Panel Review: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

Panel Review: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar (Little Brown)

Orphaned as a boy, raised in the Czech countryside by his doting grandparents, Jakub Prochazka has risen from small-time scientist to become the country’s first astronaut. When a dangerous solo mission to Venus offers him both the chance at heroism he’s dreamt of, and a way to atone for his father’s sins as a Communist informer, he ventures boldly into the vast unknown. But in so doing, he leaves behind his devoted wife, Lenka, whose love, he realizes too late, he has sacrificed on the altar of his ambitions.

Alone in Deep Space, Jakub discovers a possibly imaginary giant alien spider, who becomes his unlikely companion. Over philosophical conversations about the nature of love, life and death, and the deliciousness of bacon, the pair form an intense and emotional bond. Will it be enough to see Jakub through a clash with secret Russian rivals and return him safely to Earth for a second chance with Lenka?

Rich with warmth and suspense and surprise, Spaceman of Bohemia is an exuberant delight from start to finish. Very seldom has a novel this profound taken readers on a journey of such boundless entertainment and sheer fun. It has been short-listed for the 2018 Arthur C. Clarke award. A selection of our panel of shadow jurors respond to the novel below…

Gary K. Wolfe

There seems to be something appealing these days about unlikely space programs and astronauts. Kalfar’s novel offers the prospect of the first Czech astronaut, just as Deji Bryce Olukotun did for Nigerians in Nigerians in Space and After the Flare (there was a spider in that one too, oddly enough); Simon Ings, in Smoke, even gave us the first Yorkshireman in space. Apart from the novelty and implicit satire in their initial premises, such tales can head off in a number of directions, not all of them related to the science fiction content—which is one reason that Spaceman of Bohemia raises some interesting questions when considering it in terms of the Clarke Award. Is it centrally SF at all, or is the SF merely a vehicle for unfolding a story which is principally about a failing marriage, the challenges of growing up in the post-Communist Czech Republic, and more broadly historical questions of Czech identity?

Kalfar certainly begins with a traditional enough SF premise: a mysterious glowing purple cloud, named Chopra by its discoverers, has appeared between Earth and Venus, and various probes have returned with no useful information. With the superpowers unwilling to risk a manned exploration, the nascent Czech space program takes up the challenge as a matter of national pride. Jakub Prochazka, the chosen astronaut, becomes a media hero almost immediately, and the spacecraft itself is named for Jan Hus, the 15th century Czech religious reformer.  So the political importance of the mission is stressed from the outset, but gets more complicated as the backstory reveals Prochazka’s childhood—his father was a member of the secret police under the Communist regime, and thus later regarded as a war criminal, making Prochazka’s youth miserable—and his troubled marriage to Lenka, who clearly comes to resent her role as the celebrity astronaut’s wife. From my point of view, the narrative of Prochazka’s youth, his victimization at the hands of bullies, his eviction from the family home and his relationship with his grandfather, constitute the most powerful parts of the book, though they have little relationship to the SF framework. Nor does the painful and credible story of his disintegrating marriage.

Which leaves us the question of what role SF actually plays in the novel. Once Prochazka begins chatting with the giant alien spider who appears in his spacecraft, it seems to be mostly a scaffolding for philosophical discussions and painful memories.  We’re told he’s been drinking plenty of whiskey before he first encounters the spider, who he names Hanuš, so the option of reading the whole thing as hallucinatory isn’t quite closed off. And while Kalfar seems pretty convincing in portraying post-Communist Czech life and even the historical bits about Jan Hus, the SF is less meticulous—at least for an SF reader like myself. Occasionally a minor detail would throw me out of the narrative, such as when Prochazka is floating through the spaceship corridor and the spider follows, “able to adjust its position and altitude regardless of the vacuum.” Vacuum? Why is there a vacuum inside the spacecraft? Later, when the purple dust from the Chopra cloud works its way inside the same spacecraft, I had to wonder just how well sealed that environment is (though I’m willing to give him that on the basis of some extraordinary unknown property of the cloud itself). For that matter, what does it mean to say the cloud is “between Venus and Earth,” as though they had synchronous orbits? Some other details, such as the motion of the whiskey in zero gravity, seem to have been worked out with better attention to detail.

I thought the more whimsical aspects of the spider-being Hanuš were at times delightful, such as its passion for Nutella, and in general the comical and satirical aspects of the novel are pretty effective, if at times quite familiar. The notion of a representative of an older alien civilization bemused by those wacky, irrational Earthlings is a bit threadbare by now, and when the spider gives a speech with lines like “‘I have raced with meteor showers and I have painted the shapes of nebulas. . . . I swam in dark matter,” etc., all I could think of was Roy Batty’s speech at the end of Blade Runner, which was just as movingly poetic and just as nonsensical. I have no problem with an alien intelligence being used to reveal the painful memories and crippling anxieties of the characters; Lem does this brilliantly in Solaris—but then Lem is consistent in keeping the sheer alienness of Solaris intact, while Kalfar’s spider seems more of a therapist or interlocutor than a credible alien.

So I guess my general feeling is that Spaceman of Bohemia is an excellent novel about Czech identity and the stresses of marriage, but it’s unclear to me that it needs its speculative elements at all. If Prochazka had been sent on a solo sea voyage, Hanuš might easily have been a philosophical whale or dolphin. That’s probably a bit unfair, but when a novel is as carefully grounded in historical detail as Spaceman of Bohemia, I don’t think it’s unfair to expect the speculative elements to be equally grounded, and I don’t think such grounding would be at odds with the intended metaphorical weight. Spaceman of Bohemia is a fine novel that enthusiastically if somewhat cavalierly makes use of SF tropes, but it’s really just passing through on its way elsewhere.

Nick Hubble

I was about fifty pages in to this fantastic first novel when I chose it for my initial selection of six books designed to enable some sort of literary critical discussion of the field (which is still, shall we say, in the process of developing). In particular, it was the beautifully deadpan account of the conversation between the protagonist, Jakub, and Tůma, one of the ‘new generation’ of sharp-suited Czech politicians, that suggested to me that Spaceman of Bohemia had a real chance of being on the shortlist:

“We pushed against the Austro-Hungarians when they tried to burn our books and ban our language. We were an industrial superpower before Hitler took us for serfs. We survived Hitler only to welcome the economic and intellectual devastation by the Soviets. And here we are, breathing, sovereign, rich. What next, Jakub? What is the vision for us, what will define us in the future?”

“I heard that milk prices will be through the roof next year,” I said.

It reminded me of the tone of Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Švejk and a level of scepticism that is not just Czech but a part of a wider Central European sensibility, rooted partly in the folk wisdom of peasant life. And, indeed, we repeatedly return throughout the novel to the village where Jakub grew up with his grandparents for a series of down-to-earth scenes that counterpoint the more fantastical elements of his space flight. For that mission, which Jakub finds himself volunteered for, is the glorious future that Tůma has in mind; one in which a Czech leads the latest space race to investigate the sandstorm of intergalactic cosmic dust which has mysteriously appeared between Venus and Earth.

Much has been made of whether the spider-like alien who increasingly impinges on Jakub’s solitude is real or imaginary, not to mention Kalfař’s evident semi-pornographic penchant for Nutella, but the touch which convinced me that I was in the presence of something special was having the corpse of Laika the dog, ‘preserved by the kindness of the vacuum’, float by the observation window. On the one hand, nothing proverbially signifies a lost cause like a dead dog but, on the other hand, the poignancy that Kalfař injects into his description of her ears perked up and hairs gently waving back and forth, suggests not exactly nostalgia but nonetheless a registering of the loss of an idea of Communist modernity and scientific progress. While the reality of life behind the iron curtain often gave the lie to such lofty intentions, the actual emotional pull of such futuristic and progressive ideas was real and continues to exert a materialist influence in the world. While the actual manifestations of this influence, embodied in part by the corrupt Tůma but also through Jakub’s own complicity in delusions of glory, are shown throughout the novel to be problematic, there is still the sense that this promise of modernity will persist beyond the life span of the human species itself in the same way that Laika’s body will continue to float in space for millions of years to come.

It is this philosophical aspect of Spaceman of Bohemia, in conjunction with its wit, invention and rich plot, which suggests it will be read and reread for years to come. There is an argument about the connection between the past and the present in its pages that is not simply restricted to the capacity of the iconic landmarks of Prague, such as the Karlův Bridge, to remind us that ‘our history goes back beyond the day we signed up for a bank account’. It is in this temporal awareness, as much as the space scenes, which makes the novel science fictional and the wider implication is that the  history of the Czech republic is itself science fictional; mutable, with thresholds between alternate timelines and a constant tension between a material base and an idealistic dream of the future. In terms of ambition the novel vastly exceeds most of those submitted to the Clarke; one of the exceptions being Michelle Tea’s Black Wave, which attempts something similar by science-fictionalising American countercultural writing. These are two novels that I would recommend reading back to back for all those seeking an antidote to fiction which aestheticizes dystopia. In the absence from the shortlist of Black Wave (and The Rift and The Stone Sky and Gnomon), Spaceman of Bohemia must have a very strong claim on the award.

Alasdair Stuart

Jakub Procházka is the first Czech astronaut. Launched into space on a ship bought cheap from the Swiss, he’s sent to investigate a mysterious cloud of cosmic dust between Earth and Venus. It’s cutting edge science, a first for the country and for Jakub alike. The eyes of the world are on him but his wife’s, Jakub is told, are not. As he struggles to deal with her abrupt departure, he comes to realise two things; his entire life has been designed to lead him to this moment. And he’s not alone.

Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut is deceptively mercurial for a novel about a man and (perhaps) an alien alone in interstellar space. Starting off as the sort of mildly laborious satire that makes me smile politely and hope that’s not all I’m getting, it segues three times into very difficult stories. The first is a surprisingly poignant story of first and last contact. The second is a deep dive into the memories of one man and how they define his life and the world around him. The third is a surprisingly poignant story of first and final contact. The fourth follows his return to Earth.

Starting with that first one, the satire soon proves to be nicely light on its feet. There’s a running gag about how many commercial sponsors the mission has that works very well and another about the sheer boredom of Jakub’s existence and the simple pleasures he’s found in getting one over on Mission Control. The harder end of the SF pool will initiate eye roll manoeuvres galore on the idea of a single person being sent on any mission, let alone one like this and that’s a valid criticism. It’s also one of the reasons why the satirical element is where the novel is weakest. There’s the slightest sense of pointing and laughing, that, while I don’t think is intentional, gives the impression of no low hanging joke left unpicked. Compared to the later sections in particular, that makes the opening quarter hard work.

Where the novel picks up is in the past. Jakub’s father is revealed have been a Communist informer and he and Jakub’s mother both died in a bizarre cable car accident, orphaning him and leaving him in his grandparents’ care just as the Iron Curtain fell. The rural, peasant upbringing Jakub enjoys is marred by the shadow of his dad, one he never escapes from. Jakub is physically and emotionally mutilated in vengeance against his father’s actions and only true understands the depth of those wounds at the very end of the novel. This is Banksian stuff, delivering the same sort of tale of cruel, machine-tooled familial vengeance that Banks (In non M. Banks mode) excelled at. This is all revealed as Jakub becomes friends with the mysterious alien, and the pair of them dive into his memories at length. The favor is returned too, and Jakub is treated to the one thing no one else on Earth will ever see; the life, and death, of a sentient alien species. One that is unusually fond of Nutella.

This is measured, successful writing. It’s the prose equivalent of that sustained note that never quite resolves into a scream in Hans Zimmer’s Batman soundtracks or Hannah Gadsby’s description of a joke as an endlessly cycling tension generator. It’s ridiculous, it’s absurd, it keeps happening but never quite resolving. The novel has cruised to this point but from here, for a while, it sprints.

The ending, or perhaps in this case the landing, is a little less successful. And that may be the point. Jakub is presumed dead, returning to Earth thanks to an undeveloped group of Russian cosmonauts sent on a phantom version of his mission. He’s nursed back to health, discovers why and how his wife has moved on and also discovers the final connections to his past. This all leads to a moment of closure which is as neat and oddly heartfelt as it is profoundly depressing. Jakub ends the novel in the ruin of his grandparents’ house. He has massive amounts of work to do, but for the first time it’s work he’s choosing to do. On the one hand this is the sort of individualistic freedom Jakub has yearned for the entire novel. He’s grown as a person, realises he and his wife can never be together and is content to live his life out in blessed obscurity. On the other, it’s a literary equivalent of that most over-used of genre TV and movie tropes; the reset button. Jakub has travelled past the edge of human understanding. He’s seen and done amazing things and now he just wants to settle down in the family home and eat bacon sandwiches in anonymity. It’s the one time the novel’s twin plots don’t sync and while Jakub’s rest feels earned it also feels a little pat. The Spaceman of Bohemia living out his life surrounded by the dust of his own past rather than of an interstellar mystery. Even the possibility this is a subtle reference to the problems early astronauts had adjusting to life on Earth on their return doesn’t quite make this section land.

If you can deal with that, there’s a lot to enjoy here. Kalfar has an exceptional eye for detail and character and a precision in shifting your perception that does fascinating things to Jakub in that final act. If you can’t, this will play like a funny, witty exercise in style that fails to reach much of the profundity it aims for. It’s certainly one of the most interesting, and complex, novels on this list but how successful it is, more than any other text here I suspect, is going to be as much about the reader as the book.

Samira Nadkarni

When originally planning to read Spaceman of Bohemia, I started to read Burt Vis and Colin Burgess’ Interkosmos: The Eastern Bloc’s Early Space Program (2015) and had bookmarked about ten articles on Vladimír Remek’s role as a cosmonaut in 1978 (given Remek’s poignant memories of his role as propaganda for the Czech-Soviet union) to give me some sort of foothold in Czech history, and specifically the way this would affect national identity in space exploration. The novel is attuned to the ethos and sensibility of a particular moment, and takes the reader’s understanding of that moment somewhat for granted. I had to look up the Velvet Revolution and its particular aftermaths so I could understand something of the tension that saturates the novel. With Jakub Prochazka’s role as a representative of his nation in this endeavour, it is the weight of his historical baggage – both national and individual – that frames the novel’s events. However, despite having these original frames through which to approach the book, I suspect that what actually framed my reading was the ‘Introduction to Modernism’ course I’m currently teaching and a recent watching of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. The result was an unanticipated reading experience of Spaceman of Bohemia.

The novel focuses on nationality, propaganda, and the mediation between the role of the citizen in the historical state and their own individuality—these set up to be looked at through Jakub’s early years; his unhappy relationship with his wife, Lenka; and his role as a Czech astronaut taking on an endeavour that no other country wanted. By linking these through Jakub’s own personal timeline as well as a larger geographically located socio-political timeline, Spaceman of Bohemia revealed itself to be an extended discussion of selfhood that centred on alienated masculinity. As a result, the ideas of identity, trauma, the historical nation, and the historical self only locates these in masculinity. While there is an attempt to offer different perspectives through Jakub’s interactions with the (potentially) hallucinated alien-spider-being Hanuš, it remained a singularly gendered perspective.

Jakub’s wife Lenka is actually part of this focus on alienated masculinity. The book’s early sections show Jakub constantly imagining their every interaction as eventual self-serving propaganda, linking these to nationalistic symbolism with himself in the role of the returning hero. This is particularly notable in the section where he attempts to force himself through sex while imagining the headlines and visuals of Lenka in the late stages of her pregnancy awaiting his return. Lenka herself barely features in this outside of her role as a carrier for proof of Jakub’s virility and fertility, the assurance of his legacy as a national hero and the child itself as symbolic of this legacy (and, of course, children themselves as legacies of their parents, framed as legacies of their fathers within patriarchy). This section and several others – as I haltingly made my way through the book – positioned Lenka as essentially a hollow structure on which to hang Jakub’s alienation, masculinity, relation to his past, and to the shifting ideals of nationhood and fame. Her reserve and emotional distance from him, played out in the literal growing physical distance between them, never seemed to be set up to show her as a being in her own right; instead, this distance was a means by which the reader was further introduced to Jakub’s deepening worries and despair. Reading this section, I found myself thinking back to Gadsby’s phrase in her extended discussion of art history: women serve in these settings only to be “a fleshvase for his dickflower.” Spaceman of Bohemia does create Lenka as a fleshvase for Jakub’s wilting, alienated, isolated dickflower as her inclusion in the novel is intended to say more about him and his fragmented masculinity than her at every point in time. Even Lenka’s choice to leave Jakub feels positioned to tell us more about Jakub than about her. It’s not that I am unaware of the novel’s satire, but at times this felt unaware, repetitive and like it perpetuated rather than disrupted what it sought to critique. The particular context in which I came to the book made me unusually, keenly aware of its frustrating limitations. It felt odd to realise that the likely imaginary space spider being had more agency in existence than Lenka did – not a statement I thought I’d ever be typing, but here we all are.

In a larger sense, Spaceman of Bohemia reads rather like a mocked up template for the conversations we’ve been having in class about how any gender outside of the masculine is always the transgressor or the intruder in any conception of historicity or the state; that only man can feel historical alienation and isolation because only he has access to these links. Everyone else is a mechanism for exploring masculinity at best, a tacked on afterthought at worst. Even alienation itself feels gendered in these contexts – Jakub’s final return to the ruin of his grandparents’ home and his changed notions of selfhood is the kind of pathos I am used to teaching in class as Literature (with that inevitable capital L), but it also told me the same story I’ve heard a million times before about white masculinity as modern selfhood violently sundered from the continuity of the past and now fragile, healing, inevitably changing. That past still has no place for anyone else. The restrictive framing of this not only affects genders that are only ever in the margins of Spaceman of Bohemia, but also hinders the masculine self that the novel seeks to articulate from ever achieving any sort of real change. Without understanding that history is more than the story of masculinity, Jakub is unlikely to ever truly deal with his past or seek a better present.

1 Comment

  1. PhilRM 3 weeks ago

    Nick, you seem to be arguing that any novel with a sufficient sense of history is science fiction. That seems to me a very broad brush indeed: it would class pretty much all of the novels of Ismail Kadare, for example, as SF. (And in the case of what I would argue is his finest novel, The Palace of Dreams, I don’t believe that classification would be wrong.) But in general I think that an awareness of history alone is not sufficient. I’m not sure I could do better than to quote Nina discussing Infinite Ground last year: More, it is the rigorous examination of our present-to-near-future condition as a species, our alienation from history, from the landscape, from the business of living tangible lives that scores the bull’s eye in speculative terms.

    I haven’t gotten to Spaceman (it’s at the top of my TBR pile; the exchange you quoted would have put it there if it weren’t already). From the reviews here, it sounds as though it’s a novel which uses the tropes of SF, but whose interest is entirely elsewhere. I’d contrast this with novels like Infinite Ground, or Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, which are largely (in the case of the latter, almost entirely) lacking those tropes, but whose main concerns are science fictional.

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