Weeding Womb

The Chief Designer

The Chief Designer by Andy Duncan. (Story and author interview available online.) Not quite science fiction, but that hardly matters. This story is a fictionalized version of the life and death of the intellectual force of the Russian space program, Sergei P. Korolev. Since I know little of the real man, I'm at something of a disadvantage to speak of the accuracy of the account. I would presume it would be similar to the excellent television movie about Microsoft and Apple, The Pirates of Silicon Valley, where the broad strokes were accurate, but the detail work was done by a writer.

I'll now leave that aspect behind and look at it as a story.

It's a damn good story.

It starts not with the man's birth, but with his rebirth - when he was rescued from the darkest and vilest corner of Stalin's dark and vile gulags, the Kolyma mines. The story shows the Soviet space program, starting from its beginnings of simply trying to make rockets better than Hitler's, showing its peak with Sputnik and the early Space Race, and ending with its collapse after Korolev's passing.

For some time the story follows one of Korolev's assistants, Aksyonov, someone who the readers can tag along with. (No relation to the apparently-real cosmonaut Valdimir Aksyonov.) Indeed, the story ends with Aksyonov, long after Korolev's death.

The writing is excellent in several different ways. The dialogue is decent, but the monologues are the memorable part. (Particularly Korolev's quote upon the death of a cosmonaut and what Aksyonov says when he meets Korolev's "ghost".) The author deftly handles symbolism, something a story of less than novel length can sometimes skimp on (or overinduldge in, at the sacrifice of the actual story). For instance, running in tandem with Korolev's rebirth and death we watch the rise and fall of the Soviet space program and the Soviet Union as a whole. It helps make Korolev even larger than life - though he wasn't the main reason the USSR fell, the story gives that feeling, like this one little man with pen and paper was the heart and soul of the largest country in the world.

In short, a powerful story, rife with quotes that are no doubt going to be attributed to the real Korolev and Aksyonov, if only because they're too damn good to pass up. A really great read, and I recommend it.

The Archon

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