In the US, the Soviet space program is given short shrift. Few Americans know the Soviets were in fact the first to put a human into orbit and return him safely to Earth, most aware only of the gleaming smiles and “One small step…” phraseology of Buzz Aldrin and Neal Armstrong. In writing his 2001 novella The Chief Designer, Andy Duncan aimed to correct this oversight. Thankfully, it was not his only goal.
Opening with his imprisonment in a Soviet labor camp and ending several decades after the success of the MIR project, The Chief Designer is an abridged and semi-fictionalized biography of Sergei Korolev. Mastermind of the Soviet space program throughout the Cold War, Duncan artfully moves through the significant moments in the man’s life one window at a time. From his indirect saving of cosmonauts to his interaction with Kruschev, Brezhnev, and other Soviet prime ministers, his calm demeanor to the influence he had on later generations of engineers, Duncan captures the spirit of the man in a neatly told ‘story’.
But The Chief Designer is more than just biography. Taking man as animal, slaving away in a gold mine (without gold), and moving him outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the novella is also a story about humanity and its achievements—achievements brought about by the stolid intelligence and humility of Korolev. The stars and moon a worthwhile goal, it is an Arthur C. Clarke story in real life.
Style-wise, Duncan does a good job of portraying the icy bearing Americans often perceive Russians as possessing. The prose tight, scenes are introduced obliquely enough to constantly keep the narrative fresh and as un-biographical as possible—almost a necessity given Duncan was trying to make history as engaging as he could. Based on other information I have read, Duncan appears to have “smoothed a few bumps” to get Korolev’s story from A to B in more interesting fashion. But despite this, the important points shine brightly—in or out of a historical context.
In the end, The Chief Designer is a high quality novella that sits astride the fence separating science fiction and biography. The mannerisms and influence of Sergei Korolev in the spotlight, the man’s story is viewed through the lens of the evolving Soviet space program—both within his lifetime and beyond. Secondary characters, mainly Aksyonov, picking up events after Korolev’s death, his effect up until the MIR project is presented. Written in such a fashion to sweeten what would be dry biographical material, the novella should be of interest to any fan of science fiction and the history of the world’s space programs. As it’s also a significant departure from the Southern styling which color most of Duncan’s stories, this is a chance to see how successful he can be outside his comfort zone.