1/01/2010. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
pub: Jonathan Cape. 263 page hardback. Price: £12.99 (UK), $34.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-224-07286-1.
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Once upon a time Science Fiction took the 'What if..' scenario and applied it to the future. What if there were aliens out there? What if we could visit other planets? What if we could invent an ansible? Or time travel? Or...? The list is endless. But as writers have begun to realise that these are fanciful ideas and that current science thinking will not take us to these distant worlds, at least, not in our lifetime some minds have taken the 'What if..' backwards.
Jed Mercurio has asked the question, 'What if the Russians landed on the Moon first?' and has proceeded to write this short novel based on the premise that they did, but they didn't tell anyone. This is not really a story about that attempt, of which there were many rumours floating around at the time, but the history of the man that was purported to have been selected for the attempt.
'Ascent' is as much an historical novel as it is a Science Fiction one. It relates the story of a Russian pilot, Yefgenii Yeremin. We first meet him during the Korean War when his squadron patrols the north side of the border. In sorties into southern air-space, he sees American pilots who include the likes of Buzz Aldrin, mostly in the distance. This section is a technically accurate game of cat and mouse between the two air forces. Once the war is over, Yeremin is relegated to an Arctic base and he expects to sink into obscurity there. However, with the advent of the space race during the Cold War, he is one of the pilots chosen for astronaut training. He is given the opportunity to be the first man on the moon and told that the likelihood of his returning from the mission is slim but, as a patriot, he is willing for any sacrifice.
This is a book that has been carefully researched. Readers interested in the technical performance of Korean War aircraft will be delighted. Descriptions are mostly confined to flying. The dogfights have a vicarious thrill about them, but the emotions of the characters are largely lacking. I don't think this is meant to imply that Russian pilots only come alive when they are in control of fast aeroplanes, but the implication is there. There is a clinical aspect to the action that is more reminiscent of 1950s space opera than real life.
The label on the cover of this book implies that it was read on BBC4 and, as an adaptation for radio, with plenty of sound effects it probably came across well. To enjoy this book you need to have an interest in early space flight and 1950s aerial combat.
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