C Stuart Hardwick’s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” and a Narrative that Skips Like a Stone

C Stuart Hardwick‘s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” tells the story of Jimmy, a man who looks back on his youth and his relationship with Mr. Coanda, an older gent who enjoyed building rockets.  The story appeared in the September 2016 issue of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, one of the top three SF/F magazines out there.  Mr. Hardwick is kind enough to offer the story on his web site; check it out!

The piece is an interesting example of a story whose narrator looks back and skips through time like a stone on the surface of a lake.  By design, these kinds of stories don’t spend much time in any one scene and don’t delve particularly deeply into any one moment.  Lots of work is structured in this manner; one of these is my short story, “Masher Doyle.”  Unfortunately, no one has ever read that one.  Here are some real examples:

That’s all I can think of at the moment.  (Feel free to add other suggestions in the comments!)

What Mr. Hardwick loses in depth of scene by employing this structure, he makes up for in the scope of his story.  By taking a look from a distance and zooming along to focus on the important bits, the author is able to chronicle a wide swath of Jimmy’s life.

Come to think of it, a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s work operates in the same kind of way.  The “narrator” of The Shining takes a long-distance look at the Torrance family’s fateful winter and skips along to feature the important bits.

The “narrator” of Full Metal Jacket takes a long-distance look at Private Joker’s Vietnam experience and skips along to feature the important bits.

The “narrator” of 2001: A Space Odyssey takes a long-distance look at humanity’s relationship with the universe and skips along to feature the important bits.

The “narrator” of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (developed by Kubrick, though directed by Spielberg) takes a long-distance look at David’s life over the millenia and skips along to feature the important bits.

(Hmm…I’ll bet someone has written a paper about Kubrick and narrative structure.)

The protagonist is a young man (then a grown man) who loves rocketry.  As a result, Mr. Hardwick has a duty to depict this love in a realistic way.  The story must have verisimilitude: the appearance of reality in fiction.  Mr. Coanda and Jimmy must sound as though they know a lot about rocketry or readers might bail, having had the magic spell broken.  Let’s look at how Mr. Hardwick handles some of the “smart person rocket stuff.”

He said that in space travel, the cost of a launch is determined by all kinds of things, not just the weight of machinery, fuel, and oxidizer, but also the aerodynamics and trajectory which control how much air resistance and gravity a rocket must fight before it reaches orbit.

I knew all that stuff!  The sentence is also a nice summary of some of the most important basic principles of rocketry.

As it staged and staged again, the ground slowly warped into a fisheye ball. When the propellant finally ran out, the Earth was just an azure band beneath the inky black of space.

Mr. Coanda let a handful of popcorn fall back into the bowl. “Holy hell,” he said, “if that ain’t a beautiful sight.”

I was similarly entranced. “How high do you figure we went?”

“I don’t have to figure. I have data. Ah…63,000 feet.”

“Wow! That’s almost in space!”

“Not quite. Minimum orbit’s eight times higher, and then you have to accelerate to orbital velocity in order to stay there.”

I stared at the glowing earthscape. “Still…”

Isn’t the “azure band” part pretty?  I love how this bit evokes the kind of awe that we should all have for this kind of science and the author also reinforces that Mr. Coanda knows his stuff and that little Jimmy is very bright, but still learning.  The part about the orbit and orbital velocity isn’t totally necessary, but it adds credence to the characters and their milieu.

“And it works terrific,” he said, “It’ll never produce enough LOX to do the whole job alone, but that’s another trade-off. If it can do much better than pay its own way, then–“

Lox?  Is Mr. Hardwick trying to get us hungry for breakfast?  No, he means “liquid oxygen.”  As an enthusiast of Gemini/Mercury/Apollo-era spaceflight, I knew the character didn’t mean salmon.  You’ll also note that Mr. Hardwick includes the phrase “liquid oxygen” to give the reader a hint, but it’s not wholly necessary.  If the reader doesn’t know the terms, they will just gloss over them while understanding that the characters know what they’re talking about.

I could never, ever pass a calculus class and Dr. William Widnall loses me when he talks about smart people stuff, but he, like Mr. Hardwick, convince me that they know what they’re talking about.

SPOILER ALERT!  Just read the piece if you didn’t.  Here are the last few sentences of the piece:

I’ve run the camp now for longer than I worked in engineering, but to these kids and the world, I’ll always be the Rocket Man, a mythological hero from a golden age. And that’s fine by me. I’ll proudly wear that title while I fan the flames, till the next bearer comes along to change up the world behind me. It’s not the adventure I imagined for my life, but you never quite know where dreams will lead.

Okay, so Mr. Hardwick is in the same place I was when I wrote “Masher Doyle.”  We both told the narrator’s story from childhood to adulthood.  Both of us wrote about mentor figures who helped our narrators build themselves up from childhood problems.  So what to do with the conclusion of the story?

The last paragraph can be your opportunity to unspool poetry for poetry’s sake.  The storytelling is largely over, so why not tip the scales in favor of aesthetic beauty over plot?

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