Review: Blue Gemini
by David Johnston
|He strikes a fine balance in that he tells a story that just about anyone can read and understand, but includes enough detail to keep even an expert entertained.|
This book is actually an alternate history novel, as it diverges from reality of the Blue Gemini program, which was proposed by the Air Force but never came to fruition. It died along with the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program when the Air Force could not find a solid justification for it. Jenne’s point of divergence from history is woven around the idea that the Soviets apparently could not match the US in the technology needed to base ballistic missiles on submarines and thus they concentrated their efforts in an area that they did have an advantage: space. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 either does not exist or the Soviets completely ignore it (Jenne does not specifically say), and they push forward with the development and deployment of their Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). Terrified at this concept, the Defense Department and Air Force resurrect the abandoned Blue Gemini program with the goal of intercepting and destroying the Soviet orbital platforms.
Jenne proves to be a very able author, as his tale is deeply woven and full of detail. The plot is solid and the characters are believable and well-crafted, and through the course of the novel you really get to know and care about them. He strikes a fine balance in that he tells a story that just about anyone can read and understand, but includes enough detail to keep even an expert entertained.
The main character is Lieutenant Scott Ourecky, a young and brilliant Air Force officer who dreams of being an astronaut. Unfortunately, Ourecky struggles with the pilot aptitude screenings and is not picked for flight training. However, he proves quite brilliant as an engineer and his efforts are noticed by the leaders of the Blue Gemini project, who recruit him to help with developing unassisted rendezvous methods. Jenne’s development of the character through the novel is amazing, as you see him transform from an awkward and hesitant young officer to the savior of the project, and you get to know him and his motivations very well. To balance out Ourecky’s conservatism and initial awkwardness, Jenne throws in Major Drew Carson, a skirt-chasing, seat-of-the-pants fighter jock that initially isn’t a very likeable character. But Carson also goes through a believable transformation as the book progresses, and in the end manages to redeem himself.
As a well-informed amateur in the area of rocketry and space technology, I had virtually no quibbles with the technical side of the story. Jenne describes modifications to the basic Gemini spacecraft to make it suitable for the orbital interceptor mission and handles that well. He handles the question of how the Air Force would secretly launch manned Gemini missions by building a launch facility on isolated Johnston Island in the Pacific. One of the most satisfying aspects of the book is that he has the Blue Gemini project perfect and incorporate the paraglider recovery system into the Gemini spacecraft, and the scenes describing the “Gusmobile” swooping in for a runway landing adequately scratches a long-standing itch for enthusiasts. There was one scene describing Titan II staging that I think he goofed on slightly, but I will leave that to the experts to decide.
I did have some nitpicks. First, the pacing of the novel is almost glacially slow. It does end with an orbital mission by the two main characters, but not until you have read 90 percent of the book! The slow pacing is all for a good cause in that Jenne spends a lot of time on character development, so you really get to know and care about the men and women in the story. But at times it seems excessive, and several parts could have probably been edited out without affecting the overall story.
|Someone has finally put together a novel about 1960s space efforts that is technically accurate, very readable, and very well written.|
Second, there are several subplots running concurrently with the main story: one involving the recruitment and training of a group of airmen intended to support the project by covertly establishing and supporting remote landing sites, another involving a down-on-his-luck airman who stumbles on the secret efforts of the project at Wright-Patterson and assumes the activities are part of a UFO cover-up, and a third involving a Soviet espionage plot to steal equipment to help improve their efforts at perfecting the FOBS system. Several chapters are devoted to these subplots and, as you read them, you assume that the author will bring it all together in the end. But he does not, and all that work ends up apparently being a set up for the next novels in the series.
Finally, one of the main characters is a retired general from Oklahoma. He is one of the two leaders of the project and Jenne portrays him with a down-home, cowboyish demeanor. Although quite likeable, the character’s dialog is infused with a lot of twangy, cowboy-like phrases, and I think this is used slightly to excess. He could have toned that down a bit and not lost any of the storytelling.
Despite these nitpicks, let me say succinctly that I really enjoyed this book. Someone has finally put together a novel about 1960s space efforts that is technically accurate, very readable, and very well written. It satisfies a long held desire to see what might have been if the US had pushed forward with military manned space programs. I highly recommend this book, even with the slow storytelling. I eagerly await the next books in the series, and anticipate that the subplots woven into this first novel will come together, Tom Clancy-like, into an exciting story.