FIRST COSMIC VELOCITY. By Zach Powers. Putnam. 352 pages. $26.
Twins perform a deadly double act in the name of Soviet glory in "First Cosmic Velocity," Zach Powers’ debut novel. In this alternate history of the Space Race, the Soviets have yet to build a rocket that can land safely, but use twins (one as a pilot and one as a decoy) to fake successful launches. At a secret location called Star City, the twins are made to share an identity and go through rigorous training, only to be faced with an impossible choice: a hero’s death in space or a life of lies on Earth.
When the book begins in 1964, the scheme has worked. The world, including most of the Soviet government, is fooled. But a legacy of trauma and loss plagues the program’s earthbound twins and engineers.
Leonid, the latest cosmonaut in name only, spends most of the book on a state-sponsored tour celebrating his “return” to Earth. As he waves, accepts medals and delivers prewritten statements to the press, he tries not to think of his twin brother — the one the crowds really cheer for — now lost in space.
Leonid doesn’t grieve alone. Also on the tour is Nadya, beloved around the world as the first cosmonaut. In private, her beautiful face goes blank, still numb with grief over the accidental death of her own twin. Ignatius, the cosmonauts’ glamorous publicist and chaperone, bats away overeager reporters and a pair of American spies.
The tour devolves into an almost purgatorial experience of identical hotel rooms and endless rickety train rides, and Leonid thinks back on his life before and after Star City. Powers reveals the story of the twins’ recruitment slowly, like a blocked memory, sharing truly harrowing scenes of their village’s near-starvation as well as transcripts of their grandmother’s long, repetitive stories.
Both Leonid and Nadya, like the bold Soviet-style art on the book’s cover, are fascinating, larger-than-life characters, but never relatable or warm. This makes sense when they’re dehumanized so often, separated from family members, shedding identities like spacesuits (for the Earthly twins, just costumes), and worst of all, socialized into thinking it’s all worthwhile.
Since the Leonids are the program’s last set of twins, it looks like the experiment may be coming to an end. But when the Chief Designer, the program’s mysterious head engineer, continues to gamble with young lives, Leonid and Nadya’s loyalty to their country begins to unravel. A faint but familiar radio signal from space raises even more questions about the hoax.
While Powers leans toward a darkly kitschy depiction of Soviet life, full of vodka, superstition and cabins in the woods, his orderly prose keeps the story grounded. Aside from one character’s philosophical musings, the dialogue is clipped, simple and to the point. Instead of long, sweeping passages about the heavens, Powers writes in small, potent details — of the smell of mud in Leonid’s village or the eerie sight of mass-produced china tea sets, faded and chipped, with each cosmonaut’s face on them.
In the end, it’s the strangeness of what’s real in "First Cosmic Velocity" that will leave readers questioning everything.