Thursday, February 24, 2022

Review: The Apollo Murders

The Apollo Murders The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In reality, the last manned mission to the moon was America’s Apollo 17, but the jumping off point for this story is that there was actually an Apollo 18 done as a secret military operation. How do you keep a space mission involving thousands of people a secret?

Look, if you’re gonna read this book, you need to stop asking questions like that.

Kaz Zemickis was a test pilot who was also training to be an astronaut when an unfortunate collision between his plane and a seagull leaves him with one eye. Now Kaz is working as a liaison between Washington and the Apollo 18 mission. This is challenging because he’s essentially changing their whole mission plan at the last minute.

Instead of just going to the moon and collecting some rocks, the astronauts need to photograph and hopefully sabotage a Soviet space station equipped with new cameras that will be able to take high resolution spy pictures of the US once it’s manned. Once that’s accomplished, they’re supposed to go to the moon and check out a previously unexplored site that the Soviets are investigating with a lunar rover, and if possible, the astronauts are supposed to sabotage the rover as well. If they can squeeze in a little science in between all this sabotage, scientists have discovered some weird holes in the moon that they’d like checked if possible.

Unfortunately, one of the astronauts dies in a training accident, and must be replaced with a back-up. Meanwhile, the Soviets have made an interesting discovery on the moon with their rover, that they’d very much like to keep to themselves. The Russians also have some leverage over one of the astronauts on Apollo 18.

This book was written by a former test pilot and astronaut who has a ton of experience in space and in working with the Russian space agency. I am NOT a former test pilot and astronaut, but I am a giant space nerd who has checked out a bunch of books and documentaries about manned space flight. I’ve also seen Apollo 13 like 12 times.

So while not an expert like the author, I’d like to think I know a little more than the average bear about the subject, but I wouldn’t presume to say that the author got any of the technical or historical details wrong about this. In fact, per his notes at the end some of the things I thought were insane were true.

What I will question is the basic premise and way this book is structured just from a thriller standpoint. For starters, we’re told from the jump that Apollo 18 is a military mission that is going to be a secret. Yet, we’re never told what that mission was. (Bear in mind that the stuff about the Soviet spy station and rover comes into the picture when they change their mission at the last minute.) The world knows that the US is going back to the moon, but the details of the mission aren't being revealed. Yet, the training seems to be about doing the standard moon stuff of grabbing some rocks, making some observations, taking some samples, setting up some experiments, and trying to get back to Earth without dying. The story tells us that Nixon got funding for another moon launch by using military funding, but we're never told what they were originally going to do that was different from other moon missions.

I also question that NOBODY in this story ever brings up a legal, political, or ethical concern that the US is essentially going into space to sabotage Soviet property. Since this is the Nixon administration making this call, I’m not saying that they wouldn’t try it, but it seems odd that absolutely nobody ever brings up that we’re essentially using a ultra-expensive Apollo mission to commit an act of war.

Also, nobody brings up that they're launching a rocket they told the world would be going to the moon to do secret military things. So when a Soviet space station fails immediately after the US capsule hits orbit, and the a Soviet rover fails right after Apollo astronauts land nearby, it's pretty obvious what happened. Maybe Russia couldn't prove it, but it would certainly cause accusations to be made and an international incident.

The next part is where it really gets messy, but I’ll keep it vague to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say that things don’t go well when Apollo 18 tries to sabotage the Soviet station, and there is absolute chaos for a few minutes as well a high probability that the space capsule has been damaged. A bunch of other shit has gone wrong as well, but despite it all, the astronauts go ahead and hit the Go-To-The-Moon button to do their burn for lunar orbit. Even when NASA gets involved again, they learn that the capsule has so many issues that it makes the Apollo 13 mission look like a cakewalk by comparison.

And yet they still decide to land on the fucking moon rather than just orbiting once and coming back immediately!

There’s a lot more that happens and other than the technical details, most of it seems so outlandish that it’s impossible to take any of it seriously. Plus, much like most action movies these days the ending seems way to long and drawn out with even more utterly unbelievable twists and turns with a bunch of events occurring that would most likely result in the US and Soviet Union immediately launching nukes at each other. There’s also some blatant sequel set-up that makes me pretty sure that the author plans for this to be some kind of Tom Clancy style thrillers using spaceflight as the hook with the Kaz character acting as Jack Ryan.

I should be the kind of reader who would go nuts for a historical-fiction/alt-history/conspiracy-thriller/set-in-space kind of book, and I was more than willing to go along with some of it at first. But there’s just too much of everything in this. Too many characters, too much detail, too many plot twists, too many outlandish events, etc. It’s all just too much for me to suspend disbelief and roll with it, and that’s what this kind of story needs for it to really work.

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Review: The Hunting Party

The Hunting Party The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What if there was an Agatha Christie style mystery, but without a Hercule Poroit or Miss Marple style character around to solve it?

A group of people in their 30s have been friends since their days at Oxford, and one of their traditions is having an annual get together over the New Year holiday. This year they go to an exclusive and remote Scottish hunting lodge. As a huge snowstorm moves in and cuts them off from the rest of the world, one of them is found dead. It’s obviously murder, and the list of suspects isn’t long.

This is a pretty standard set-up, but as I said at the start, the interesting thing is that there’s nobody really playing detective here. Instead the plot is unraveled via a series of shifting perspectives that also jump around in time from the trip to the lodge until the day after the murder. Slowly we start to get the whole picture of how this group is filled with secrets, old grudges, and several reasons not to trust each other. There’s also a few other people around like the strange couple from Finland, the manager of the lodge who has fled to this job as a way of not dealing with a recent tragic loss she’s suffered, and the surly gamekeeper who is a combat veteran suffering from PTSD which has left him with a hair trigger temper. So the suspect pool isn’t just limited to the Oxford buddies.

The structure of it is really the star of the show with author Lucy Foley doing a very good job of providing different voices to several characters who become the ones guiding us through the current story and histories. She pulls off several tricky things such as keeping the identity of the victim a secret for a good chunk of a book without seeming clunky so for a while we’re not ever sure who might be dead and who might be the killer. There’s a lot of red herrings in the mix which are necessary for a book like this although there are a few too many. However, none seem obvious, and it helps keep the reader from guessing which way the plot is going for a good long while.

The ending plays fair and has a satisfying answer, but again, there’s just a bit too much to all of it. I also had a big problem with the aftermath detailed in an extended epilogue in which the author seems to forget a couple of huge things from the climatic moment of the story when wrapping it all up.

Still, it’s a really solid mystery with some good character work. I’d give it 3 and half stars if I could, but… know. I also listened to the Audible version which had some great narrators doing various parts.

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