First Cosmic Velocity

Penguin. Aug. 2019. 352p. ISBN 9780525539278. $26. f
DEBUT In 1961, President Kennedy inaugurated the space race with the Soviets in a speech setting the bold national agenda of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” That last phrase is a key plot point in this accomplished, emotionally rich first novel about the Soviet space program in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Blending history and fiction, the novel imagines a Soviet space program fully able to launch men and women into space—but unable to bring them back safely. Their solution? Soviet cosmonauts will all be twins. One goes into space and the twin stays on the ground and is presented to the public as the triumphantly returned cosmonaut. As unlikely as this premise may sound, Powers (Gravity Changes) creates a compelling, deeply engaging story about the value of human life under the pressure of politics. The surviving cosmonauts miss their siblings intensely, but they also embrace the necessity of this enterprise, and they answer the call of duty with courage and honor. Powers skillfully handles the complex emotions and relationships among the individuals in this top-secret program, which makes for a very satisfying read.
VERDICT An impressively realized work that will be welcomed by those interested in literary fiction, Cold War history, and early space programs.

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