I finished reading “First Cosmic Velocity,” Zach Power’s debut novel about the Soviet space program, while I was sitting in front of a Jamaican bartender on a Carnival cruise to the Bahamas. Odd, I know.
The bartender, who told me his name was Nesta, asked me what I was reading, so I told him a little about it.
In this historical fiction, the Soviet space program is actually a sham. By 1964, the program has successfully launched five capsules into space; however, the chief designer and his team have never successfully brought one back into the Earth’s atmosphere. Each time they try, the spacecraft and the passenger are engulfed in flames.
In order to hide this fact from everyone — even Premier Khrushchev — they’ve been using twins. One sibling goes up into space to face certain death, while the other stays behind to smile, wave and give interviews about the wonders of space travel without ever actually experiencing them. And now, just as Khrushchev is expecting more launches, they have run out of twins.
After I explained this all to Nesta, he said, “That’s disrespectful. Why take a real event and make it... not true?” Putting aside that I later found out Nesta’s real name was Johnathan, he was still missing the point, which is that good fiction always tells the truth.
“First Cosmic Velocity” follows the last of the twins, Leonid. As kids, Leonid and his brother were saved from a life of poverty only to be enrolled in the cosmonaut training program. Fourteen years later, one Leonid is launched into space. With his brother gone, the other Leonid is sent on a press tour with a government agent always close by. With him is fellow cosmonaut Nadya, introduced early on as “the twin who was supposed to die.” Instead, a last minute injury meant the program sent her sister, the one who trained only for talking to the press. Although both “recruits” have doubts about the lies they’ve been asked to sell, they each have their reasons. Their budding friendship presents both sides of this absurd coin: one twin who was meant to die and didn’t; one who was meant to live and did; both grieving a sibling.
Meanwhile Soviet engineers are scrambling to design a proper heat shield when Khrushchev decides he would like to send his personal lap dog to space alongside another of the program's canine cosmonauts. Panicked, the chief designer sends Leonid and Nadya to search for canine look-alikes while he continues to train Giorgi, a young, overly enthusiastic cosmonaut who has no idea all his fellow cosmonauts are twins.
Powers’ depicts the chief designer as a man who once believed successful spaceflight was possible, but is now becoming disillusioned to the power of big dreams. He thinks of his cosmonauts as his children, even when pressing a button to send them to their deaths. Understandably, the book questions his morals.
Each fictionalized twist in Powers’ darkly whimsical world illuminates something true about human nature and man’s obsession with greatness. The dialogue is at once exact, grim, and hopeful. In a particularly well-written scene during Leonid’s press tour, he has a conversation with a bishop in London. Powers uses that moment to reflect on the Soviet elimination of existing religion and what affect that has on citizens who recall their religious leaders slowly disappearing along with any stubborn believers.
This book is fantastical, yes, but it is also clear-eyed, original, and an exciting read. Nesta/Johnathan and I will just have to disagree.
Powers is a native of Savannah and lives in Arlington, Virginia. Locals might remember him as a co-founder of Seersucker Live, a nonprofit promoting Savannah’s literary community through reading performances featuring national, regional and local writers. His debut story collection “Gravity Changes” won the BOA Short Fiction Prize. His writing has also appeared in American Short Fiction, Black Warrior Review, The Conium Review, Forklift, Ohio, PANK, the Tin House blog and Do Savannah.
You can hear Powers read and pick up a signed copy of First Cosmic Velocity at Seersucker Live: The Launch Episode Aug. 9 at Cohen’s Retreat. Memoirist Beverly Willett and writer and speaker Brandi Benson will also read and have books for sale.
Ariel Felton received her B.F.A. in English from Valdosta State University and her M.F.A. in writing from SCAD. Her writing has been published in The Progressive, The Bitter Southerner, Scalawag, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Under the Gum Tree, Savannah Magazine and more.