Review: Up and Down
by Jeff Foust
|Percival is not exactly what Stewart’s American colleagues had expected: “young and strapping, hale and hearty, maybe even a hockey player in a lumberjack shirt.”|
Who? Alas, Percival is fictional: a character in Terry Fallis’s novel Up and Down. In the novel (originally published in Canada last fall and now available in US bookstores), narrator David Stewart is a former Parliament staffer who’s taken a new job with a multinational PR firm in Toronto. His first assignment: help craft a pitch to NASA to reinvigorate public interest among North Americans in spaceflight, as the space agency laments a poll that shows more people would be interested in going to lunch than watching a launch. Stewart’s off-the-wall suggestion: hold a contest to fly two randomly-selected ordinary people—one American and one Canadian—on a shuttle flight to the ISS. To just about everyone’s surprise, NASA goes for it.
The American winner of the contest is a relief to the PR firm and NASA: a deputy sheriff in Texas who is the stereotypical all-American type. The Canadian winner is initially a mystery: the handwritten entry’s only information was that the winner was an L. Percival of Cigar Lake, British Columbia. Stewart tracks down Percival, living in isolation in the northern part of the province. There, he discovers Percival is a pilot and a doctor who applied for the initial round of Canadian astronaut selections in the early 1980s, and even built a jury-rigged centrifuge to gain experience with dealing with G-forces. Stewart also discovers that Percival is a 71-year-old woman.
Percival is not exactly what Stewart’s American colleagues had expected: “young and strapping, hale and hearty, maybe even a hockey player in a lumberjack shirt,” says the head of the company’s Washington office. Stewart, though, becomes Percival’s biggest advocate, fighting to keep her in the contest and then shepherding her through training for the flight. Pericval, as it turns out, is perhaps too perfect a character: physically fit, well spoken, and unruffled by the controversies surrounding her selection and flight.
|Up and Down is an entertaining read: a satire not of spaceflight but of public relations, Canadian-American relations, and what it means to be a “quintessential Canadian.”|
Fallis does a decent job in getting the technical details about spaceflight correct in the book (Fallis acknowledges advice provided by Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space and a former president of the Canadian Space Agency.) The biggest flaw, though, is that this is a book that takes place in the present, but with the shuttles still flying to the ISS, with nary a hint about their retirement. The idea of holding a content to fly people on the shuttle might sound even more outlandish, but it’s not new to this novel: back in the 1990s, Buzz Aldrin proposed a lottery whose prizes would include seats on shuttle flights, also to stimulate public interest in spaceflight. NASA, though, was not interested.
Despite the anachronism of an ongoing shuttle program, Up and Down is an entertaining read: a satire not of spaceflight but of public relations, Canadian-American relations, and what it means to be a “quintessential Canadian.” And if there really is a Landon Percival out there, please let the Canadian Space Agency know.