The best alternate histories seem real, not just because they’re able to both replicate and twist historical details with precision and care, but also because they’re able to capture an emotional landscape. First Cosmic Velocity, the debut novel from Zach Powers, is full of attention to physical, geographic and historic detail, but what makes it a truly gripping work of imagination is its ability to create an emotional reality for its lead character amid an ambitious, delightfully strange look at a different version of the Soviet space program.
It’s 1964, and the space race is in full swing. The Soviet launch program in Star City continues its progress under the watchful eye of its Chief Designer, and to all outward appearances, everything seems to be a success. Within the walls of Star City, though, a different story is unfolding. The cosmonaut program has only partially succeeded. The astronauts go up, but they never come back down. Instead, the Chief Designer and his team have relied on twins to create an elaborate ruse, as the surviving twin carries the burden of continuing the life of their deceased sibling after a “successful” space mission. First Cosmic Velocity follows the last of these twins, Leonid, as he embarks on a publicity tour even as the space program and its closely guarded secrets are at a crossroads.
Perhaps the greatest success of the novel is Powers’ ability to get inside Leonid’s head, to paint a portrait of the psychological whiplash he’s endured throughout his life. The novel jumps back and forth between Leonid’s childhood as a poor boy in Ukraine and his adulthood as a person whose entire existence is built on lies. What does that do to a person? What choices can they make when they’ve surrendered their very autonomy to a cause? Powers is unafraid to probe the confounding, often darkly comic answers to these questions, even if the answers are sometimes frustratingly uncertain.
This attention to emotional detail, combined with a powerful supporting cast and a masterful sense of historical table-setting, makes First Cosmic Velocity a delightfully complex page-turner for space enthusiasts and fans of alternate histories. You will never look at the space race the same way again.