes? Not at all, but what I am saying is the aims of a story like this seem to be more in line with Kurt Vonnegut or Alfred Bester than with George Saunders or Maragret Atwood. I think most sane people can agree all of those folks I mentioned have some talent, but they probably have different goals with their stories.
“Alan Bean Plus Four” is a short story about a group of amateur astronauts who fly to the moon in a somewhat contemporary setting seemingly for the hell of it. The space ship they’re going in is called the Alan Bean, in honor of the real-life astronaut of the same name who landed on the moon during the Apollo 12 mission and was later the commander of the Skylab 3 mission. Nobody other than the narrator knows who he is. Plus, no one on Earth seems to care that they are going, and even the passengers on the journey get bored and watch Breaking Bad on their ipads. The selfie rules the day on this particular space mission, and the notions of exploration or wonder are ultimately trumped by self-indulgence and the immediate gratification that social media offers. In this story Tom Hanks is basically saying “Facebook Killed Space Travel,” or perhaps more complexly: we’re too obsessed with ourselves and our tiny fictions these days to even get a little bit excited about space travel. Even these people IN SPACE don’t care!
If the aim of this story is to hammer home the message that everyone is too apathetic about space travel, possibly because of shifts in the zeitgeist that affect how we view ourselves and what we consider to be “fulfilling,” then the story totally works. As a science fiction critic and a writing teacher, I’d probably suggest a few strong edits to Tom Hanks; the ending needs a little more oomph, the repetition of certain themes gets a little ham-handed, and the inclusion of the word “bean” in the title of really any short story is tricky. But if I were a little younger, or perhaps not a professional in the industries of writing or science fiction, I might actually think this story rocks. Because Tom Hanks, a famous guy who gives a shit about space travel, wrote a cool short story about how nobody gives a shit about space travel anymore.
And I haven’t seen anything quite like it in a while. It’s certainly functioning as allegory more than it’s functioning as a story, but there’s about a billion science fiction stories that are guilty of the same thing; thin on plot and characters but big on chilling cautionary messages. And guess what? We love those kinds of stories!
“Alan Bean Plus Four” will not go down in history as a quirky, cautionary science fiction classic the same way Vonnegut’s “The Big Space Fuck” has, and that’s mostly because it’s just not as fun, or funny. But, if Tom Hanks is using his privilege or nepotism to get himself published in The New Yorker, I think science fiction fans and space enthusiasts should be happy he did it to get this story published, rather than some super-touching story about a guy visiting old retired Gemini astronauts who have taken up needlepoint or something. (I don’t know if such a story exists, I’m just being rude.)
For now, give “Alan Bean Plus Four” an honest read. Try not to get mad that a “real” science fiction writer wasn’t published in The New Yorker (I know, it’s hard). Also, try not to get too mad about how Tom Hanks is a famous actor. Just imagine yourself younger (less jaded?) and in love with space travel, and worried that we’re not excited enough about it these days. If you think like that, and read this story, I bet it will strike a chord. Which is really why any of us got into sci-fi and reading stories in the first place.
Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: A New Geek Manifesto, forthcoming from Plume Books in Fall 2015. His writing has appeared with The New York Times, The Awl, Tor.com, VICE and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.