(2021) Chris Hadfield, Quercus, £20, hrdbk, 470pp, ISBN 978-1-529-40685-6
Chris Hadfield, best known for playing the guitar on the International Space Station, had an extended career as a military aviator and test pilot before becoming an astronaut in 1992. He was in charge of NASA operations at Star City in Russia, and flew to the Mir space station and to the ISS, by Space Shuttle and by Soyuz. All that background shows in the novel, the first part of which reads much like any astronaut autobiography, including his own. But he’s also very interested, not to say preoccupied, with what happened before his time, and particularly the details of the Moon landings.
Despite the title, The Apollo Murders is not a crime novel but alternative history – specifically, an alternative history of three space missions in 1973: Apollo 18, which was cancelled by the Nixon administration late in 1972; Salyut 2, which failed; and the Lunokhod 2 lunar rover, which was a success and set a distance record for wheeled vehicles in space which wasn’t broken till 2013. We now know that ‘Salyut 2’ was actually a different spacecraft called ‘Almaz’, a manned spy satellite which was armed with a machine-gun in case of US interference – which had been threatened in the US military spaceflight programmes, cancelled in 1969. In The Apollo Murders, US military intelligence has concluded that its potential makes it a threat to US assets around the world, and they commission a military Apollo 18 crew is to disable it if possible. For good measure they will then investigate the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover, which has mysteriously changed its landing site on the Moon, and disable that as well.
As in all good alternative histories, real facts are mixed in. Almaz really was armed as described, the second Soviet woman in space really was called Svetlana, like the heroine of the Almaz crew, Lunokhod 2 really did change its landing site for unknown reasons; it was alleged at the time to have found a mysterious ‘monolith’ on the Moon (apparently a hoax), and it really was disabled by lunar dust on its heat radiator, after the top lid brushed a crater wall. There are a few holes in the plot: the US Intelligence reaction to the supposed threat from Almaz is overstated, there’s no way that a Soyuz crew could have been put aboard it in secret, and though it’s hinted that the Lunokhod retargeting was due to a discovery in Apollo 15 and 17 coverage of the site, the radioactive rock supposedly found is much too small to be seen from orbit. These are all minor issues and needn’t distract from the main plot.
As it says on the back cover, the US Mission Commander is ‘not quite who he appears to be’. Chad Miller was brought to the USA as an orphan at the end of World War 2, he still speaks fluent Russian, and he has a brother in the USSR, which gives the KGB a hold over him. In addition, he has sabotaged the training helicopter of the Mission Commander he’s shadowing, in order to take his place. His Nemesis is Kaz Zerneckis, a former military astronaut trainee who lost an eye in a bird strike, during a low-altitude test flight. Banned from high-performance aircraft, he went into mission control, first as a CapCom and then as a Controller, so he is the liaison between the USAF and NASA as the Apollo 18 mission takes shape. But his professional look at the wreckage of the downed helicopter raises questions for the accident investigators, which lead to a police investigation and the certainty of Miller’s guilt. As I said, this isn’t a ‘Whodunnit?’ but a ‘What-do-we-do-about-it?’, because by that time Apollo 18 is bound for the Moon and Miller is responsible for the success of the mission, and for three lives including his own – the third not even a US astronaut.
The mission has gone completely wrong because there was already a crew on Almaz, and as spacesuited astronauts and cosmonauts flailed at each other with bolt-cutters and wrenches, Soviet mission control cut loose with the gun. The spread was greater than anticipated and it took out a combatant on each side, before ripping the Almaz itself to shreds. The retreating Apollo commits to Lunar Orbit Injection before realising that they have one astronaut dying in his suit, and the surviving cosmonaut, Svetlana, clinging on outside.
It’s very tempting to go into detail about the conflicts which then arise, with the Soviets finding a way to communicate first with Svetlana, then with Miller once they realise he speaks Russian. At first their instructions conflict, then converge regarding the rock, while he’s still trying to disable the Lunokhod and she’s trying to protect it with her life.
This is where Chris Hadfield really comes into his own. He has gone to great lengths to choreograph the conflict on the lunar surface, while staying within the limitations imposed by the lunar environment and the spacesuits. As an additional complication, Richard Nixon, Bob Haldeman and Henry Kissinger, in the White House, want the burial of the dead astronaut in a lunar pit to be a full national TV event, milking it for all the public relations they can get, but keeping the Lunokhod out of view, while the Kremlin and the control team keep driving it back into shot, determined to maximise their publicity.
I found the battle engrossing – like The Martian with a murderer on one side, an armed cosmonaut on the other and Mission Control on both sides trying to outmanoeuvre one another from quarter of a million miles away. But how will it work for other readers? I’m not really the person to ask, because I familiarised myself with the Apollo hardware during the missions and I’ve revised the Lunokhod one recently, as it happens. I can imagine fans of The Martian following it raptly with the relevant Haynes Manuals to hand, and maybe enjoying it even more than I did as they compare it with what really happened. But would the ordinary thriller reader find it hard going, or confusing if they half-remember the historical events? Apparently not, to judge from other reviewers’ comments online: Publishers Weekly compared the writing to Tom Clancy’s, and James Cameron said he couldn’t put it down. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps to bring it to a general audience – like The Martian – the big question is, will Ridley Scott or somebody film it?
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