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Shadows of the space race - ‘First Cosmic Velocity’

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There’s nothing quite like stumbling upon a great book.

Yes, we all have our favorite authors and our favorite genres, our favorite styles and favorite publishers, but every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we wind up with something unexpected in our hands. Maybe you read a review blurb, maybe a friend pointed it out to you – doesn’t matter how you got it, just that you got it.

“First Cosmic Velocity” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26) by Zach Powers is one of those books for me. It is an absolute gem of a book, a tale of tragedy disguised as triumph. It is a beautifully-crafted work of literary genre writing – part historical fiction, part sci-fi, with hints of family drama and magical realism thrown into the mix as well. It’s a story unlike anything you’ve read, told from a perspective unlike any you’ve experienced.

The year is 1964. It’s the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union is making headlines all over the globe for the rapid development of its space program. Cosmonauts are launched – five in all – into the inky black of space, each brought back to represent the glory of the USSR.

But all is not as it seems. There’s a dark secret behind the successes of the Soviet space program, a secret whose revelation would be catastrophic.

It’s all a lie.

More specifically, it’s all a half-truth. Because while the Chief Designer (his given name is kept secret) and his team have indeed launched five capsules containing brave cosmonauts into orbit … not one has ever been returned to Earth successfully. So how can this be?

Twins.

As part of a long-reaching program, every Soviet cosmonaut has been one of a set of twins. All five sets of twins have spent the majority of their lives living separately in Star City, the Soviet space facility. From each pairing, one was selected to be trained for the job, to become a cosmonaut. The other was trained to play the part of the returned. Over the course of their respective training, the twins assume the same name in an effort to essentially become the same person. One is shot into space, knowing full well that he or she will never return. The other is tasked with embodying the conquering hero, serving as the symbol of Soviet space dominance. A scant handful of people know the truth – everyone else remains completely unaware.

Leonid is one of the Earthbound twins, the last of the five sets. His brother was launched and left to be claimed by the unfeeling airlessness of orbit; he receives the medals and waves at the parades and makes quips at press conferences.

But when Kruschev himself makes an appearance and starts making different demands of the Chief Designer, it becomes clear that this delicately-constructed house of cards might well come tumbling down … and no one involved will be safe if that happens.

Leonid is left to make some hard choices of his own, with only Nadya – a fellow twin whose cosmonaut circumstances are unique even among the rest – as a true companion. Along the way, he constantly remembers his life before Star City, his hardscrabble boyhood in a remote Ukrainian village – the village where he and his brother would have lived and died had they not been scooped up by fate.

When it comes to the space race, there’s the party line and there’s the truth … but even the truth isn’t everything that it appears to be.

Everything about “First Cosmic Velocity” works. The concept is outstanding and the execution is exceptional. The attention to detail is phenomenal, allowing for a clear and vivid picture of the behind-the-scenes chaos of the Soviet effort. It's "The Prestige" with cosmonauts. And the characterizations are sharp, capturing the inner turmoil of those struggling with the moral and ethical ramifications of the work being done – and the willingness to push through in the name of scientific achievement and nationalist glory.

What Powers does so beautifully is immerse the reader in the world that he has created. We view the proceedings though Leonid’s eyes, subjected to both his profound sense of loss and his inability to fully engage with the emotions elicited by that loss. The skewed complexity of all of his relationships – with the Chief Designer, with Nadya and with other cosmonauts in 1964, with his grandmother and the rest of his village in 1950 … and with his brother in both – is laid out with unerring specificity.

“First Cosmic Velocity” is a remarkable work of what if, a propulsive and powerful and almost-possible alternate take on a time and place about which relatively little is truly known. It captures the passion and paranoia behind the Soviet space effort, offering a bleak and secretive solution that rings all too plausibly. Expect great things from Zach Powers.

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