SPACEMAN OF BOHEMIA by Jaroslav Kalfař, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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SPACEMAN OF BOHEMIA by Jaroslav Kalfař, Review

Alexander Wallace joins the Czech Republic's space program.
Science fiction’s dreams of space exploration have historically focused overwhelmingly on American efforts, and to a lesser extent, those of China, Russia, and Britian. This choice of countries is understandable, given that they have been great powers of the era that science fiction came into its own (there’s a reason why Kim Stanley Robinson refers to ‘American-Imperial Heinleinism’). But it is not impossible that other countries would throw their hats in the ring; in our world, at this moment, countries like Mexico, Nigeria, and the Philippines all have space agencies.

But it is not any of those countries that we’ll be discussing today. Today we will talk about an imagined future of the Czech Republic, that Central European country that has seen so much. It was under the yoke of German-speakers for centuries, much of that under the Habsburgs, and then spent several decades as a Soviet puppet state. Now, it is a member of NATO and the European Union. It was the birthplace of Jan Hus, the proto-protestant, who was burned at the stake in Konstanz. It was the site of the Battle of Königgrätz (in Czech, Sadowa), which ensured that Prussia and not Austria would unite Germany. As part of Czechoslovakia, it ruled the Sudetenland, one of Hitler’s early conquests; the dictator would later make the country into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, some residents of which would assassinate Reinhard Heydrich (for which Lidice would pay). It was the site of the Prague Spring, which saw Soviet tanks rolling in to ensure that the Czechs toe the party line. It is the land that gave us the name of the Budweiser beer brand, after the German name of its city České Budějovice.

Note how much of what is commonly known about the country involves either the Germans or the Russians.

Also note that the Czech Republic has its own space program.

It is in this way that Jaroslav Kalfař’s novel Spaceman of Bohemia is almost postcolonial in its ambitions, as it is an attempt to ask what a country so long dominated by foreign rulers should do now that it can decide its own fate. This is a novel deeply connected with Czech history despite its science fictional premise; the protagonist, Jakub Procházka, goes to space in part to redeem his family name after his father was a member of the Communist Party.

Spaceman of Bohemia is a story about new beginnings, nationally and personally. Jakub seeks to redeem his name, and he also has to decide whether staying with his wife is worth it (this may sound like a tacked-on romantic plot; I assure you that it is not, and that it adds to the book immensely). On the broader level, you have a Czech President who volunteers to fund a space program because no other country is willing to send a manned mission to a cloud of particles that has appeared spontaneously between Earth and Venus. This is all cast in the light of the Czech lands’ history of foreign rule, as it is a bold and daring thing for such a small country to attempt such a titanic endeavor.

A lesser author would make this book a Golden Age-style yarn with much explanation of the science and with paper-thin characters reminiscent of John W. Campbell’s tenure at Astounding. Fortunately, this story is not that; instead, it has vividly written prose with a great sense of humor, one that abounds with a sensibility that finds wonder and pathos in that which is both everyday and fantastic.

So much of pathos is delivered through the character of Jakub Procházka; this story is his as much as it is that of the Czech Republic. He is an everyman, a man whose struggles and follies are painfully relatable, even to a Filipino-American like me. He is one of those rare oddities in the world of science fiction: a protagonist reluctant to go into space. He goes out of patriotic duty, but not out of any true obsession with the mission. Indeed, he finds the whole eighteen-month mission to be a deeply lonely one.

As science fiction, this works quite well. The spacecraft in the novel feel like something that our species could come up with in the next few decades. The expedition feels plausible, if a dust cloud were to spontaneously appear between Earth and Venus. Certain other things, which I shall leave for the reader to discover, are well done and show how good a grasp on the genre that Jaroslav Kalfař has.

I will describe Spaceman of Bohemia with an adjective that I rarely use: beautiful. This book is such a deeply emotional experience delivered through a presentation whose common boundaries are transcended. Spaceman of Bohemia is about what it means to be human, and what it means to be powerless, and what it means to have gained power after a wait lasting centuries. This is not merely great science fiction (though it is that in spades); this is great literature.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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