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Ascent cover

The Soviet space programme has always provided fertile ground for urban myths, conspiracy theories, and tall tales. The secrecy which surrounded it, in comparison to the blaze of publicity which accompanied the Mercury and Apollo projects, does much to encourage such speculation. Soviet cosmonauts remained anonymous until they returned safely to Earth and any accidents along the way (even if they resulted in several hundred deaths) could be discreetly erased from history. The most prominent recurring story to emerge from behind this fog of deception is "the Soviets got there first," an idea which inspired the recent Russian "documentary-drama" film Pervye na Lune (First on the Moon, 2005). Now the theme is taken up by an author somewhat closer to home, Jed Mercurio, writer of the TV dramas Cardiac Arrest and Invasion: Earth.

The book opens in 1946: following the devastation wrought upon the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War, Yefgenii Yeremin has been left without parents or prospects. He finds refuge in an orphanage, only to discover that his troubles have only just begun: the only means of escape from this hell-on-earth is to win the sole scholarship to an aviation academy. Determined to secure this prize by brutalising the competition, the leader of a gang of Yeremin's fellow-orphans bullies and repeatedly rapes him. Yeremin soon sees that his sole means of salvation is to secure the scholarship for himself: through a combination of ruthlessness (brutally blinding his tormentor) and natural ability, he achieves his goal, and with it access to a privileged elite. Having reached the academy, Yeremin soon graduates with flying colours and joins the Red Air Force. He finds himself posted as a fighter pilot in Korea, fighting in a war which the Soviet Union dare not even admit it is involved in. While Yeremin quickly wins the respect of his fellow-pilots, any hopes of wider recognition are quickly dispelled. A year of combat, confronting enemies who will eventually go on to crew the American space programme, sees Yeremin notch up kill after kill, eventually becoming the highest-ranked Soviet ace of the war. Amongst Soviet air crews he becomes an unofficial hero, while to the Americans he remains an urban myth, the dreaded "Ivan the Terrible."

However, a final botched sortie in the dying days of the war sees him reduced to an official nonperson, exiled to serve the remainder of his career on a Soviet airbase in the Arctic Circle. It is only a chance shooting-down of a stray American U-2 that rescues Yeremin's career, and his sanity: finally receiving the recognition he deserves, he is posted to Star City to train as an astronaut. Here he throws himself into his training with abandon, even half-starving himself in order to reach the desired weight. However, Yeremin has joined the Soviet space programme after Gagarin's pioneering flight, when it is clear that the Americans are moving into the lead. It becomes increasingly evident that if a radical solution cannot be found, then they will be the first to set foot on the Moon. Determined to claim his place in the history books, Yeremin recklessly volunteers to man a solo flight to the Moon.

There's no denying that Mercurio has done his homework: he previously received flying training with the RAF with the intention of becoming a physician-pilot. The semidocumentary style in which he tells his story, with its self-conscious interweaving of historical and fictional events, does add to the feeling of authenticity. The descriptions of the drudgery and frustration of everyday life in the Red Air Force certainly ring true, and Mercurio's feeling for the camaraderie, one-upmanship, and petty jealousy characteristic of fighter pilots is also natural, at times evoking the atmosphere of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1979). Even the Soviet jokes are spot on. The descriptions of aerial combat, and of the mechanics of early spaceflight, are extremely technically detailed and evidently benefit from both personal experience and hours of laborious study. Unfortunately, the author does not wear his learning lightly: the data dumps in which either he, or his characters, feel obliged to encapsulate the history of the Soviet air force come thick and fast. Authenticity is also not necessarily conducive to good storytelling: I may be alone in this, but I'm inclined to think that once you've read one loving description of an aerial dogfight over Korea, you've read them all. A further annoying side effect of Mercurio's chosen style is that, during the scenes set during the Korean War, American astronauts regularly pop up as "guest stars," for no reason other than to demonstrate the comprehensiveness of the author's research.

These are, perhaps, not fatal flaws; a more serious problem with Ascent lies with its central character, or rather, its lack of one. Yeremin is a man who lives to fly, and displays little or no interest in anything else. This is not to say that such a character is unbelievable or inaccurate: cosmonauts were, after all, selected for their physical fitness and political reliability, not their sparkling conversation. However, it is extremely hard for the reader to sympathise with a character whose sole distinguishing feature is his single-minded determination to fly farther, higher, and faster than his peers. Yeremin falls short of being a heroic or tragic figure, because such figures must sacrifice something along the way to achieve their goals; we never for a moment believe that Yeremin has anything meaningful to sacrifice in the first place. The protagonist's tunnel-vision comes across in the writing: the skies are described in loving detail (I've never seen clouds described in so many different ways: as coral, as anvils, as slugs, as snails etc.etc., and don't get me started on vapour trails), while the scenes on solid earth are deliberately described extremely sparingly. Yeremin's colleagues therefore come across as little more than ciphers, one-dimensional characters straight out of a Soviet Boy's Own. The lack of any sense of empathy is most exaggerated within Yeremin's own family: his wife ("the widow") and his children are never even given names, and he himself admits to seeing them as "no different from animals. " After his first, sterile, sexual encounter with his future wife, Yeremin ponders on his lack of emotional engagement:

He wondered why he'd acted like this with her. The answer was because it was on the ground. By his actions on the ground he would not be known and therefore they weren't worth troubling over. (pp. 77-8)

This passage sums up both the attitude of the character, and the novel as a whole. It should be said that Yeremin's one-dimensionality is not down to bad writing, but is a deliberate attempt by the author to suggest the type of man he is. The problem is, the resulting character provokes no emotional response from the reader, and hence none of the events in the book have any sense of drama. This becomes even more evident in the climactic section of the novel, as Yeremin departs for the Moon, and almost certain death. This solo mission (cut off even from flight control) deprives Yeremin of anyone to argue with, console himself with, or even panic with, and he is not a man whose internal monologues are of any inherent interest. Ultimately, we are left with a hollow man in a hollow metal box, going to a hollow death.

Michael Froggatt is Teaching Associate in Modern European History at the University of Durham. His book, The Future's First Love: Science in Soviet Propaganda and Popular Culture, will be published by Oxford University Press next year.

Michael Froggatt lives in Oxford, UK.
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