Imagine a situation where the first manned space flight crashes into an alien spaceship nobody knew was there. Follow this up with a nuclear strike gone wrong. Top it up with a reconciliation with the aliens who decided to stay, and you have an interesting premise that can be further expanded into an exploration of social and technological changes, political intrigue on a global scale, and a personal redemption arc. All this is crammed into this alternate history novel, but as much as I tried to enjoy it, the book left me indifferent.
Yuri Gagarin is about to write history as he becomes the first human to orbit the Earth. Shortly after the launch, however, his capsule crashes into an alien spaceship, which materialized out of nowhere. The Soviets immediately launch a nuclear strike against the aliens and the Americans, whom they consider one and the same, and the aliens cause the missiles detonate prematurely, turning Central Europe into a wasteland. The aliens then withdraw to the Moon, but pieces of their damaged spaceship and technology rain down all over the nuclear wastes.
A few years later, Americans and Soviets conduct sorties to capture some of that technology. During a skirmish over a strange glowing object, one of the aliens shows up and starts killing people in both sides. Kyle McCoy, a combat medic, manages to communicate with the alien (their species is named Vulbathi), just enough to tell everyone to stand down and let the alien take the shiny object.
Fast forward a few more years into the future. McCoy now works for the Department of Alien Relations. Thanks to his actions and that first contact, the Vulbathi recovered their Chosen One, a being they worship, and they open communication with Earth’s powers. McCoy was decorated and put away into a desk job at the agency. Meanwhile, his twin brother Connor, a failed actor and recovering drug addict, is trying to sell counterfeit alien technology to a New York mob boss. It’s a trap: the boss already knows the merchandise is fake, but he wants to force Connor to turn his entire enterprise over to him. Connor escapes, but before he has the chance to clear out with his crew, the mob boss finds him and kills some of his associates. Connor escapes again, after firing the very real and very powerful Vulbathi gun, which he had stolen from his brother. Connor heads over to Kyle’s place, but he gets no help from his brother to get out from the country.
The next morning, Connor decides that his only way to disappear is to impersonate Kyle and head over to the first summit between the Americans, Soviets and Vulbathi. He finds out too late that the summit takes place on the Moon. Once there, the gathered participants are attacked by unknown forces, and the Chosen One is kidnapped. Connor is swept in the fighting, and as he tries to flee, he ends up with a KGB agent and the Chosen One in a space shuttle, crash-landed in the European nuclear wasteland.
While this is happening, the mob boss traces Connor to Kyle’s house and confusing the two, attacks Kyle and his heavily pregnant wife. The two of them manage to escape and head to Kyle’s workplace, where he is quickly arrested as the prime suspect in the murder of the leaders of the US and USSR, and the disappearance of the Chosen One. With the help of his alien friend whom he helped on the battlefield, Kyle manages to plead innocence and is tasked to find his brother. The chase is now on between him, the unknown assailants and human-eating mutants from the nuclear zone, to catch Connor.
In its heart, this book is the redemption arc of Connor McCoy. When the aliens came, he suffered the trauma of killing his girlfriend in a car accident, and he never recovered from that. He turned to drugs, and when he finally got clean, he switched to the self-destructive petty crime of cheating career criminals. All the while, he received no support from his brother who believes in honor, personal responsibility and God. The problem with Connor is that he is introduced as such a despicable character that I didn’t want to have him redeemed. I wanted him shot by a firing squad or suffer a fatal accident, and then Kyle to show up, to everyone’s confusion. Instead, we have two story arcs for the price of one: one about Connor, the bumbling idiot way out of his depth, and the other about all bad things happening to Kyle, the good and honorable guy. While the former can (and does) offer some humor and entertainment, the latter fails its delicate balancing act between adversity and hope.
This, by itself made me dislike this title. Unfortunately, there were two more aspects to the story that left me cold. First, there is the figure of the mob boss and his henchmen. They seem to be nearly indestructible as they track Connor across New York City and later the globe, taking on and defeating entire armies in the process. The mobster is, at best, a convenient plot-driving vehicle, and at worst, a cartoonish villain who just doesn’t know when to die. The second problem I’ve had was with the apparent lack of research done for the book. The Soviets, and life under the communist rule, seem all over the place. Having grown up in a communist country, I can tell that regular life was not as bleak as the authors make it out to be in the Soviet-controlled Berlin, and the interaction of top Soviet leaders in public was not as casual as portrayed here. I’m not sure whether the latter was meant as a joke or not.
One last thing I did not understand from the story was the entire geography of the initial nuclear strike. In the book, Gagarin crashes into the alien spaceship shortly after launch. The Soviets launch their missiles, some on route to the US, while others damage the spaceship enough to have pieces of it rain down on Central Europe, where the US-bound missiles detonated. I see two problems with this. First, Gagarin few east after launch, so he’d hit the aliens over Siberia, not Europe. Second, the common trajectory of ICMBs would have been over the arctic, not Central Europe (this may be explained away by the Soviets wanting to hit conventional armies in Western Europe, but that’s never been considered in the book). Thus, from the very beginning, the plausibility of the book was broken for me, and I could never immerse myself into the story again.
On a technical level, the title is good. The writing is solid, the chapters alternate between the two brothers until the action gets really heated, and there are plenty of cliffhangers along the way. The action flows very well, and some of the visuals from the nuclear zone are quite scary. A little bit of humor on one hand, and the solid presence of J. Edgar Hoover on the other, add variety and humanity to the writing.
Unfortunately, the authors’ writing prowess may have led to the lead characters to be too extreme. I didn’t find a single redeeming quality in Connor, and a single reason why such a good person as Kyle had to suffer so much. I was equally irked by Connor’s continuing survival and Kyle’s misfortune. Other implausible story elements, such as the mob boss and the misrepresentation of the Soviets just further raised my dislike of the story. The interesting representation of the aliens, their society, strengths and weaknesses, wasn’t enough to change my mind. I suspect that I may have been overly critical of the book after I developed a dislike to the McCoy brothers’ story arcs. People who are more flexible in this regard will probably enjoy the book much more than I did.