THE APOLLO MURDERS
By Chris Hadfield
It’s tried-and-true 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’s a rule he was happy to follow in writing his first novel, The Apollo Murders.
The year is 1973, and in this alternate history the Cold War is still burning hot and is now being projected into space with the Soviets building an orbiting spy station while looking to mine the Moon for precious radioactive minerals. With Apollo 18 (the real Apollo missions ended at 17) the U.S. is out to frustrate these plans. It may be that the Soviets are one step ahead though, as they already have someone inside the Apollo program.
That’s the basic plot, and it’s solid. Where The Apollo Murders really sets itself apart though is in the level of detail Hadfield includes. And this isn’t just the usual hard-SF business of explaining fancy technology and dropping loads of acronyms on the reader (though there is plenty of that). Instead, what Hadfield brings to the table is how such a space adventure might feel.
It’s experiential SF brought home on a practical, tactile level. Things begin with a rush: a prologue written in the first person with a jet pilot having to 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!” “Slam!” of staging, a physical gut-check which is likened to “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 throwing up inside one’s spacesuit (“the stink, the smeared visor, the stomach acid getting into their eyes, and trying not to inhale any of the floating chunks and bile”).
This isn’t window-dressing. The question of what to do with a corpse in space comes up at one point, and how it is dealt with plays a part in the plot. In such a confined space the smell and bloating are matters that have to be addressed.
None of this detail slows the book down. Time and again Hadfield shows how little things, like a missing lock wire on a nut or a sneeze while soldering one of the spaceship’s communications devices, have a huge impact. And some of the technical details can be fascinating in themselves. The description of the damage caused by bullets fired in space really freshens up one action scene.
The Apollo Murders is a hefty first novel but Hadfield’s clear enthusiasm for the subject is its rocket fuel. At one point in the early going a pair of characters turn away from watching a lunar training vehicle doing a practice run to look at a jet taking off because “Pilots like airplanes.” Hadfield obviously likes airplanes, and rockets and spaceships too. It’s a feeling that’s infectious, and one that takes us on quite a ride.
Review first published in the Toronto Star, October 14 2021.