Set in the near-distant future, Spaceman follows a Czech astronaut as he launches into space to investigate a mysterious dust cloud covering Venus, a suicide mission sponsored by a proud nation. Suddenly a world celebrity, Jakub’s marriage starts to fail as the weeks go by, and his sanity comes into question. After his mission is derailed he must make a violent decision that will force him to come to terms with his family’s dark political past.
An extraordinary vision of the endless human capacity to persist-and risk everything-in the name of love and home, by a startlingly talented young debut novelist.
Jaroslav Kalfař is this year’s big literary-science fiction debut, it seems; in a Guardian interview, he described the novel as “literary historical science fiction with a philosophical bent in a romantic tradition”, which is a rather intriguing description blending various interesting elements!
Spaceman of Bohemia is centred on Jakub Procházka, and follows him, nonchronologically, from his childhood in the dying days of the Soviet Union and the rising days of democracy to the imminent future of 2018, and his Czech Republic Space Program mission to examine a newly emerged cloud of purple space dust. It’s not a solipsistic novel though; it’s very much centred on Jakub’s relationships with other people, whether in the past, with his parents, grandparents, and those around him, or in the present, with his wife Lenka, with Petr, his ground control contact in Prague, or with Hanuš, the strange alien who appears partway through his journey (and who may or may not have any external, objective existence). At first it seems we will only see each of these characters through Jakub’s eyes, but Kalfař is a more careful, and more interesting, author than that; Jakub is, across the course of the novel, forced to understand the subjectivity of other people, and how their lives do not in fact revolve around the Spaceman of Bohemia, who is merely one lens through which to see the world.
What is perhaps most striking about Spaceman of Bohemia, in some ways, is its engagement with, and challenge of, the one-sidedness of many novels. For much of the book, we only see Jakub’s wife Lenka through his eyes; and then suddenly, we see her from her own perspective, see her unstanding of their memories and life together, see how different perspectives of the same events can be so at odds despite the events being objectively the same. Kalfař’s way of doing this is really effective, and forces empathy on Jakub; there’s a kind of statement being made about masculinity and the way men treat women, as well as everything else going on.
The plot takes a couple of twists and turns as Jakub reaches his realisations; Spaceman of Bohemia starts with a very simple plot, then introduces a series of complicating factors – starting, of course, with the alien Hanuš, but also including the pasts of Jakub’s parents, and what happens when Jakub gets to the cloud of cosmic dust he is supposed to be collecting. Kalfař runs his two timelines forward pretty much in parallel, so that we advance through Jakub’s mission in roughly the same direction as we advance through his life leading up to that mission; it builds things up to a natural conclusion… which is about two thirds of the way through the book, and when things take something of a brilliant sideways turn.
The actually science fictional elements of Spaceman of Bohemia are both huge and utterly irrelevant. The spacecraft, the alien, the cosmic dust – all are central to the events of the novel, but could easily have been swapped out by Kalfař for something more Earthly and mundane without fundamentally changing anything in the emotional arc of the book; it’s a fascinating insight into that quote above, in which he refuses to be pinned down to a genre: there’s no reason for this to be science fiction, except that Kalfař really wanted it to be.
Spaceman of Bohemia is probably the best “literary historical science fiction with a philosophical bent in a romantic tradition” I’ll read this year; even if it isn’t, Kalfař has written a great book with an intensely human core.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Sceptre, at work.
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