Wednesday, July 05, 2017

A millennial in space

kw: book reviews, science fiction, near-future, space aliens

Caution: the book reviewed was written in the language of many millennials and late Gen-Xers, including the casual cussin' my generation calls "potty mouth." It's not suitable for youngsters you wish to shelter from such language.

I wonder why space aliens are so frequently imagined as having magical attributes. In Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, a Czech astronaut on a solo flight of 8 months' duration, to a mysterious purple cloud between Earth and Venus, spends a lot of time with a spider-like being that apparently talks to him in his language, but soundlessly, in his mind. It also rifles through his memories.

The real thrust of the story is, what is real? what is imaginary? How does the ill-starred astronaut return to Earth after the destruction of his space capsule, from a distance of tens of millions of miles? I was reminded of The Life of Pi (reviewed in 2015), and the long trip the young man Pi takes in a lifeboat with a tiger as his companion. The same ambiguity fills both stories.

In its wider sense the story is one of someone cycling back to the beginning to restart with a wiser outlook. Yet the protagonist is full of obsessions, and not all have been resolved at the end. Was his experience more delusion than fact, and is he still delusional? Probably.

About half the chapters are flashbacks to the astronaut's formative experiences, from the Velvet Revolution to the "Capitalist Invasion" of Prague. Assuming the history is accurate, there are a few things one can learn about the development of Czechoslovakia into the new nations that succeeded it after 1989, and a few things to learn about peasant life pretty much anywhere in Eastern Europe in those years.

I wonder how much astronomy and cosmology the author has been exposed to. The purple cloud is supposedly emitted by a "comet … from the Canis Major galaxy." There actually is a dwarf galaxy well behind the Canis Major constellation. It is about 25,000 light-years away. All known comets are members of our solar system, and perhaps a very few originate as far away as half a light year. So this is a book for the astronomically illiterate.

The book jacket blurbs treat the book as a great feat of humor. I found nothing funny in it. I wonder what joke I have been left out of. I'll chalk that up to a generational thing, and remark only that, if this is humor, I tremble for the generation now entering middle age.

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