Author's Webpage: Zach Powers
Reminds Me Of: Man in the High Castle
Triggers: If you're not into communism or looking at Cold War Russia in a humane light this might be triggering. Starvation, famine, some scenes about military executions.
It's 1964 in the USSR, and unbeknownst even to Premier Khrushchev himself, the Soviet space program is a sham. Well, half a sham. While the program has successfully launched five capsules into space, the Chief Designer and his team have never successfully brought one back to earth. To disguise this, they've used twins. But in a nation built on secrets and propaganda, the biggest lie of all is about to unravel.
Because there are no more twins left.
One of my favorite times of history to study and read about is the Cold War. Particularly the Russian side. I've always been into conspiracy theories and how people can believe them and frankly the USSR is just one giant propagandized conspiracy. One of my favorite theories to read about is the space race and the culmination of that race with the moon landing in 1969. That's what drew me to read Zach Power's book First Cosmic Velocity.
We start by setting the scene in 1960s Star City, USSR. Where we meet Leonid. His twin brother (also Leonid, this gets confusing but surprisingly not really) has blasted off into space and the two are conversating over radio his experience. Why? So he can relay the responses to the mass of people as he does his global tour of another "successful" launch. You see, Russia is lying to the world that they can bring their cosmonauts back. Shooting them into the stratosphere? Easy. The return trip is the problem.
I find this so fun to read because of the probability of it. That's what makes a great conspiracy, the portion that could be the truth.
The other part of this book revolves still around the Leonid twins but in their childhood. We get a glimpse at the harsh reality of the time period and the starvation and struggles the USSR faced during the space race. These portions always gave me pause because the complexity of the Cold War was not just amongst governments and their ever expanding and violent rhetoric towards weaponization but the real struggles of real people being neglected for a race that cost millions if not more dollars that might have been better allocated to the people's needs.
One of the fun storylines we got to read about throughout these childhood portions was the historical background of the naming of Leonid's village, Khmelnytsky. The twins grandmother would give the boys bits and pieces of the story throughout the book and it was always fun to tie the portion of the story she was telling to the issues occurring in the 60s. Come to find out, this is actually true in our own reality. A brief synopsis goes as such; the Ottoman Empire attacked Khmelnytsky's village and took them to become slaves. They rowed around the Black Sea pillaging village after village for the emperor. One particular battle wasn't going the way of the Ottoman's but Khmelnytsky knew the solution and was able to snatch victory from defeat. This earned him the praise of the commander and he was unshackled from his bonds. Khmelnytsky took this opportunity to convince the commander the slaves would work harder and row better without the bonds and so the commander did as Khmelnytsky suggested. This was exactly the plan and the slaves revolted and overthrew the commander. Khmelnytsky got the newly freed slaves to row back to Ukraine to return to his family. However when he arrived the village was ransacked and destroyed and evidence of rape and death were written all over the village. This enraged Khmelnytsky and caused him to do things he otherwise would not have. But the portions where Khmelnytsky was not painted in the best light were left out of the village's history and thus the people don't know the full truth about their founders.
You can see where that's going. But also this reminded me of our own recent reckoning of the past and great men that might not have been so great.
The grandmother was a central feature to the childhood stories and when the Russian soldiers came to take away the boys so they could be trained up in the cosmonaut lie the grandmother is overjoyed. Which is a juxtaposition in my mind because she knows on the one hand they will escape the death from starvation but she's handing them off to the government that caused the starvation. Reminding me that people with strong will power and fighting spirit can still be whittled down. That's Russia ain't it?
The "thriller" portion of this book comes in the way of the Chief Designer's problem. He's run out of twins to continue the lie and must solve the reentry problem or else the country will be thrown into chaos over their lies. To make matters worse the Premier doesn't realize the deceit and wants to send his own dog on the next mission. A hunt for twin stray dogs comes up fruitless and the clock keeps ticking. A solution arises though and all is not lost until the surviving twins decide to run away finally making a decision on their own terms.
The ending of the novel is why I gave it 4 stars instead of the full 5. When Leonid and Nadya run away back to Leonid's village he realizes the village is in tact and thriving. He meets the man who recruited him and his twin and learns that not even the recruiter knew the full level of deceit. Leonid also learns that his twin brother has survived longer than expected and is circling the globe in his eventual coffin. To me, that would be traumatic and with the lessons they learned about being their own person and making the choice to run away the ending was odd. Essentially we return to Star City to find the Chief Designer deciding how to proceed with revealing the lie when Leonid and Nadya return and tell him they will complete the mission. Nadya has been trained to actually fly and she is excited for the chance. This to me paints a rosy picture of Soviet life that we just chastised for the entire book. I understand the aspect that this is the human spirit and need to explore the stars but it sort of felt wrong.
Could also be my own American propaganda not wanting to give the Soviet's an ounce of joy. Even fictional joy. Which is what I think Power's might be trying to tell us. He's an American author showcasing that every country has propaganda and lies and yet the human communal aspect of "winning" outshines a country's wrongs almost every time. Also that hope will win out whatever injustice was enacted upon it's people. Because ultimately that's what the space race was. Hope that if you won you'd come out on top and everything would be great from there on.....................
Drink Pairing: Sputnik #1
You know we had to go vodka this time...За здоровье! [za zda-ró-vye]