The Soviet space program is only half successful in Powers’ debut novel.
It’s 1964, and though the Russians have figured out how to launch their cosmonauts into space, they can’t figure out how to get them back down. In order to hide this frightening secret from the world—even from Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself—the space program, led by a man known only as the Chief Designer, recruits pairs of twins. One twin is trained to go into space, never to return, while the other prepares to play the returning hero and recite lines about what it feels like to be in zero gravity (“at first like falling…and then you float”). One of the left-behind twins, Leonid, begins to doubt the project as he’s whisked around on a press tour by Ignatius, a mysterious figure charged with keeping the fake cosmonauts in line. Despite the attempted intervention of Western spies, the coverup somehow holds together. But the Chief Designer runs out of twins before he figures out how to make a fully functional spacecraft. And what’s to become of the left-behind twins down on Earth, doomed to live lies? Powers’ writing style is delicate and almost otherworldly; as in his collection of stories, Gravity Changes (2017), each word is carefully chosen, every sentence deliberately flowing into the next. Unlike the stories in that collection, this novel feels more like it’s drifting through space than moving along a clear orbit. Even so, scenes centered on the characters’ emotional lives are touching, and the dreamy tone brings a touch of fantasy without pushing too far into whimsy.
A lovely and hopeful story from a promising writer.