Reviewed by Max Dunbar
The Age of Acceleration
In 2019, the Unherd website carried an article by Gerard DeGroot, about the Chang’e 4 moon landing. ‘Whenever something big happens in space, my phone starts ringing since I’m a dependable space cynic,’ DeGroot wrote. ‘Apparently, that’s a rare thing, so I get called a lot. Unfortunately, my argument doesn’t lend itself to bullet points and 15-second soundbites, so I’m often misunderstood – labelled a Luddite. I’m not a Luddite. I’m all in favour of sensible space projects, but I have one cardinal rule, namely that whatever happens up there should benefit us down here.’ He goes on to say that ‘Space projects are undemocratic. Ordinary people – in the US, India, China, Russia or the EU – are seldom consulted about what they actually want from their space agencies.’
DeGroot’s argument seems small minded to me, but he has the public with him. Later that year YouGov commissioned a poll on the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon jaunt. When asked if they would be willing to go to the moon themselves, with a guarantee of safe return, a majority of respondents declined (48% to 43% in favour, with 9% don’t knows.) Of that 48%, reasons for refusal included ‘Not interested’, ‘Nothing/not enough to see/do on the moon’, ‘Journey would be uncomfortable/boring’ and ‘Fear of heights’. I have to admit there is something great about living in a country in which, offered the opportunity of interstellar travel, most people say ‘Not feeling it’.
It is hard to imagine a world where space travel had a desperate importance for the public – you have to go back to your grandparents’ time. Sylvain Neuvel‘s A History of What Comes Next captures that time. He writes an alternative history of the space race, beginning in 1945 at the end of the world war. A young woman called Mia is sent by the OSS to get Werner von Braun out of Nazi Germany so that he can start building V2s for the Americans. But Mia is only pretending to be a US agent. In reality she is an agent of the Kibsu, an alien species that has lived on Earth for thousands of years. Their mission is to encourage humans to explore space.
This involves a certain broadening of institutional vision. Great powers of the postwar settlement didn’t want to build space craft – they wanted to build missiles and kill people. But to learn how to make spacecraft you first have to learn to make rockets, and to make rockets you first have to learn how to make missiles. The space race was planned by dreamers but driven by prestige: Mia’s mother Sara, the Kibsu’s other representative on Earth, tells her daughter that
We have been in Moscow for nearly a year and the Russians have not made any real progress. Neither have the Americans. They are utterly convinced they have the ultimate weapon. Such shortsightness. I want a race, Mia. I want them to build bigger and better rockets, not because they want to, but because the other one will if they don’t.
The Kibsu are like benign accelerationists. They want Earth to discover space travel because they are convinced that climate change will destroy our planet; even in the 1940s Sara is ‘collecting samples, logging date from a dozen locations… The data we collected shows a rise in carbon dioxide, but I have no way to know if this is an exceptional phenomenon, nor can I isolate man’s contribution to this increase from that of the planet’s natural mechanisms.’ This is not second sight – Neuvel’s extensive afterword makes clear that there were scientists alive then, like the Dutch paleontologist Willi Dansgaard, discovering uncomfortable truths through ice core research. As Neuvel says: ‘We’ve known this stuff for over a hundred years.’
Which brings me to the novel’s style. From the premise, I expected a long book with reams of mundane technical detail – an intergalactic Harlot’s Ghost, may it do ya – but with a gradual eeriness as the Kibsu’s role in events became apparent. Not a bit of it though. Neuvel is short on description but long on action and dialogue – his book reads like a graphic novel without the graphics. It is exuberant. It can also be chilling: the Kibsu have been hunted through their centuries on earth by another alien group called the Trackers, who are dedicated to the Kibsu’s destruction. They are brothers haunted by a sense of futility and determinism – fighting and drinking is all that makes them feel alive. There is a chapter, ‘Murder, He Says,’ where a Tracker interrogates a New York barmaid, that’s told entirely in dialogue and is one of the scariest passages of this kind.
Neuvel’s insouciant touch belies the dedication of his research. His afterword, which I’ve already touched on, explains the historical detail behind the story, and it is fascinating. I had no idea of the ice core research before I read A History of What Comes Next, nor the strange, sad story of Qian Xuesen, the man who built Mao’s nuclear programme. (For his Soviet chapters, Neuvel drew on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, which I have been reading alongside Neuvel’s book; it was still a shock to find out just how evil Lavrentiy Beria really was.)
In his acknowledgements, Neuvel writes that ‘There are many who strived to build rockets or go to space but never achieved their goals because of funding, or politics, or because they were born in the wrong place, or with the wrong gender or skin colour.’ Space programmes may be undemocratic, but anyone can look up at the stars, and dream. And the best part is that Neuvel’s story doesn’t end here: there are more of these adventures to come.
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com
Sylvain Neuvel, A History of What Comes Next (Michael Joseph, 2021). 978-0241445129, 400pp., hardback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)