Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar immediately appealed to me as a very near-future, 2018, science fiction story by an intriguing new novelist. Kalfar was born in Prague, Czech Republic, but came to the U.S. as a teenager, completing his education here and now residing in Brooklyn.
The story seems relatively simple for much of the novel: Jakub Prochazka, a scientist, is enlisted to be the first Czech astronaut to explore a phenomenon of space particles that could be crucial to all of humanity—but also may gain his home country the sort of influence and significance that has been dominated by the U.S. and Russia (powers that lurk throughout the novel).
Spaceman of Bohemia sputters some with managing time and maintaining the delicate tension in tone, mostly tragi-comic early and then sporadically through the middle and end. But on balance, Kalfar avoids the critical pitfalls of The Martian (glorifying the sacred white male) and Gravity (subsuming the female lead in masculinity), while depending on the plot tricks of both—being lost in space and manipulating the possibility that the protagonist will not survive.
But as my mind was parsing Spaceman against the lesser novel and film, Prochazka alone in his spacecraft encounters (or imagines) an alien, eventually gifted the human name Hanus (one of many aspects of the novel that highlights and also satirizes Czech history, its national heroes and its political unrest driven by Cold War communism/capitalism anxieties).
Kalfar’s writing had already triggered my love for Franz Kafka, maybe too easy a notice, but it was at the philosophical exchanges between Prochazka and spider-like Hanus that I recognized Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five—Billy Pilgrim, time (not space) traveller and Tralfamadorians debating free will and human nature as well as concepts of time.
Pervasive throughout Spaceman, in fact, are both the weight and levity of Kafka’s existential metaphor of human existence as a nightmare and Vonnegut’s fatalistic refrain, “So it goes”—possibly (but definitely beautifully) captured by the ever-present allure of Nutella, nectar of the gods, it seems.
Kalfar embodies Czech/Russian-European ideologies and historical/political groundings—distinct from the worldview of U.S. literature or even Margaret Atwood’s Canadian-fueled literary speculative fiction.
Spaceman falls into the genre, then, literary science fiction, that is Vonnegut’s (and Atwood’s) domain; in other words, the conventions of lost in space and an alien are vehicles for a dark satire of the human condition, the fact of humans as pawns of their own devices (politics, technology, the pursuits of knowledge and power, love, and capitalized materialism).
There is a melancholy and even fatalism to the novel, of love, loss, distance, and time, yes, but more overwhelmingly something more biblical—the sins of the father are the sins of the son.
Prochazka’s father becomes a political pariah, and his grandfather tries to help Prochazka cope as a child while the grandfather skins a rabbit:
“You know that the world is always trying to take us. This country, that country. We can’t fight the whole world, the ten million of us, so we pick the people we think should be punished, and we make them suffer the best we can. In one book, your father is a hero. In another book, he is a monster. The men who don’t have books written about them have it easier.”
The weight of history, familial history, shapes and even twists Prochazka, reminding me of the violent urges experienced by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale: “I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual over my hands.”
While Billy Pilgrim literally travels back and forth in time, Kalfar stylistically shifts the narrative back and forth in time, where readers witness the young Prochazka struggle with the personal against the political:
I don’t care what reigns outside our house—capitalism, communism, or anything else—as long as my parents will return to me and keep me safe from men like the stranger [a man tortured by his father before the fall of communism]. Yes, perhaps my father could even torture him a little. I would allow it. I would ask my father to torture the man until he stopped hating me.
And like the alien Hanus, the grandfather becomes a philosophical voice of doom: “‘Different lords and the same shit for the commoners.'” And eventually, Prochazka appears to have drawn a similar conclusion: “Now I am a cadaver in waiting….The body is the worker and the soul the oppressor.”
Ultimately in that existential despair, however, Prochazka as scientist seems to survive, somewhat hopeful nonetheless: “If a sequence of random events is repeated many times, patterns can be detected and studied, thus creative the illusion that human observers can truly know and understand chaos.”
Spaceman of Bohemia ends with Prochazka pummeled by that weight of history, the existential facts dramatized in the novel—Nutella smeared on his arm to attract the spider (substituting for Hanus) in his dilapidated childhood home.
The fantastical of science fiction and the ambiguity of a psychotic main character or a human having a close encounter with an alien build to a harshly realistic ending, winding through echoes of Vonnegut to something we can imagine a twenty-first century Kafka would have penned.
Against Spaceman, The Martian (novel and film) and Gravity are exposed as propaganda and careless, even when they are compelling and grand.
Kalfar’s first novel is satisfying, although a bit uneven, and extremely promising—especially for those who are drawn to the sort of science fiction that embraces the conventions as a captivating way to help us continue, like Prochazka, to make meaning out of the chaos that is being a human on a tiny, fragile planet in the infinity of the universe.