It’s proven advice for authors, especially new ones, to write about what they know. As Chris Hadfield is probably Canada’s best-known astronaut, and a former commander of the International Space Station, it is a rule he was happy to follow when writing his first novel, “The Apollo Murders.”
It’s the year 1973, and in this alternate history, the Cold War is still raging and is now being projected into space with the Soviets building an orbiting spy station as they seek to mine the moon for precious radioactive minerals. With Apollo 18 (the actual Apollo missions ended at 17), the United States wants to thwart these plans. However, it may be that the Soviets are one step ahead, as they already have someone in the Apollo program.
That’s the basic plot and it’s solid. However, where “The Apollo Murders” really sets itself apart is in the level of detail that Hadfield includes. And this isn’t just the usual sci-fi affair difficult to explain fancy tech and drop a bunch of acronyms on the reader (although there’s a lot of that). Instead, what Hadfield brings to the table is what such a space adventure would feel like.
It is experiential SF brought home on a practical and tactile level. Things start fast: a first-person prologue in which a jet pilot must make an emergency landing after losing his eye in a mid-air collision with a seagull. From there, we proceed to the launch of Apollo 18 and the “Wham!” “Knock!” of staging, a physical review that resembles “crashing into a wall.” Then there are such mundane matters as the flatulence caused by the drop in air pressure in the cabin and the effect of vomiting inside the spacesuit (“the stench, the stained visor, the stomach acid that gets into your eyes and tries not to inhale any of the floating chunks and the bile ”).
This is not a showcase. The question of what to do with a corpse in space arises in a moment, and how it is handled plays a role in the plot. In such a tight space, odor and bloating are issues that need to be addressed.
None of these details slows down the book. Time and time again, Hadfield shows how little things – like the lack of a locking wire on a nut or a sneeze while soldering one of the spacecraft’s communication devices – have a huge impact. And some of the technical details can be fascinating in their own right. The description of the damage done by bullets fired in space really refreshes an action scene.
“The Apollo Murders” is a hard-hitting first novel, but Hadfield’s clear enthusiasm for the subject is his rocket fuel. At one point in the beginning, a couple of characters walk away from seeing a lunar training vehicle doing a practice run to watch a plane take off because “Pilots like planes.” Obviously, Hadfield likes airplanes, rockets, and spaceships too. It is a contagious sensation that takes us for a walk.