First Cosmic Velocity might be the most hopeful novel you’ll ever read about people dying in space.
That might sound like an odd statement to make, but that’s what’s most striking about Zach Powers’ inventive secret history of the inner workings of the Soviet space program. Powers’ bold bold reimagining of real-life events is shot through with so much spirit, heart, and humanity that even when the subject matter ventures into the dark and satirical, it never edges into cynicism. It’s surprisingly light on its feet for a story about an elaborate scheme to cover up fatalities related to the burgeoning Cosmonaut program, packed with posturing and infighting between scientists, shady government agents, and an absolutely bonkers plan to bolster the U.S.S.R. reputation on the international stage, not to mention a host of hapless characters worth caring about.
The Soviet space program has a problem: while their spacecraft are perfectly capable of launching into orbit and even circling around the Earth, they have a tendency to either suffer catastrophic failure after a few days in vacuum, or burn up completely upon reentry. Conscious that optics are what matters in the Space Race with the U.S., the minds behind the program concocted a cruel by innovative solution: in 1950, they search out five sets of impoverished identical twins, give them one name and identity, and train them in the skills necessary to pull off an elegantly simple con—one of them will go up in the rocket, and the other will stay on Earth to take part in glad-handing and press tours in the likely event that their sibling doesn’t make it back home.
But by the time half of the twin set known as Leonid launches into orbit in 1964, the space program has exhausted its supply of twins, and must innovate a new solution to its rocket problem—which is neither here nor there for Leonid, presumed dead in space, or Leonid, who is being shuttled around on a PR tour by his stoic government handler, Ignatius. Meanwhile, Premier Kruschev wishes to take a more hands-on approach to his “wildly successful” space program (none of his lackeys having had the fortitude to tell him its a sham) and suggests launching the last trained cosmonaut alongside with his beloved dog Kasha. Complicating matters is the fact that the orbiting Leonid continues to communicate with ground control for weeks after his food, water, and air should have run out. As the next launch looms, the crew at Star City must band together to try to pull off a genuinely successful mission before the whole thing unravels.
Despite its satirical Cold War-era trappings, First Cosmic Velocity displays a generous heart in its treatment of a strange assortment of characters. The staff at Star City (Moscow’s version of Mission Control) is eccentric to be sure, peopled with traumatized radio operators, a heavily scarred chief designer, a host of sheltered cosmonauts, and a shadowy PR agent from the censorship bureau, but as the book continues, these odd character sketches are filled out and made human. Their eccentricities are explained—there’s a tragic story behind that design chief’s scar, one of the Leonid has a special bond with Kasha, the radio operator (known as Mars) has a good reason for spending four weeks blackout drunk in the radio room talking to Leonid’s brother—and their efforts to make the best of things despite the tragedies in their pasts humanizes them all. When Kruschev decides to launch Kasha, they all bond together to find a solution and finally stop living in the middle of a lie they never meant to prop up.
The air of camaraderie (no pun intended) is endearing, even when they are bad at expressing their fond feelings for one another. They all have their differences (some irreconcilable), but there no real antagonists or villains here—just a large engineering problem they have to figure a way out of. There’s no time to pause for apathy or despair, and the grimmest of plot turns are taken with the best intentions—even the Leonids’ grandmother’s decision to give them away to the space program comes from a place of love. While you can imagine a meaner, more overtly comic version of this story going for the jugular, Powers prefers to treat his characters with empathy, especially as the stakes are raised and the plot rockets toward a strangely powerful conclusion.
In 2019, the relationship between Russia and the U.S. is strained to say the least. A story that treats a potential adversary with compassion and understanding might be more necessary than one that aims to kill. It would be wrong to call describe it a romp, but First Cosmic Velocity is certainly a story of space travel that keeps that spirit of exploration and hope alive.