Mars landing

Kosmonaut Zero

Richard Evans’ science fiction novel Kosmonaut Zero is a clever commentary on the perennial human desire to transcend the limitations of the body.

The story is set in 1969, during the most intense phase of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union that ran during the decades following the Second World War. After early Soviet breakthroughs in the 1950s and early 60s, including the the first satellite, the first man in space, and the first contact with the Moon’s surface, the United States is set to finally pull ahead by putting the first man on the Moon. Kosmonaut Zero, however, suggests that while the world’s attention was focused on the Apollo 11 mission the Russians were developing a secret project to go much further by sending a cosmonaut to Mars.

But they have a problem. They don’t have the technology necessary to sustain human life for the 200 days it would take to reach Mars, and certainly not for a return trip. And yet the political imperative to outflank the Americans requires that the mission proceed at any cost. Evans imagines, in forensic detail, how the Soviets might have sought to meet the challenge within the limitations of 1960s technology by designing a new kind of human, part-person, part-machine, capable of withstanding deep space travel: a robotic body controlled by human intelligence. The mechanical part sits waiting for its human complement at the enigmatic space centre, Star City, on the borders 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.

A ‘volunteer’ is now required to supply the necessary ‘organic element’, a brain and face to be fused with the machine. The KGB blackmails one of its own to make the sacrifice. Marina Mernova, a high-flying young officer identified as possessing the kind of analytical intelligence necessary to control the robotic frame, is forced to comply on pain of the deportation of her closest relatives to the Siberian gulags. Evans gives a brilliant retro-futurist account of 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 survives her dismemberment and reassembly, and embarks on her one way trip to the red planet. It’s an improbable tale, but Evans’ evocation of the technological capacities and Cold War tensions of the age makes it believable. 1960s science now, of course, seems limited, but it had the resources to send a manned mission to the Moon, and Evans leaves the reader convinced that it may have had the capacity to engineer a cyborg and a space craft capable of travel to Mars. If it had happened, it may have happened something like this.

The novel references many of the legends and conspiracy theories that still haunt histories of the space race, most obviously the fable of the lost cosmonauts, the persistent rumour that the Soviets launched a number of failed space flights, leaving their abandoned pilots to pass forever through the interstellar void. And there are discrete references to the chronic rumour that the US faked the Moon landings.

But its deepest theme is the relation between soul and body, whether the former can even exist without the latter. The novel offers an original perspective on contemporary transhumanist controversies over the possibilities new technology affords for developing a ‘Humanity 2.0’, a re-engineered body augmented with robotic parts extending natural human capabilities and lifespans. Evans’ unsparing account of Marina’s transformation from young woman to machine – nothing more (or less) than a face and brain entwined within a robotic system – questions whether the mind can be separated from the body without thereby dissolving human identity, a delicate symbiosis of the mental and the physical.

I will also remember Kosmonaut Zero as a novel of atmosphere as well as ideas, a skilful evocation of a Cold War world of not so long ago, now gone. Many images stay in the mind. Wind howling between the high-rise concrete monoliths of the Moscow suburbs. The freezing commons of Gorky Park in winter. An early hours walk through the shrines and temples of Kyoto. The tea-stained corridors of a Manchester radio laboratory. The glimpses of Star City, through the trees of the Russian forest. The cyborg Marina’s wanderings through the grasslands of the Russian steppes, finding 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.

‘Ice.’

Kosmonaut Zero by Richard Evans is published by Dead Ink Books.