Hadfield’s Cold War space thriller (mostly) manages to hold the landing
The American Apollo program may have ended with the explosion of Apollo 17 in December 1972, but it continued for decades on the big screen, in television and in fiction: the horror film of 2011 Apollo 18 depicts alleged “found footage” of a doomed cold war lunar mission, while more recently the Apple + series For all mankind imagine an alternate story where the Soviet Union first landed people on the moon, which led to decades of new Apollo missions and a conflict between the two superpowers.
In his new novel The Apollo Murders, famed Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield exploits those same Cold War tropes in a not-so-satisfying thriller blending historical and scientific facts with speculation, bolstered by his first-person knowledge of the technologies involved.
Hadfield is a household name, having flown the Space Shuttle twice and commanded the International Space Station. He is also an accomplished author, with his 2015 book Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth offering reflections on her remarkable life and career, while her charming 2018 children’s book The darkest hour shared how watching the first moon landing live on TV helped him overcome his fear of the dark.
Like his first foray into adult fiction, Apollo’s Murders plays on Hadfield’s strengths, lending compelling authenticity to the often biting descriptions of spaceflight and the many technological life-and-death decisions it involves. These tensions are amplified by a secret American mission to spy on and deactivate both a Soviet space station and a lunar rover, as well as a sociopathic astronaut with a hidden past.
The ostensible main character of the novel is Kazimieras “Kaz” Zemeckis, an astronaut stranded in a flight accident that cost him an eye, landing him with the Department of Defense as a military liaison for NASA’s first lunar mission. operated under military jurisdiction. The reader is introduced to Kaz in a first person prologue, but the novel quickly switches to third person for the rest, which seems like an odd choice.
Stranger still from a storytelling standpoint, Kaz simply watches from Houston Mission Control as other characters engage in live space action, including the knowledgeable but selfish Chad Miller; Michael Esdale, the first African-American astronaut in the United States; and Svetlana Gromova, a cosmonaut who manages to board the Apollo capsule during a failed attempt to sabotage the Soviet space station. These fictional characters are joined by many real historical figures, including NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz and astronaut Al Shepard, as well as Soviet rocket designer Vladimir Chelomei.
Hadfield quite ingeniously manages to integrate these real people and events into his story, and his portrayal of Americans and Soviets each working behind the scenes for their own purposes, unaware that one of the crew members has their own agenda. deadly, is really exciting.
However, for all of Hadfield’s technical prowess, the novel is weakened by its lack of a discernible protagonist, instead devoting most of its attention to the backstory, motivation, and inner monologues of its villain. (The less said about Kaz’s “romance” with a geologist – his sole role being to explain relevant science to the reader – the better).
This absence is further compounded by the plot’s disappointing MacGuffin, a radioactive moon rock that several characters are ready to kill for, but it’s never quite clear why. For Hadfield to admit in the author’s note that such a rock probably could not exist, and even if it did, it would be more likely to have originated from Mars, retroactively – and almost fatally – undermines the stakes of the book. .
While it rewards the reader with its exciting pace and insider knowledge of a fascinating historical and technological setting, Apollo’s Murders is not quite in a position to keep its considerable promise.
Michael Dudley is a librarian at the University of Winnipeg. Unlike Chris Hadfield, he unfortunately has no memory of watching Apollo 11 live on TV.