“Chairman Spaceman”
by Thomas Pierce
from the January 16, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

We’ve been delighted by Pierce’s stories before — “Shirley Temple Three,” “Ba Baboon,” and “This Is an Alert” — and I have all faith he’ll please us again with “Chairman Spaceman.” Pierce’s stories have perhaps made me wary for seeming on the surface to be facetious, snarky, slight pieces (I mean, I’d not naturally be excited to read something called “Chairman Spaceman”), but Pierce always manages to surprise me with a lot of depth of character and with his serious stakes.

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By |2017-05-25T16:58:16-04:00January 9th, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Thomas Pierce|Tags: |18 Comments


  1. Roger January 9, 2017 at 11:35 pm

    I found this funny, poignant, and daring in its use of the sci-fi / “speculative” form. The last line suggests a deliberately twisted take on the ending of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Very refreshing after the fiction TNY has treated us to the last couple of weeks.

  2. Eric January 10, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    This is one of those stories where your opinion of it ultimately comes down to whether you agree with the author’s politics. The whole purpose of this story seems to be to make the point that attempting to colonize other planets is likely to be a fool’s errand. That is, Pierce believes that to be a fantasy that will ultimately do nothing more than distract and detract from our job of pulling together and putting things right here on earth. I don’t want to write a political polemic here, but In My Humble Opinion that’s just wrong.

    Without the political aspect, I don’t see a lot here to make this story interesting. The characters and plot elements are familiar almost to the point of banality, which is no doubt intentional–when you’re making a poltical point, you want the story elements to be relatable. But since I consider the political point to be wrong, it was no more interesting to me than, say, an eloquent and passionate and cleverly realized parable about the dangers of childhoold vaccination.

  3. David January 10, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    Eric, I did not read the story as about the politics of colonizing other planets. I was worried at first that the target of the story might be peculiar religious cults like the one he joins, but we don’t really get much of an examination of this one to make it the focus of the story either. I think in the end that the odd elements of space colonization and religious cults are just an extravagant context to place the main character in and the real question of the piece is what has happened in his personal development to lead him to make the rather extreme decisions he makes. Joining a religion, giving up all his (vast) wealth, and agreeing to travel to a distant planet to live are fairly dramatic changes in his life.
    We meet his wife and learn a bit about his divorce and we also find out a bit about his relationship with his parents. I’m not quite sure I get what it all adds up to, but I think the story is about him and how he has changed more than anything. So in the end when he finds he has come back to Earth and it is many years later he has, in some sense, been thrown back into the life he was trying to escape and forced to deal with it again.What was like a suicide attempt of sorts by leaving it all behind turns into a failed attempt as he wakes up and is forced to deal with the world again.

  4. Julian Wyllie January 13, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    As a young New Yorker reader this was a great story for me. For my taste, I needed something more down-to-Earth plot wise (a change of pace from the usual highbrow pieces I think), and ironically I’m given that with a space story, sort of.

    To me, this synthesizes the best of Martian Chronicles (and the author makes a reference to Bradbury) with Passengers (a movie I had a “meh” feeling for). Yes, this story plays on some cliche, but overall I appreciated the simplicity of the language and the expressive third person point of view.

    In the end, by no means do I think this is on par with the best of all space literature or film. For one, only about one paragraph is actually set in space, as most lines function on just the mention of the cold unknown. But after reading the author’s interview where he said “our fate, as a species, is tied to the fate of the Earth,” I now see that even IF we can leave Earth in time, we still will take our legacy with us, and it is on each person, rich or poor, religious or non-religious, purple or blue, to make our future harmonious. SMALL SPOILER: It should be no surprise that the humans are rejected on the new planet. After all, we seem to have issues giving our own specie chances, too.

  5. Vicky January 14, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    Grew up on Bradbury and beyond but feeling really stupid. Does anyone else not get the ending?

  6. Eric January 16, 2017 at 5:30 am

    Well, I definitely didn’t get the ending either, not sure there’s anything to get. It almost seemed like theater of the absurd to me, more Beckett than Bradbury.

  7. Roger January 16, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    I’ll take a crack at describing the ending, as I saw it. The essential point, I think, is that foolish, cowardly Dom gets his comeuppance. Throughout the story, he’s felt guilty for the bad things he’s done to other people over the years – unethical business practices, cheating on his wife, etc. But his way of dealing with that guilt has been to run away from his wrongdoing rather than making amends: he’s used his wealth to jump the queue (more bad behavior) in the spaceship venture. At the end, his escape plans are deservedly thwarted and he’s treated to an image of himself in a mirror that not only is unflattering (a “mess,” bald head, greasy cheeks, swollen eyes) but that reveals him as “a hideous baby.” I thought Pierce’s reference to Dom’s eyes looking “as though they’d only just now opened to the light for the first time” reflected Dom’s belated (“only just now”) awakening.

    So the ending is as moralistic as an ending can get, and one that seems to make sense at the literal level (the spaceship had to turn back because the faraway planet was inhospitable) and the philosophical level. I suspect the ending also makes a deliberate allusion to the ending of _2001: A Space Odyssey_, where the main character, the astronaut David Bowman, becomes a baby (a “Star Child”) at the end.

  8. David January 16, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    I read the ending the same way as you describe it, Roger. Although the connection to 2001 is not one I noticed at the time, it makes sense to me that this was an intended reference.

  9. Greg January 18, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    I really enjoyed your comments Julian! And I’m curious, why did you find “Passengers” so-so?

    And thank you Roger for explaining the ending for us. Now I fully understand what the author was saying with the eyes and baby!

  10. William January 20, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    I’m with Roger and David on this one.

    Roger: “daring in its use of the sci-fi / “speculative” form.” He didn’t use any of the clumsy language that sometimes characterizes science/speculative fiction. He very effectively and firmly put us into a world of the future and took it from there.

    David: “What was like a suicide attempt of sorts by leaving it all behind turns into a failed attempt as he wakes up and is forced to deal with the world again.”

    I too don’t think this is about the feasibility of colonizing space — that would have been a far different story, where they landed and something disastrous happened.

    I’m also with Julian on this: “the simplicity of the language and the expressive third person point of view.” I think we get a nice round view of the main character, Dom. Remarkable in such a small space.

    In fact, I thought the story was well written. I enjoyed it — aside from all this analysis. My criterion for enjoyable is behavioral — I read right through without struggling or losing interest. BTW, that’s two TNY stories in a row that I’ve enjoyed!

    Roger — I’m impressed by your explication of how the guy had to face his mess at the end –couldn’t run away from it — and the 2001 ending, which I would not have gotten at all if you had not pointed it out. Kudos. You are the Boss.

  11. Greg January 22, 2017 at 11:41 pm

    William – You surprised me a little bit with this part of your post: “My criterion for enjoyable is behavioral — I read right through without struggling or losing interest.”

    I had always thought of you as someone who was looking more to be edified….

  12. William January 24, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    Good catch, Greg. I *have* altered my way of thinking about stories. I started, as you say, with a more cerebral take. I wouldn’t say I wanted a story to be edifying, maybe more like structurally creative, with the events pointing to a reality greater than the limited world and characters of that story itself.

    During the course of reading the comments on this website, and writing my own comments, and re-reading and contemplating them, I’ve re-ordered my priorities. Sure, I still love a story that presents a created world with realistic people doing things that we can observe with attention and that illustrate social themes. For me, George Saunders is the examplar of this.

    However, I now have greater respect for stories that are well crafted and that hold my attention, like “Chairman Spaceman” and “Most Die Young” and “Spiderweb”. They’re nicely written entertainments. When a story with more depth comes along, that’s even better. But I’m not going to ignore the pleasures of simple good writing.

    One thing this means is that some criticisms of stories – like that they are not original or they don’t have a subtext – don’t carry so much weight with me anymore.

    There is a nice discussion of short stories in this week’s NYRB in a review of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new collection by the short story writer David Means. It’s worth reading. Here are a couple of insights that I like:

    “But [this story] isn’t fueled by plot, or by the threadbare concept of epiphany or a sense of some kind of ‘closure’ (that poor, abused word). Instead, its pleasure derives from how it offers what Ezra Pound called ‘news that stays news’ — a sensation of looking into a life and catching a glimpse of not only a particular character but also a particular emotional and social milieu.”

    “A good story is a high-wire act that that uses angle of vision, voice and plot to produce a work that somehow, against all odds, radiates meaning at all levels – in the sentences, the structure and in the absences.”

  13. Julian Wyllie January 25, 2017 at 1:27 pm


    I think Passengers for me was pretty decent for what it wanted to show, but to me it’s just a love story in space, not a space movie that uses love and other matters as a theme. The film sort of uses space as a change of setting which is perfectly OK to do, but it didn’t expand on what I think the beauty of space literature can be, which is embracing more of the unknown.

    In the movie we do get the idea that the people are traveling to a new planet, messages back to Earth would take decades, and what if things go wrong? But I think those were sort of throw ins for a movie that was made to feature a very beautiful actor and actress falling in and out of love. Maybe if it was more isolating and psychological I would’ve liked it. I enjoyed it, just wanted more to think about.

  14. Greg January 27, 2017 at 9:20 am

    William – I am impressed by your evolution as a reader. I am going to follow your example and be more open in my tastes. And thank you for this gorgeous quote from David Means. The key word for me is ‘sensation’:

    “Instead, its pleasure derives from how it offers what Ezra Pound called ‘news that stays news’ — a sensation of looking into a life and catching a glimpse of not only a particular character but also a particular emotional and social milieu.”

    Julian – Coming out of the theatre, my friend also summarized “Passengers” as mainly a “love story in space”…..I enjoyed the realization of Jennifer’s character of learning to be happy where she currently is at the moment instead of always wanting to chase it….and the tough choices that both main characters had to make throughout the movie resonated with me…..how about you?

  15. William January 27, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Greg —

    Thanks for those kind words. And thanks for focusing my attention on the word “sensation”. I looked it up and it means just what you would expect It to mean:

    1. a physical feeling or perception resulting from something that happens to or comes into contact with the body:
    2. a widespread reaction of interest and excitement:

    What that emphasizes is that a story emerges out of physical and emotional language. (I’m going to refer to this again in my comments on Alix Ohlins’ story “Quarantine”.) We can analyze it afterward for its construction and metaphors and subtext etc. A superior writer will put those in. But first and foremost it has to appeal to us on the physical and emotional level. That’s pretty obvious, I suppose. But it has taken me this long to figure it out.

  16. Sean H February 16, 2017 at 5:26 am

    Entertained and intrigued throughout but thoroughly disappointed by a deus ex machine ending that was both far too predictable and far too on-the-nose. If there’s a larger purpose here besides a sort of ode to Bradbury (and Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick and plenty of others who dabbled in sci-fi), I’m not seeing it. Pierce has wooed me before (notably in “Ba Ba Baboon”) but not here. This felt like the New Yorker wanted to lighten things up and be a bit more genre-imbued and fast-paced. I guess it’s good that they can veer from the sometimes too-pat and formulaic vibe of epiphanic literary fiction, I just wish they’d chosen a livelier and more complex piece.

  17. Ken February 17, 2017 at 4:02 am

    I must concur with Sean. I’m a bit surprised at the plaudits for this. It’s readable and has some poignancy but didn’t seem to have much insight or any interesting ideas besides showing that our pettiness as a species will be endure–a very Kubrickian (as in Dr. Strangelove) idea–and define us. I found the ending clever, though, as it’s not the expected landing on the planet or the expected they never go anywhere but instead was a good twist. I don’t know if it’s as hopeless as it seems. He may be mortified but there’s also his wife there and perhaps the remnants of emotion he had again felt with her would revive in him. Am I naive to think so? Still…I guess I prefer ‘literary fiction’ not genre work.

  18. Greg February 18, 2017 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you Sean and Ken for this late insight….you aren’t naïve Ken…..and Sean, I especially liked this part of your commentary:

    “I guess it’s good that they can veer from the sometimes too-pat and formulaic vibe of epiphanic literary fiction…”

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