The Apollo Murders
An alternate-history thriller about an Apollo 18 mission involving murder as Americans and Soviets simultaneously compete and cooperate with each other.

Category: Fiction
Reviewed by: Peter Spasov
Title: The Apollo Murders
Author: Chris Hadfield
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format:  Hardcover, Kindle, audiobook
Pages: 480
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Date:  October 2021
Retail Price: $28.00, $14.99, $26.94
ISBN:  978-0316264532

The Apollo Murders is about a fictionalized lunar mission stoked with armed conflict in outer space. This is a tale involving an unhinged astronaut, egos, operational challenges, plus heroism. Yet the most compelling aspect is Hadfield’s claim that much of the story has actually happened, leaving the reader to wonder what is really going on behind the public glamour of space exploration.

Colonel Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station, is now an overall promoter of space exploration. YouTube includes his viral performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from the ISS. The Apollo Murders is his first venture into fiction. His credentials are, shall we say, stellar.

The story begins with Kaz Zemeckis, a jet fighter pilot aspiring to become an astronaut, yet loses an eye in a near fatal crash. Now denied a future as an astronaut, he soon works as liaison linking the Apollo program with the National Security Agency. The USA learns of two potential threats: the Soviets operate a secretive orbital space station to spy on the Americans – and – they have landed a probe on the Moon for seemingly strategic reasons. Do they know something about lunar geology that the Americans don’t? Hence Apollo 18 becomes a military intelligence operation albeit maintaining a token science objective for the public.

The mission commander dies in a mysterious helicopter crash and Chad Miller takes his place. However, Chad has contact with the Soviets via a brother he was separated from when adopted by American parents. During the rendezvous with the Soviet space station, a battle occurs, resulting in the death of several including one American and the destruction of the station. A Russian astronaut, Svetlana Gromova, has managed to latch onto the hatch of the Apollo capsule and is eventually let inside, thus becoming the third crew member. In public, both American and Soviets spin this cover story as international cooperation whereby Svetlana will become both first female-plus-Soviet person to land on the Moon. During the cat-and-mouse of pretend collaboration, both sides hide their true intentions. Tension within the capsule rises when Chad displays both misogynist attitudes towards Svetlana and racism towards fellow American crewmember, Michael Esdale.

On the lunar surface, Chad sabotages the Soviet rover and Svetlana tries to find the rock sample Chad has hidden away, in order to return this sample back to the Soviets. The story climaxes during landing in the Pacific when Chad steers the capsule during re-entry further away from the American recovery ship and closer to a Soviet submarine. Kaz arrives at the scene by helicopter and battles with Chad in the stormy waters of the Pacific.

Generally neither Americans nor Soviets are portrayed as morally superior. Both have nationalistic goals. Even double-crossing Chad has some redeeming qualities. Svetlana admires his piloting skills despite his otherwise despicable characteristics. Everyone shows incredible perseverance in the face looming defeat, as would be expected for astronauts.

A shining gem in this story is how Hadfield portrays operations in a way so as to place the reader in the thick of the action. We can see and feel the concern of crew as they handle the needs and emergencies of space travel. There are bits of humor, such as farting and vomiting in space. At times, the author employs inventive imagery, for instance: “An enormous, brooding dragon, about to belch fire and hurl itself up off the pad, into the blue of the Florida sky.”

Alas, I would quibble with Amazon’s classification of this novel as science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction should be about mind-bending ideas concerning radical changes to society due to future technology and/or science. This novel, in contrast, is grounded in the biting realism of space mission operations amidst intrigue. The only fantastical element is a single paragraph which speaks more to writing technique; when the narrator describes the private dying moments of Chad. Arguably, Hadfield could have crafted a less omniscient means to handle this scene.

At the end, the Americans maintain their cover-up, saying nothing about how Chad murdered the original mission commander by sabotaging the helicopter said commander had flown. Hadfield could have authored a more powerful ending by showing Kaz’s personal reaction to this spin doctoring. Would he be repelled by the cover-up, angered, or reluctantly accepting as a distasteful necessity for Realpolitik?

Clearly, Hadfield has extensive knowledge of equipment and operations employed during the Apollo era, which he employs to give absolute credibility to the story and make the reader feel all is actually true. As a tale about space adventure, this is a story beyond compare—for both the truth and the fiction.

© 2022 Peter Spasov

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