Kosmonaut Zero

I have very much enjoyed Richard Evans' strange science fiction tale Kosmonaut Zero.

The novel is set in 1969, the most intense phase of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union that ran for 30 years or so from the mid-1950s. Following early Soviet breakthroughs, including the orbit of the first satellite, the first man in space, and the first Moon impact, the United States is set to finally pull ahead by winning the race to put the first man on the Moon.

Kosmonaut Zero, however, imagines that while the world's attention was focused on Apollo the Russians were developing a secret project to go much further by launching of the first manned mission to Mars.

They have a big problem. The technology to sustain human life for the 200 days or so it would take to reach the red planet does not exist, not even for a one-way flight. Such however is the political imperative to outflank the Americans that the mission proceeds nevertheless, through the development of a new kind of Soviet citizen capable of withstanding deep space travel: a robotic body controlled by human intelligence. The technology has already been developed by scientists at the mysterious Star City on the outskirts of Moscow:

A torso is suspended from a frame clamped to the ceiling. It is a metallic corset, a strict hourglass topped with a neck collar. The thin carapace is off-white, cut by vents for cooling and ports to offer access to vital systems. Two lines of text - 'K0' and 'OKB 77' - are branded above the left breast. Two arms and two legs, made of the same white metal, are detached and rest upon a table. They are contoured, human-like, with black neoprene at the joints and metal struts as external musculature. The backs of the hands are segmented, the palms are exposed endoskeleton. From the thin neck, a curved metal occipital plate extends to support a skull and face that remain absent. A beam arches up to the crown of the missing skull, holding an interface that trails multiple electrical transmitters sharpened to fine points.

It simply remains to find a volunteer willing to supply the necessary 'organic element', a brain and face to be fused with the machine. Aware that not even the most fanatical comrade would volunteer to undergo such mutilation for the sake of the motherland the KGB blackmails one of its own. Marina Mernova, a high-flying young officer deemed to possess an analytical intelligence that would make a suitable complement for the robotic frame, is forced to comply on pain of death and deportation of her closest relatives to the Siberian gulags.

Evans spares no detail in charting Marina's brutal transformation into something both less and more than human, the first cyborg, Kosmonaut Zero:

Neat borders segment Zero's brain, each area controlled by a neuroreceiver rod - frontal lobe, cerebellum, limbic system, amygdala, stem and hippocampus. She checks the numbers beside each brain segment, no drugs or electricity are needed to suppress or to stimulate. Zero's brain is in a pharmaceutical/electrical statis. Chemitrode pumps deliver suppressants from sacs in her chest, a converter routes voltage from the electrostat. An oscilloscope screen traces a smooth waveform; Zero's mood is good.

Marina/Zero's strange odyssey moves from the knives of the operating table to embarkation on a voyage into deepest space. It's an improbable tale perhaps, but Evans' evocation of the retro futurist technologies and Cold War tensions of the space age is impressive. His carefully researched narrative shows exactly how late 1960s science might have met the challenge of the design of a cyborg and a space craft capable of travel to Mars, investing the novel with something of the texture of a documentary: one feels that had this happened, it would have happened like this.

The 'lost cosmonauts'

The story references some of the legends and conspiracy theories that still haunt conventional histories of the space race, notably the legend of the lost cosmonauts; the persistent rumour that the Soviets launched rather more missions than have been officially acknowledged, leaving their unfortunate pilots abandoned to the interstellar void. And of course doubts persist in some quarters regarding the credibility of the Moon landings.

Whatever one makes of all that, Evans' dark story makes sense within the context of its setting, an age when planetary exploration was a tool of political propaganda, and the superpowers were willing to take grand risks to demonstrate the superiority of their respective space programmes.

The novel also offers a perspective on contemporary debates concerning transhumanism, whose advocates celebrate the possibilities afforded by new technology for the development of a 'Humanity 2.0', the augmentation of the body with robotic parts designed to extend natural human capabilities and lifespans. Evans' unnerving account of Marina's transformation from young woman to machine - nothing more (or less) than a face and brain entwined within a robotic system - highlights the impossibility of severing the mind from the body without thereby dissolving human identity, which is defined by the delicate integration of the mental and the physical.

Wind-blasted monoliths

Ultimately though I'll remember Kosmonaut Zero as a novel of atmosphere, for its skilful evocation of a Cold War world of not so long ago, but now gone.

Many images that stay in the mind: Wind howling between the high-rise monoliths of modernist housing estates of the Moscow suburbs. The freezing blasted commons of Gorky Park in winter. An early hours walk through the shrines and temples of Kyoto. The tea-stained utilitarian corridors of a radio laboratory just south of Manchester. The glimpses of Star City, set deep within the Russian forest. The wandering of the cyborg Marina through the grasslands of the Russian steppes, taking refuge in the Ikon-walled home of an Orthodox peasant. The star lit silences of deep space. And the strange horizons of a new planet:

'Mars orbit'.

She repeats the phrase as she floats over a new world, 400 kilometres below. Avid by the glass, her eyes are full of the red marble. Sunlight kisses the planet's horizon and sparkling light emerges, a virgin creation in the void. The dawn reveals a dry, red globe by careful degrees. At first a quarter, then a half, and soon an entire hemisphere. Mars is a beacon in the black. The surface swells memories of the Sahara and North Africa. There are mountains and plains and impact craters. Canyons cut into the plains and stretch for hundreds of kilometres like deep wounds in the planet's surface. Here and there, white clouds are scattered ghosts adrift high above the surface. She clings to the porthole, just as she did in Earth orbit, watching day break over a new world. The Mars Exploratory Kraft carries her towards the northern pole and into the night side. Her mouth falls open at what she sees.