BEYOND by Stephen Walker, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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BEYOND by Stephen Walker, Review

Matthew Kresal takes one giant leap into the beyond.
This year marks sixty years of human space flight, which began on a spring morning with the launch of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit aboard Vostok 1. What led to that historic flight and the launch of American astronaut Alan Shepard weeks later has been the subject of much mythmaking and propaganda in the decades since. Telling the incredible story of Gagarin's flight and the events surrounding it is the new book Beyond by author Stephen Walker.

In telling the story of the first human space flight, Walker takes his readers on a journey through some of the chilliest years of the Cold War. Opening on the morning of Gagarin's launch, the book then makes its way forward, introducing the various figures whose lives and fates intertwined with the launch of Vostok 1. They include Gagarin and the "Chief Designer" of the Soviet space program Sergei Korolev, a victim of the Stalinist gulags now leading the Soviet leg of the space race, with Walker exploring the father-son relationship that sprung up between the two men. There are the witnesses to history, such as the filmmaker Vladimir Suvorov and Gagarin's American rival Shephard, as well as the back-ups to the men vying to be first into space: Gherman Titov and John Glenn. Walker also takes readers into the halls of power in Washington and Moscow, examining the differing views of the space race in these early days and how the events that would follow would reshape the leadership of both John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. In doing so, Walker presents them as characters worthy of a great novel, men both common and powerful, in places high and low, shaped by and shaping titanic events that will change their world.
That almost novelistic touch extends to the rest of Beyond as well. Drawing on a wealth of new interviews, archival materials, and even the illicit journals of some of the Soviet participants, such as cosmonaut training chief Nikolai Kamanin, Walker also paints such vivid images in words of the events taking place. Whether it's capturing the debates between Korolev and the KGB about carrying a bomb aboard the Vostok should it end up landing outside the Soviet sphere of influence to the arguments inside NASA about how to deal with issues surrounding the Redstone rocket, Walker's prose keeps the book moving. He also engages in some much-needed myth-busting, taking apart the legends and propaganda about how Gagarin became the first cosmonaut to fly, for example, or seeking out the origins of the "phantom cosmonauts" supposedly launched before Gagarin.

All of this building up, of course, to the flight itself. Walker's presentation of the countdown and then Gagarin's 108-minute space flight captures the tension of those moments and the incredible but true details worthy of a Hollywood movie. Who could believe that the first man launched into space spent part of his last minutes on Earth listening to folk songs, or how close he came to death plummeting back down to Earth, say? All presented with an eye for detail, yet also in telling what occurred as accurately as possible. Indeed, those pages covering much of Beyond's last act is a master class of non-fiction writing: engaging, informative, and accessible to even those with a modicum of interest in the topic.

Whether you are interested in the space race or simply seeking a good history read, Beyond comes highly recommended. From a wealth of research to prose worthy of a novel at its best, Walker takes readers back to the days when the roar of rockets could make the world stand in awe as the path to the stars first opened up for humanity. At this moment in time when the stars call to us again, and it seems like more of us might one day make the journey Gagarin first made sixty years ago, Walker's Beyond reminds us of where it all began with one incredible and risky leap into the beyond.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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