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Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
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Spaceman of Bohemia

by Jaroslav Kalfar

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13913122,121 (3.92)23
  1. 20
    Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: A science fiction framing device allows the author to tell a non-chronological story of lives affected by large historical events.
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» See also 23 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
If there’s one thing I hate it’s books which feature space exploration where the author can’t be arsed to get the details right. There is a vast amount of documentation out there, in books and on the internet, on the subject. How fucking difficult is it to get it right? It is, for example, “space” and not “Space”. FFS. A spacecraft shot into space on top of a rocket is not necessarily a “space shuttle” and, in fact, especially not if it’s not reusable. And if a comet enters the Milky Way eighteen months ago, then it actually entered it 29,998.5 years ago as the Sun is 30,000 light-years from the edge of the galaxy. And to reach Earth in 18 months, that comet would have to be travelling at 2.3 light years an hour, or 13,521,700,000,000 mph. It’s not fucking rocket science. Well, you know what I mean. In fact, the novel drops clangers throughout its space-set narrative: describing vacuum as tightening around the narrator “like bathwater”, confusing vacuum and zero gravity, seeming to think spacesuits only use pure oxygen on EVA and then to prevent decompression sickness… Fortunately, the novel’s other narrative is far better. Jakub Procházka has been selected as the first Czech astronaut. The aforementioned comet has left a cloud, named Chopra, “between Earth and Venus” – well no, between the orbits of Earth and Venus, since the distance between the two planets changes as they orbit the Sun. Anyway, the Czechs have decided to send the first crewed spacecraft to Chopra. Procházka is an astrophysicist and the person chosen for the mission – it seems stupid to send one person, especially given the size of the spacecraft, JanHus1, as it is described. En route an alien appears in the spacecraft and tells Procházka it wishes to study “humanry”. It’s not certain whether the alien is real or an hallucination, but given that so much of the space-set narrative is complete bollocks I’m inclined to go for hallucination. (At one point, Procházka sees a frozen Laika float past – which would be difficult as Sputnik 2 disintegrated on re-entry in 1958, five months after Laika’s death.) Interwoven with the JanHus1 mission are chapters on Procházka’s childhood and life and marriage. The son of a secret policeman, who died shortly after the Velvet Revolution, he and his grandparents, who raised him, were shunned by their neighbours. They moved to Prague, Procházka went to university, and became a world expert on cosmic dust – hence his selection for the mission to the cloud. These chapters are interesting and, I assume, much better researched than the other narrative. However, they do make you wonder what the point of Spaceman of Bohemia is. Why not write a novel about growing up in post-Revolution Czechia? Why all the guff about the cloud and the alien and the space mission? Which ends with Procházka being implausibly rescued by a space shuttle from a secret decades-long Russian space programme. Which he causes to crash on re-entry but he manages to survive… before returning home incognito to exorcise some ghosts from his past, which, er, had bugger-all to do with the space mission. The earth-bound narrative is good, a novel in its own right. The space mission is complete bollocks – badly-researched, pointless and dull. If it had not been for that – and given it’s so badly done, how the hell did the book make the shortlist for a science fiction award? – Spaceman of Bohemia would be a bloody good book. ( )
  iansales | Jun 10, 2018 |
This book seems to capture the essence of what it is like to live in a post-Soviet nation and grapple with Soviet history.

In the near future, a strange dust cloud enters the solar system, and the world is curious about what it is. The government of the Czech Republic sees this as an opportunity to play a role on the world stage, so they send a single man in a spacecraft to study the dust. The narrator, Jakub, dwells on his past during his journey. An alien joins him on his spaceship, although it is never clear if the alien is real or a figment of his unraveling mind. Meanwhile, Jakub dwells on his recent past (his relationship with his wife) and his more distant past, including his father who was a Soviet collaborator and a man who his father had tortured who came into power after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On one hand, there is a Kafkaesque quality to Jakub's life: sh*t happens and there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it. On the other hand, his life is also one vast interconnected conspiracy of fatal coincidences. This seems typical of some other Soviet and post-Soviet literature I have read: there is a quest to find meaning in the utter arbitrariness of life in totalitarian regimes, and a hope that the great Soviet vision will come to be. Add to that, in this book, the insecurities of being a part of a small nation battling its own insignificance.

I listened to the audiobook, and found it engaging. ( )
  Gwendydd | Apr 12, 2018 |
This is a brilliant debut novel but an odd reading experience, like Science Fiction as if written by Milan Kundera. Some of its tonal quality is, perhaps more understandably, also reminiscent of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris.

The set-up is that a comet has entered the Milky Way “from the Canis Major galaxy” and swept our solar system with a sandstorm of intergalactic dust. Consequently a purple cloud, named Chopra by its New Delhi discoverers, has formed between Venus and Earth. (I wondered here if there is perhaps a nod to M P Shiel’s 1901 novel, The Purple Cloud. Then again there is no reason for Kalfař, Czech born but who emigrated - the blurb says immigrated, there’s an end-point bias for you - to the US when he was sixteen.)

The Spaceman of the title, and our narrator, is Jakub Procházka, a man with a professional fascination with space dust and a professorship in astrophysics. With no other country publicly willing to investigate the Chopra phenomenon, the Czech Republic steps up to the mark, launching him from Petřín Hill on the space shuttle JanHus1. However, the book is not much concerned with the Science-Fictional scaffolding of this premise but more on Jakub’s life before the mission and his mental state while on it.

Not long into his voyage Jakub begins to perceive another living creature in his spaceship, a spider-like being whom he dubs Hanuš, after the maker of Prague’s astronomical clock, and which talks to him and enquires about his life. Kalfař’s writing leaves open the question as to whether this is an actual alien or an hallucination and Hanuš’s philosophy gradually begins to drive Jakub’s actions. Even at the end of the novel Hanuš is still a very real presence to Jakub.

The spaceship chapters are up to the last quarter of the book interspersed with the story of Jakub’s life until he became chosen for the mission. Jakub’s father had been a keen Communist and indeed a state torturer. With the fall of the Soviet Union the family’s fortunes of course changed, not helped by his parent’s death in a car crash, and Jakub’s late childhood, being looked after by his grandparents, was dogged by persecution by his peers. One day a man arrived carrying a rusty metal shoe which he said Jakub’s father once used to torture him. This “Shoe Man” now has the law on his side and causes the Procházkas’ eviction from their ancestral home – a telling reminder that injustice does not only exist under oppressive régimes. The most engaging of these “real life” chapters are those which deal with Jakub’s wife, Lenka, how he met her, their life together, and how, unknowingly to Jakub, they began drifting apart. This is a detailed portrait of a relationship.

In a clever decision by Kalfař the flashbacks are narrated in the present tense while the story of Jakub’s trip in space and its aftermath are in the past tense. This adds to the dreamy, hallucinatory nature of the space-based sections while the Earth bound sections are agreeably gritty. At one point Jakub sees Laika the dog drift past his ship, “her body preserved by the kindness of the vacuum, denying the corrosive effects of oxygen.” (Quite how she escaped the confines of the capsule she had been launched in Kalfař doesn’t explain, but it had me wondering.) This is of course a touch that borders on magic realism, emphasising the strangeness of Jakub’s voyage, but one of the novel’s concerns is the necessity to fight against or to accept the absurdity, the sheer unlikeliness, of the universe. In Jakub’s world even in space persecution cannot be avoided. Hanuš’s species has been pursued across galaxies by creatures called Gorompeds intent on its extinction. It is a neat touch that while Jakub uses the word humanity to describe our kind, Hanuš characterises us as humanry.

The book is also a primer on the history of Prague, the Czechs, and their achievements. To this end we are shown the martyrdom of Jan Hus (though in an apparent aside which is also a neat piece of foreshadowing Kalfař considers the possibility that Hus might have been replaced by a relative lookalike and lived out his days in seclusion,) the tragedy of Vaclav Havel – a man wanting only to write poetry but who instead became public property - who “lost his typewriter,” the plot of the opera Rusalka and the line from it, “All sacrifices are futile” that seems to apply to Jakub’s imminent demise at the hands (tendrils?) of the Chopra cloud, the impossible dilemma faced by Emile Hácha in Hitler’s office as he was offered ignominy or the slaughter of his country.

As the JanHus1 disintegrates in the purple cloud Hanuš disappears and Jakub is rescued by a “phantom” (deniable, incognito) Russian spaceship. He thwarts their authorities’ intention to detain him forever by interfering with the ship’s controls on its landing descent, making it crash, and so limps on into an afterlife in which everyone but the Shoe Man, whom he confronts in a park and whose complicity in his choice for the mission he uncovers, thinks he is dead.

The strangeness of the part of the narrative taking place in space, the distancing Jakub feels even when back on Earth, is echoed by the question he asks himself, “What if our existence is a field of study in probability conducted by the universe?”

My main thought during reading this is that in the flashback sections it bears far more similarity to a mainstream novel from Central/Eastern Europe than to Science Fiction. Kalfař writes in USian but odd word choices, phrases and emphases sometimes make the text seem like a translation - yet all of these add to the overall effect.

To see an examination of the history - and present - of a small country in the guise of a Science Fiction novel is an unusual but welcome phenomenon. But is this a trick Kalfař can pull off again?

One of my books of the year though, without a doubt. ( )
  jackdeighton | Aug 18, 2017 |
Delightful and quirky first novel. Probably had appeal to me because of my part Czech and other Eastern European background. Part science fiction, part romance, part commentary on the transition of the Czech Republic out of Soviet Communist bloc, this novel was the best little novel I have read this summer. ( )
  Mark.Kosminskas | Jul 6, 2017 |
Truly the best historical fiction/contemporary satire in the form of an epic space western buddy film romance I've read in a long time! Wildly inventive, yet still satisfyingly grounded in stories of recognizable people. This is a really impressive first novel. I'm giving Spaceman of Bohemia five stars, because it was just so fun to read. ( )
  sharonstern | Jul 2, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jaroslav Kalfarprimary authorall editionscalculated
Heller, BarbaraÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Warner, AllisonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316273430, Hardcover)

An intergalactic odyssey about the first Czech astronaut's mission to Venus, the brutal Communist past that haunts him, the love of his life left behind on Earth, and a showdown among the stars

When Jakub Procházka is sent into space to examine a cosmic dust cloud covering Venus, it may be a solo suicide mission. Dreaming of becoming a national hero and desperate to atone for his father's sins as a Communist informer, he leaves his beloved wife behind and launches into the galaxy. But things aboard spaceship JanHus1 quickly turn weird, and, to make matters worse, he soon learns that his wife has disappeared without a trace back on Earth.

As his spaceship hurtles toward an unknown danger and his sanity wavers, Jakub encounters an unlikely fellow passenger -- a giant alien spider. He and his strange arachnid companion form an unlikely bond over late-night refrigerator encounters, where they talk philosophy, love, life, death, and the incomprehensible deliciousness of bacon. But when their mission is thrown into crisis by secret Russian rivals, Jakub is forced to make violent decisions -- recalling the tortured past and dark political heritage he's buried -- in a desperate quest to return to his Earthly life.

Packed with nail-biting thrills, exuberant heart, and surprising and absurd humor in the lineage of Kafka and Vonnegut, Spaceman of Bohemia offers an extraordinary vision of the endless human capacity to persist -- and risk everything -- in the name of love and home.

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 05 Aug 2016 13:56:02 -0400)

"When Jakub Procha is sent into space to examine a cosmic dust cloud covering Venus, it may be a solo suicide mission. Dreaming of becoming a national hero and desperate to atone for his father's sins as a Communist informer, he leaves his beloved wife behind and launches into the galaxy. But things aboard spaceship JanHus1 quickly turn weird, and, to make matters worse, he soon learns that his wife has disappeared without a trace back on Earth. As his spaceship hurtles toward an unknown danger and his sanity wavers, Jakub encounters an unlikely fellow passenger -- a giant alien spider. He and his strange arachnid companion form an unlikely bond over late-night refrigerator encounters, where they talk philosophy, love, life, death, and the incomprehensible deliciousness of bacon. But when their mission is thrown into crisis by secret Russian rivals, Jakub is forced to make violent decisions -- recalling the tortured past and dark political heritage he's buried -- in a desperate quest to return to his Earthly life. Packed with nail-biting thrills, exuberant heart, and surprising and absurd humor in the lineage of Kafka and Vonnegut, Spaceman of Bohemia offers an extraordinary vision of the endless human capacity to persist -- and risk everything -- in the name of love and home"--… (more)

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