The Canadian Astronaut who brought us Space Oddity while on a space odyssey now delivers a grand space opera. The Apollo Murders is an accomplished debut novel, an original and engrossing Cold War space race thriller. Set in 1973, with the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union for the mastery of technological surveillance and getting ahead in the arms race at its peak, the backdrop could not be more exciting or intriguing.
You might expect Hadfield to get the technology right and he does, he’s a match for Tom Clancy in those stakes. We get insight into what it’s like to be an astronaut without slowing down the story. More impressive, however, is the clever plot and tense atmosphere that make this a proper page turner. From the opening scene in which test pilot Kaz Zemeckis narrowly escapes with his life after a bird strike, this is a gripping read.
In 1973, five years after that near crash, Kaz Zemeckis, thwarted astronaut, has become an intelligence officer, Washington’s man. He is sent to Houston as liaison to NASA, which is currently preparing to launch one last moon shot, Apollo 18. Nixon could have cancelled the project due to public concerns but the budget has been transferred to the Department of Defence. The training and preparations are in full swing, the crew have been chosen and the backup astronauts are in place. These are guys Kaz knows from his flight days – but someone has another agenda.
Initially the mission retains its civilian objectives but the DoD, NSA and CIA have an eye on what the Russians are up to and that will change things. ALMAZ is a new Russian space station, a satellite with the power to spy on the US, homing in on secret projects that can’t be hidden from aerial surveillance. It’s already in orbit but if it becomes operational the Russians will have a significant advantage in the Cold War. Then there is the unmanned Lunokhod moon rover, which has landed in the Sea of Serenity. The Americans are desperate to find out what is it the Russians are looking for.
So the moon mission changes. The plan is now to divert Apollo 18 to ALMAZ, disable the station and then land on the moon to discover why the Russian rover landed where it did. In order to do this, the civilian, scientific nature of the mission is stripped out. The US is about to take the war into space a decade before Reagan’s so-called Star Wars programme.
Hadfield encompasses real people in the novel and captures the political mood of the time very well. There’s no doubt that his insider knowledge infuses every page. Splitting the focus between the US and Russia, as well as space, of course, he weaves a plausible and provocative tale around real events, making you think about the attitudes and actions of the times. Pleasingly, the action and mayhem in space is matched by the story on earth.
Technically it’s more difficult to write a story in space that retains its touch with reality, avoiding horror or sci-fi twists, but Hadfield manages it. You can feel the claustrophobia and loneliness of being in a craft you cannot exit, something it shares with the recent BBC submarine thriller Vigil. It also uses a trope that was crucial in that story too. If there’s one qualm, it’s that even though this is a page turner, it’s a little long. Nevertheless, this is sharp and tense read and a fresh take on the Cold War space race.
Chris Hadfield is the former Commander of the International Space Station. His books on space, including An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, have been bestsellers. If this isn’t too, we will be amazed.
For another space mystery see Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars