Technical problems in space are an established theme in science fiction, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1961 novel “A Fall of Moondust”. Today’s stories need something more to give them tension, and in Jeffrey Kluger’s “Holdout” the added ingredient is politics.
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The book begins with a collision. An unmanned refueling vehicle crashes into the International Space Station, and the Russian-American crew of three are asked to evacuate. The two Russians obey, but Walli Beckwith refuses, not out of heroism but because of a personal agenda. Echoing Herman Melville’s 1853 story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Walli responds to all requests for her to come home with the following five words: “I’d rather not.”
Walli, we learn, wants to be both an eye in the sky and a whistleblower, and what she is watching is “Consolidation”: the burning of the Amazon rainforest as well as the forced resettlement. of its indigenous population. Walli has a humanitarian niece there and she intends to let the world know.
It is politically infuriating. Only the United States has the power to stop Consolidation, but the President has no desire to start a war with Brazil and its allies. He can threaten Walli with all kinds of consequences, but he can’t actually reach it. Only the Russians have the power of a rocket to reach the Space Station, and why would they help an American leader?
Meanwhile, Walli’s slogan (“I’d rather not do this”) has turned into a hashtag, and a populist groundswell is frightening the House and Senate. And, of course, all the time the fires are burning in the forest, Walli’s niece is on the run, and the little Guarani boy she adopted — well, his chances don’t look good.
So multiple overlapping issues, including survival in a deserted space station that lacks maintenance, is prone to accidents and vulnerable to countermeasures. Mr. Kluger knows all about the technology, having written books on Apollo 8, Apollo 13 and the entire space program, but it’s his constant passage from Earth to orbit, from Houston to Moscow, from the forest. tropical in Washington, DC, which keeps the pot boiling.
This is near-future science fiction in the age of social media. Everything seemed so much simpler in the 1960s. .
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