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Review: Holdout

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Holdout: A Novel
by Jeffrey Kluger
Dutton, 2021
hardcover, 352 pp.
ISBN 978-0-593-18469-1

NASA astronauts have, by and large, been pretty well behaved on their missions over six decades of spaceflight. Only a few cases stand out, including the disagreements between Apollo 7 commander Wally Schirra and ground controllers on their mission and the so-called “strike” by the crew of the third and final Skylab mission in late 1973 (which, a NASA historical review noted last year, didn’t actually happen.)

But what would prompt an astronaut to really go rogue and disobey flight controllers? That’s the premise of Holdout, a novel by Jeffrey Kluger, the longtime space writer at Time magazine. He makes use of his extensive expertise to craft a story about an astronaut who refuses to leave the International Space Station, but that deep knowledge doesn’t translate to a compelling story.

Kluger makes full use of his decades of experience on the space beat to provide rich details for the novel, but attention to detail alone is insufficient to make a compelling novel.

Belka “Walli” Beckwith—her nickname a nod to Schirra—is on the space station with two Russian cosmonauts when a Progress spacecraft, attempting to dock with the station, crashes into it instead. Ordered to evacuate the station on a Soyuz spacecraft, she decides at the last minute to stay on the ISS. “I would prefer not to,” she says when ordered to return on the Soyuz, without elaborating on her reasons. The Soyuz departs with the two cosmonauts, leaving her on the station.

But why ignore direct orders to leave? That’s where the story gets more convoluted. She is motivated by actions by the Brazilian government to clear native populations from part of the Amazon to make way for mining and ranching, an activity ominously called The Consolidation. Her niece, a doctor with an aid group there, sees first-hand how violent that effort is. Beckwith, with the world’s attention on her as the mutinous astronaut on a damaged space station, uses her platform to call for the US government to intervene and stop The Consolidation, much to the consternation of a White House that would prefer not to get involved.

Kluger makes full use of his decades of experience on the space beat to provide rich details for the novel, be it from launch preparations in Kazakhstan or performing a spacewalk outside the ISS. He notes in an afterword that real people and events were inspiration for some of the characters and actions in the novel, from a Progress collision that harkened back to one that took place on Mir in the mid-90s to a veteran cosmonaut based on real cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.

However, attention to detail alone is insufficient to make a compelling novel. There are a lot of moving parts in this narrative machine, but they don’t come together smoothly. He tries to weave several threads in the story, from the ISS to the Amazon to Washington and Moscow, with characters’ lives, or at least their political or professional lives, in various degrees of jeopardy. But those threads never come together into a sci-fi or political thriller that keeps the reader turning the pages.

A key part of that is that Beckwith’s decision to stay on the ISS is so sudden, and explained only gradually in later chapters, that the reader is left puzzling what motivated her, but it’s not clear, in the end, whether it’s that convincing. Also, at times in the book she is portrayed as offering the only perspective from space of Brazil’s activities in the Amazon. Of course, there are hundreds of satellites that would be able to provide much better surveillance of “The Consolidation” than the ISS.

Hopefully NASA doesn’t have to deal with any misbehaving astronauts on missions in the years to come. But if it does, may its resolution be more straightforward than the events in this novel.

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