The space race is fertile ground for alternate history. In the end, America’s superior economic power and political and popular support saw it pull ahead and the Russian effort fall away. But what if that was not the case? What if the Russians managed to keep up with the American efforts in space. This is the premise of the current TV show For All Mankind and also forms the backdrop for astronaut Chris Hadfield’s thriller The Apollo Murders which takes place in a slightly alternative 1973.
Hadfield himself is a man of many talents. A Canadian pilot and astronaut, he is probably most widely known for his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity from the International Space Station. But Hadfield is also an educator – he hosts documentary series, has written books for adults and children on his profession and is an advocate for children’s literacy. The Apollo Murders adds another string to his bow – a tense, fun technothriller that, through his depth of knowledge, sells an alternative 1973 in which Russia and America go toe-to-toe in space.
After a quick cold open to introduce protagonist Kaz Zemeckis as he suffers a horrific injury during a training flight, Hadfield fast forwards to 1973 and preparations for the launch of Apollo 18 (in reality, both Apollo 18 and 19 were scrapped). The flight plan is thrown into turmoil when the Americans learn of the two Russian breakthroughs – the landing of a robotic sampler on the moon and the impending launch of what will be a manned spy satellite/space station called Arkaz. The Americans decide that the Apollo mission can be repurposed to sabotage both efforts. The mission is thrown into further disarray when the mission pilot is killed in a helicopter accident that may not have been an accident at all and his alternate has to step in with just weeks to go before launch. Once the mission is underway, things get even more tense and complicated including the first battle in orbit and further surprises for the crew and their flight controllers.
The Apollo Murders is an engaging retro techno thriller. It is pitched at readers who will not mind reading a two page description of how a helicopter works (which makes sense when trying to understand why said helicopter crashes) or how rocket fuel is mixed and ignited in a vacuum or how a gun might work in space. But, once the preliminaries are out of the way, it is also full of conflicted characters, great action scenes and ongoing tension including the use of a literal Chekhovian gun.
The Apollo Murders often goes over the top, but the technical detail serves to keep the whole enterprise grounded. Hadfield manages to convey a sense that in some alternative universe these events could actually have happened. And he generates enough momentum to carry readers past any plot holes and allow them to just sit back and enjoy the ride.