I’ve just finished reading Ascent, the newish novel by Jed Mercurio. It’s the story of Yefgenii Yeremin an orphan of Stalingrad and “the great patriotic war against fascism”. Yefgenii is blessed with a talent for mathematics and engineering and supremely acute eyesight. This combination of skills take him into the VVF, the Soviet air force that is fighting a secret war against the Americans in Korea, and thence to legendary status amongst his peers as “Ivan the Terrible”, ace of aces. In the background as Yefgenii rises are his opponents – American pilots like Grissom, Armstrong and Schirra – who would go on to form the backbone of the Mercury and Apollo programmes.

The Americans live in the sunlight of publicity and hero-worship while Yefgenii – partly through his own pride and partly through the machinations of the Soviet system – finds that the end of the war thrusts him deeper into obscurity. He find himself,  literally, out in the cold in the far north flying patrols against an enemy who will never come, not least because the age of the bomber has passed and the age of the missile has arrived. But, even here, Yefgenii’s skills can’t be denied and ultimately he wins back his status.

From there the only way is up. Yefgenii is enlisted into the cosmonaut corps and, as the Americans open up a lead in the race to the moon, he is strapped aboard an untested craft for a long-shot at glory.

Ascent is a tragedy. Yefgenii’s fate is set from the start – his separation from the world is unbridgeable, the emotional detachment and calculation that make him a great pilot forever distance him from the rest of humanity. Forced to choose between the comforts of family and domesticity and the faintest chance of glory, Yefgenii barely pauses before taking the more dangerous path and his regrets, though real, are vague.

This was the hardest part of Mecurio’s characterisation for me to accept. Perhaps because I am what one of my friends calls a “soft dad” – one who certainly can’t imagine deliberately making the choice to forever separate myself from my family – I found Yefgenii’s final decision harder to believe. That said there’s no doubt that Mecurio’s writing earns his character the right to make the hard choice. Like all true tragedy, this is the story of a man whose greatest qualities are also those which will eventually bring him down. Even as we will Yefgenii to take the safe path home, we know that his fate does not lie down that road.

As well as being a solid examination of character, Ascent is an enjoyable read. Were it not for the fundamental bleakness of it all it would be tempting to compare this to the boys’ own action of The Right Stuff or Apollo 13. Its relative brevity and fast pace meant I raced through it, but it is also packed with convincing technical detail.

Mecurio is a qualified pilot and the depth of his research is obvious throughout, but the prose deftly avoids crude info-dumping and the mass of information becomes immersive rather than distracting. If I were critical I would say that the character of Yefgenii’s wife is poorly treated, but then this is consistent with the isolation and drive of the central character. There are a few too many, too similar, dogfights in the Korean section of the story and Mercurio’s technical precision – the unbending focus on which pilot and machine can turn more tightly than the other – while absolutely accurate is perhaps overdone. There are moments of improbability too (Yefgenii’s just a bit too good a pilot. Thirty-three kills is an awful lot. And is it really possible for one MiG to nudge another without fuel to keep it flying?) but Mecurio succeeds in carrying us deftly across these potential pratfalls and in the end there are many more thrills than spills.

More a “hidden history” really, than an “alternate” one, this a “mainstream” novel that deserves to find an audience amongst sf fans. No doubt Mercurio, his publishers or someone else will eventually offend fandom by proclaiming that this isn’t that horrid “sci-fi” stuff and earn a prize place amongst the ranks of “as others see us” – so read the novel now, before something like that sours your pleasure.

Ascent is a shoo-in for the 2007 Clarke shortlist, surely?

Addendum: Of course it didn’t get anywhere near the Clarke shortlist, which only goes to prove that I know nothing about the Clarke’s

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