The Pursuit of the Phoenix

The Pursuit of the Phoenix by John-Allen PriceThe Pursuit of the Phoenix front
Zebra Books, 1990
Price I paid: 50¢

Rising on twin pillars of white-hot fire, the U.S. space shuttle Phoenix curved up from its Cape Canaveral launch pad into a low-altitude orbit around earth. The crew’s mission: train and instruct three fledgling French astronauts in the secrets of space flight. But short hours after liftoff, Commander Ed Cochran knew he must scrub the mission for a far more perilous task—the rescue of three Russian cosmonauts suddenly trapped in orbit in a space-debris-damaged Soyuz space capsule, its heat shield gone, its fuel depleted, and its supply of life-giving oxygen rapidly running out.

Or so Cochran thought—until the Politburo abruptly declined Phoenix’s offer and the White House threatened that any rescue operation might set off the beginning of World War III. As the three Soviet cosmonauts televised their last good-byes to a waiting world below, Cochran suddenly realized that the differences between men who challenged the deadly hazards of the space frontier and those concerned with bureaucratic politics on the earth below much finally be resolved—even if it meant the risk of turning the world into a radioactive cinder to which there would be no return!

It doesn’t show up in the scan very well but the cover of this book had a shiny blue effect that I thought was pretty neat.

This was without question the longest book I’ve ever read for this blog. I tend to pick books that run about 150 to 200 pages, since I invariably put off reading them until Saturday or Sunday and have to knock it out in a day and then get the review up. Yeah, I could stop procrastinating, but I don’t see you reading a crappy novel a week, so shut up. Anyway, the Pursuit of the Phoenix stood at a whopping 370 pages, so that kind of procrastination just wouldn’t stand. Through sheer willpower I managed to knock out around twenty or so pages over the course of the week before finishing it all up on Saturday. I’m amazed too.

Even more amazing than my display of Generation Y work ethic, however, is that this book was actually pretty good. It had some issues, to be sure, but on the whole, this was a rip-roaring yarn of LEO adventure, not to be confused with a yarn of ELO adventure, which would be amazing no matter who wrote it.

The Phoenix is a brand new space shuttle, commissioned soon after the real-world destruction of the Challenger (moment of silence, please). Whereas in our world we got Endeavour from spare parts of Atlantis and Discovery, the world of this book chose to create a whole new shuttle from scratch, giving it some advanced technology not available when the rest of the shuttle fleet was created. Upon reading that I began to get worried, thinking that this would be some kind of hacky crap where these advances would include missile launchers or super-engines, but I was really pleasantly surprised.

It was an incremental upgrade, and John-Allen Price obviously did a lot of homework before he wrote this book. It’s easily one of the most well-researched pieces of space shuttle fiction I’ve ever encountered. In fact, the book got a little too technical every so often, bogged down by some details, but speaking as a person who has devoured books and Wikipedia pages about the shuttle program since early childhood, I can say that on the whole, he did an excellent job at sticking to reality.

The book opens with some expository news articles about the new shuttle and its commander, Ed Cochran. The shuttle has developed a bit of a reputation as a cursed ship after a few accidents both on Earth and above it. Meanwhile, within ten pages of the book’s opening, Commander Cochran is described as a “maverick.” I didn’t even bother to suppress the groan when I read that.

Phoenix’s inaugural flight featured cameos by some science fiction authors, including Fred Saberhagan and Schlock Value-reviewed Hal Clement, which I thought was pretty nice.

Her mission as the book begins involves flying up to orbit and setting out some satellites on behalf of the Japanese. At the same time they’re taking a few French astronauts (I feel like the French should get their own spacefaring name like the Russians get cosmonauts and the Chinese get taikonauts. Henceforth all French astronauts are to be called Sacrebleunauts.) But that’s when things start to go wrong.

See, the Russkies have set up a launch of their own, Soyuz 71, on a mission to drop off some supplies at Mir. Remember Mir? Earlier that day, though, the Chinese have an unmanned satellite flight of their own that explodes not long after reaching orbit. The Soyuz flies through the debris and gets banged up a bit, but they decide to continue with their mission. Things go awry after the Soyuz docks with Mir and starts to experience difficulties, leading to the ship’s engines going off during the docking procedure, further damaging the ship and destroying the space station. One cosmonaut is trapped on the station and dies, but the remaining three make it back to the ship to slowly suffocate in space.

Cochran wants to stage a rescue mission, but the Kremlin declines the offer for reasons of ridiculous Soviet-era bureaucracy.

This is fun, though. This book was written in 1990 but takes place in 1992. I know the author had no idea that the Soviet Union wouldn’t last another year, but it’s still really funny to me that this book supposes a post-1991 USSR. If he’d been writing in the sixties and supposed the continued existence of the Commies, that’d be one thing. It’d even be okay if he’d set the book somewhere around 2000 or so. But nope, he assumed the Soviet Union would still be around twenty minutes into the future and guessed wrong. I kinda feel bad for the guy.

Cochran, maverick space commander he is, decides that the Politburo can go to the hell they don’t believe in and decides to rescue the cosmonauts anyway. The guy in charge down in Houston has a great big hissyfit over the whole thing, saying that none of these astronauts will ever fly again and they’ll be charged with mutiny and stealing a spaceship and all sorts of things like that. My figuring is, if you’re gonna get arrested, it might as well be for carrying out the first space mutiny. I would kill for that opportunity.

The response is, as you probably expect, to the tune of four astronauts and three sacrebleunauts giving Houston the finger from orbit.

Sacrebleunauts looks too much like Scribblenauts to work well. I’m gonna have to think on this one for a bit.

The rescue goes off without a hitch, rather surprisingly. Of course at this point there’s still something like a hundred and fifty pages left so don’t make the cat move just yet.

While all of this has been going on, NASA has been furiously trying to convince the Russians that this is not a hijacking but is in fact a humanitarian mission. After transmitting video of the daring rescue, the bulk of the Soviet government is convinced with the exception of some higher-up in the military, who thinks that the best thing to do right now is to launch some anti-satellite missiles and kill ten people, three of whom are his own countrymen. Why does he want to do this? He’s a damn red army sonofabitch, that’s why. Don’t need no more reason than that.

The missiles are launched and the army guy destroys the codes that sane people could use to deactivate the missiles before they hit the shuttle. Jet fighters are scrambled to shoot the missiles down, but it takes so long and there are so many setbacks that the shuttle has to keep aborting their plans to land. Time, fuel, and oxygen are running short, and Commander Cochran has to make some tough decisions.

One missile is left, and the commander decides to see just how much punishment this new shuttle can take. He puts one of the Frenchmen at the wheel and orders a steep dive into the atmosphere. Showing his research, the author explains the shuttle can take a descent angle of anywhere from 34 to 24 degrees. Cochran risks all by bring the angle down to a shocking 20 degrees. The heat-seeking missile locks on to the shuttle but can’t take the heat from returning into the atmosphere and explodes. The shuttle goes back to normal landing procedures and the day is saved.

The crazy Russian general tries one last time to shoot down the shuttle, this time by ordering some helicopters to shoot it down as it glides back to the Earth. The author even got that detail right, unlike some space shuttle-based movies starring Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones I could mention. Over the course of a whole paragraph, the helicopters scramble over Surinam and are shot down by French airplanes who knew exactly what was up. It was almost a Penetratorlevel ambush, and was hilarious.

The shuttle lands and all the astronauts get Nobel Peace Prizes. So do the cosmonauts and the frerejacquenauts.

All told, this book did a lot of things right. It was action-packed and pretty tense throughout. There were some genuinely emotional bits, like when the cosmonauts get put on a death watch and get to transmit their last words back to their families on Earth. The Russians in the book were by no means made out to be faceless ridiculous Cold War-era enemies. They were presented as actual people with actual motives, even if those motives were a little bit silly sometimes. There were bits, for instance, where the Soviet propaganda corps decides to blame the destruction of the Mir on the United States and its criminal SDI projects. Obviously we turned a Star Wars satellite on the space station in an effort to destroy the Russian’s foothold in space. Obviously. Things like that were few and far between, though. Our villain was sort of wacky, though. That sort of “I am doing this to preserve Mother Russia despite the fact that it is a ridiculous atrocity with no real point” villain. You know what I’m talking about.

Even the French people in this book were pretty tolerable. One of them was described early on as one of the youngest astronauts in history, something like twenty-four and a woman at that, which got me worried that there was going to be some kind of stupid romantic subplot, probably between her and the commander. Was there? Nope! At no point in this book was it even hinted at. These guys and gals were professionals with a job to do and no time for silly crap like that.

Another of the Frenchies was an author and a poet. I fully expected him to be completely insufferable. But he wasn’t! He was actually one of my favorite characters, saying all sorts of poetic stuff about space and how wonderful it is and that in space all men are brothers and the future of man is at hand and we do this not for ourselves but for the future and whatnot. It might sound like I’m saying it got a little heavy-handed there, but honestly it didn’t feel like it as I read it. I was really pleasantly surprised.

“But Thomas, if the book is so good, why isn’t the author somebody with a Wikipedia page?” I hear you asking. Well, I can see how this is the kind of book that would appeal to me and people like me in a particular regard. It was really technical at times. It was full of NASA acronyms and terms that went unexplained like we were just supposed to know them. Of course, I knew most of them because I’m a NASA nut. The general public would probably not and wouldn’t be interested in figuring them out. Similarly, the book was pretty realistic in its treatment of orbital mechanics and space flight as it stood in 1990 all the way up to today. The science is sound, but it’s not explained such that a person not interested in it otherwise would understand. For instance, the book talks about how the ship can’t land until it comes up on an orbital trajectory for a particular landing site and that it would take say, sixteen hours to get there. I of course knew exactly what was going on, but a person with little knowledge or interest in the way LEO space travel works would probably be left wondering why the shuttle didn’t just turn its engines on and fly to where it needed to be. Most people won’t figure out that this is not the kind of spaceflight you’d see on Star Trek, and really the book doesn’t do much of a job at all of explaining it to them. I’m not saying I’m some kind of science super genius by any means, I’ve just read a lot by people who are and picked up a tiny fraction of it.

The book also has a few flaws in its narrative, too. It jumps around a lot. You’ll get a few paragraphs from the POV of the astronauts, another couple from the cosmonauts, some from the guys in Houston, a bit from the guys at NORAD, pieces from the Kremlin, a snippet from Baikonur, and so forth. It was just all over the place and there was a rather large cast of characters to keep up with. It wasn’t on a Turtledovian level, sure, but I found myself wondering who exactly someone was supposed to be on more than one occasion. And really I just cared about the astronauts, a sentiment I find is usually true in my life outside of reading this book as well.

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