First published in the mid-1980s when fear of nuclear holocaust was at the forefront of public consciousness, this story feels very relevant now, even though ironically, in the story itself, nuclear weapons have been banned, making war more prevalent: “The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.” The story is narrated by the commander of a two-man spacecraft orbiting the earth, gathering intelligence during the course of World War III. Much of it bears witness to what his rookie partner Vollmer experiences for the first time—human moments—and what he sees as he looks upon the earth from space. Through virtuosic language we too are able to envision afresh the beauty of the planet we inhabit and, in doing so, acutely sense the fleeting nature of our existence upon it. The final three paragraphs of this story are sublime, ending on a simply gorgeous refrain.
First published in Esquire, July 1983 and Granta, March 1984, where you can read it online. Collected in The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, Picador 2011