Here are my final thoughts about The Apollo Murders, by Chris Hadfield: would using Cyrillic in the text have been better than phonetic Russian? What about the love interest between the main characters? And in conclusion, is it more than the sum of its parts?

The Apollo Murders, by Chris Hadfield (Publisher:‎ Random House Canada; Oct. 12, 2021; hardcover; 480 pages)

Review – Part 2

Smoothly written 470 pages

Overall, I was surprised at the high quality of the writing. It is a whopping 470 pages long – and the longer a book is, the more things can go wrong. I know that Hadfield has written other books, but even so, this was, pardon the pun, by the book. If I can fault it, it is perhaps that there are too many characters – but a plot and settings like these usually involve many people, thus justifying the large ensemble.

No sex please, we’re astronauts

In particular, I was worried about the character of “Kaz”, when he, early on, becomes interested in a woman called “Laura”, a Geologist, whom he meets in a bar. Thank goodness Hadfield does not let the narrative sink into a mire of badly-described erotica or love-scenes that do not fit in a thriller. At most, he gives one or two short, deadpan sentences as the closing lines of those chapters. To probably misquote bestselling author, James Patterson: “At the end, something has to propel you into the next chapter.” In the case of the relationship between Kaz and Laura, it is your imagination that would propel you into the next chapter to find out what they are up.

As to his writing style: it is clear, clean, error-free, stylistically consistent, and edited down to the essentials, which would have been necessary given the amount of technical details needed to explain what is going on in the story. He has no bad writing habits – like Purple Prose – that I could pick up on. If anything, sometimes a section of text would remind me of a document that an engineer might produce. But that is not unexpected considering that Hadfield did study Engineering and that the plot revolves around the engineering of spaceships.

Would Cyrillic have been better? Да!

One thing bothered me though: most of the words spoken in the novel by the Soviet Russian characters are spelled out phonetically, as Latin script, not Cyrillic – with the English word next as explanation. For instance:

“‘Atleechna, ‘ she told him. Excellent.”

“Atleechna” is more or less (close enough) how it would sound if said in Russian. In Google Translate, which is pretty good in the major world languages, there are more than 24 translations of “excellent” into Russian, of which one is: “отличный”, phonetic spelling “otlichnyy”. Sounded out, it sounds close to “atleechna”, though it took me a few tries to hit on the correct equivalent.
“Otlichnyy” (not “atleechna”) when translated into English, means great, excellent, cool, etc. – you can see the similarities.

The phonetic spelling of the Russian words and the particular way in which they are phonetically transcribed can cause unnecessary complications, both for people who can and those who cannot read Russian. (And since there are many Russian characters in the novel, there is also frequent words in Russian.) I think the publishers – or the author? – should have shown the Russian text in Cyrillic because then at least one category of readers would’ve understood immediately, and it would have looked more authentic and less confusing. Here is an example of one such complication:

The letter shown above is in Cyrillic. This letter, which in the English alphabet looks like a “b” and sounds like the first letter in “bear” or “ball”, in Cyrillic is the voiced labiodental fricative /v/, like ⟨v⟩ in “vase”.
So it looks like a “b”, but sounds like a “v” in Russian. But it looks like a “b” and sounds like a “b” in English.
Therefore, a phrase like “Slava Bogu” – “Thank God” – (p. 435) is confusing, since it has both a “v” and a “b” in it.

The dialogue amongst the Russians is supposed to be one of the covert elements in the plot, something which confuses the Americans, and vice versa for the non-English-speaking Russians. So if Cyrillic had been used in the novel (for example “Слава Богу” not “Slava Bogu”), the inability of non-Russian readers to understand it would have emphasized the point. Looking at the curly, exotic, but meaningless Cyrillic letters, they would have felt something of the suspicion that the American characters in the story feel when they can’t understand their Cold War enemy.

Would Hadfield and his editors and publisher have expected his readers to go and reverse-translate the phonetic Russian and occasional Cyrillic word in the novel, like I have done? Probably not. But a novel that is so highly-anticipated, by an author who is so famous has to be correct in the finest detail, because it will likely be deeply scrutinized and debated.

In conclusion

The final question about The Apollo Murders is: is it more than the sum of its parts? Does the author express something profound? I think so. While reading it, I got a little taste of the sheer mind-boggling wonder of space travel, and of the drama of humans trying to reach other planets, which is currently hot news due to SpaceX’s program.

At the same time, Hadfield gives a warning in the sub-text: Yes, Mars is next. But space exploitation is a war of a different kind which must be anticipated, and avoided.

Is the writing beautiful? Is it lyrical and evocative? Not, not really. I think Hadfield writes more in the style of Jo Nesbo, who is always businesslike about blood, than Henning Mankell, who tended to emote about his favourite subjects.

I wondered at that: this is a man who is one of the few people to have looked at the Earth from the ISS, and he said he was profoundly moved by its beauty and fragility, and the magnificence of space. Surely, he would have used words along those lines? His writing style in the novel serves the narrative, not so much his personal passion for international space programs. However, there are a few descriptions in the book that express emotion and use evocative imagery, for instance this one:

“The weight dragged him clear of Pursuit, the white of his suit and red of his blood catching the fading light as he fell straight down into the blackness of the deep.
As consciousness faded, Chad reached up with his fingertips, feeling through the heavy cloth around his neck, finding the small, comforting lump of the silver pendant against his chest. His final thought before the world went black was of the gentle, loving smile of his mother.”

The Apollo Murders, by Chris Hadfield

It it good? Yes. Professional job? Definitely. Enjoyable? Absolutely. Has he got a new career ahead of him as an author? Yes, he does. Go and buy it? You should. Well done, Mr. Hadfield. You nailed it.

Other books by Chris Hadfield

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