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Holdout by Jeffrey Kluger (book review).

August 6, 2021 | By | Reply More

When an accident triggers an evacuation of the International Space Station, one of the astronauts decides to stay behind. Ignoring protocol and direct orders, Walli Beckwith remains on board and is soon branded a traitor and a pirate. Using her new-found notoriety to shine a spotlight on the wholesale destruction of the Amazon rainforest, her status soon changes to folk-hero.

Based on author Jeffrey Kluger’s in-depth knowledge of the space programme, ‘Holdout’ mixes realistic astronautics with high-stakes politics and the anguish of front-line doctors dealing with the misery caused by Amazonian destruction.

There’s lots of great detail in the way the ISS runs and the procedures at NASA and in the Russian space programme, lending an air of authenticity to Beckwith’s hijacking of the station. As a habitual reader of Science Fiction, I didn’t really feel I needed quite so much explanation of details as Jeffrey Kluger offers. He also writes non-fiction books on the space programme and this background shows throughout. The repeating of all measurements in imperial and metric units got quite wearing after a while, but there was no doubting that what he writes is accurate and realistic.

The US President plays a relatively minor role in the plot, with occasional sections of the book dealing with his political scheming, damage control and blustering. If anything he provides a spot of light relief as the typical cynical version of politicians everywhere.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, Walli Beckwith’s niece works as a volunteer doctor in an Amazonian camp, helping the native peoples whose land is constantly being burned out and eroded by loggers, farmers and hydroelectric projects. It’s the nationalisation and industrialisation of this process that triggers Beckwith’s protest.

The story flows along nicely, punctuated by a series of crises both on the ISS and in Brazil. Despite the threats of collisions and system failures and the perils of an EVA, there’s no doubt that the stubborn astronaut will win through. As the situation in the Amazon is revealed and the dealings of the dodgy Brazilian president become evident, more and more people are won over to Beckwith’s cause, whether it’s the press, politicians, public or fellow astronauts. The camaraderie with the other astronauts and ground crew is touching and even while Beckwith’s legal situation becomes precarious her popularity soars.

This is a feelgood novel that focuses on an environmental disaster which is not far from current reality but manages to avoid becoming preachy. It’s solidly entertaining while avoiding melodramatic, unrealistic scenarios. There’s some lovely little sketches of some of the background characters. Beckwith’s parents for example who are retired NASA engineers and now live a quiet life with their own home-made air conditioning system and Sergie Rozovsky, the dour but implacable leader of the Russian recovery team who meets each and every returning Soyuz craft and is the first face returning astronauts see.

There have been a number of recent films, books and TV series dealing with near-future, realistic space-flight scenarios, which for the most part are only marginally Science Fiction. This book is not marketed as SF at all and indeed included nothing that would mark it as such and yet it probably shares a lot in common with Science Fiction books from fifty or more years ago. Could somebody really hi-jack the International Space Station? It seems they could and this novel takes us on an interesting journey to see why and how that could happen.

Gareth D Jones

July 2021

(pub: Dutton/Penguin, 2021. 352 page hardback. Price: £18.70 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-59318-469-1)

check out websites: www.penguin.com/publishers/dutton/ and www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/669742/holdout-by-jeffrey-kluger/

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Category: Books, Scifi

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