20. A debut novel: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
List Progress: 5/30
Science fiction can hold up so many metaphors and meanings, and has been used to do so since the very beginnings of the genre. But underneath the layers of larger meaning, the central story should still hold up as a narrative in its own right. The problem with Jaroslav Kalfař’s 2017 debut, Spaceman of Bohemia, is that it has so much to say about the Czech Republic, marriage, and the burdens of legacy that it barely finishes the space travel story that it starts. There are a lot of interesting things to say about emotional abandonment in a marriage, but it’s hard to get too engaged with them when they are taking time away from the cosmic refugee spider alien.
Spaceman of Bohemia follows Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut. A cosmic dust cloud, called “Chopra”, has mysteriously appeared near Venus and has resisted all mechanical attempts to study it from Earth. The Czech Republic has stepped into the global spotlight by being the first country to send a human being to study the cloud, and Jakub will leave his wife Lenka for eight months to embark on the solo mission. Jakub was raised by his grandparents, but lives in the shameful shadow of his father, an interrogator/torturer for the Communist Party, and seeks to rehabilitate his family’s name. But he doubts his ability to do that, as well as his sanity, when he meets a spider-like alien aboard the ship, who he names Hanuš. Hanuš is from a distant telepathic race and is on a mission to learn as much as he can about Earth and humans, and he is fortunate to have found a lone human with all the time in the world on his hands.
The space travel in the present alternates with memories from Jakub’s life, but it is clear that Spaceman of Bohemia cares far more about the “Bohemia” part than the “Spaceman” part. Hanuš is telepathic largely to facilitate in-depth flashbacks, and what the reader learns about his species and world is very loose and vague. For all that it is the instigating event, the Chopra cloud ends up playing very little importance in the book as a whole and just serves as a way to get Jakub away from Earth (and it is unclear why the mission needs to be a solo expedition). The journey feels like it could have taken place under the sea, in the center of the planet, or in a magical fairy realm, as long as it separated Jakub from Lenka for a long time and gave him time to reflect on his life. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, as that is clearly the story that Kalfař is interested in telling, and nothing says that a sci-fi novel has to hew entirely to sci-fi. But Jakub frankly isn’t an interesting enough character to build the majority of the novel around, so when the alien isn’t taking center stage, it feels like a letdown.
This book is sure to find its fans, most likely among lovers of literary fiction rather than sci-fi. But for a book that promises spacemen in the title, the narrative feels far too stuck on Earth.
Would I Recommend It: Not really, no.