Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On the Dark Side of the Moon

You get the feeling Viktor Pelevin read quite a bit of Kurt Vonnegut, as he had great fun with the decaying Soviet space program in his first novel, Omon Ra.  The introductory chapters are pretty much background for the story, which sees two boyhood friends dreaming of flying to the moon while at pioneer camp.  You don't really get the full impact of the story until the two find themselves in a flight training camp named after the famed fighter ace, Alexei Mariesiev.  Eventually, they are shipped out to the cosmonaut program where they undergo a rigorous set of exams including a reincarnation test.

It's a brisk read, as Pelevin leads you on a journey of discovery quite unlike any other.  The Soviet Union finds itself in a battle with the USA in keeping up the appearances of a space program during the Brezhnev era.  Even a great bear hunt for the visiting Henry Kissinger was staged, with disastrous consequences, as related in a story to "Ommy" by a blind, wheelchair bound general, who becomes his mentor.  Omon and his buddy Mitiok soon find themselves pitted against each other, much like Gagarin and Titov, to further Soviet scientific studies on the dark side of the moon.

This cosmic journey is peppered with a number of fun references.  There's even a cameo appearance by Laika, a very aged space dog in a general's jacket and cap.  Belka and Strelka also make appearances in a climactic chase scene.  Although you figure out where this narrative is headed long before you reach the final chapters, the story doesn't lose its impact, thanks largely to Pelevin's wonderful sense of irony.

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