Tuesday 1 April 2008

Top Gunski

by Jed Mercurio

After penning TV medical drama Cardiac Arrest and hospital based book Bodies (afterwards made into a TV series) who could have guessed that Mercurio's next bit of fiction would be a thrilling depiction of Ace fighter pilots and an alternative version of the space race? Not me, that's for sure.

The story of Yefgenii Yeremin begins at the end of the Great Patriotic War. His entire family dead, he is sent to an orphanage where he endures brutal treatment at the hands of one particular boy. But from this inauspicious start he begins his ascent. During the Korean War, as part of the Soviet Union's secret force, he becomes an ace pilot. It is here that Mercurio's descriptions of dogfights and air battles really bring this novel to life. As he pushes his MiG to the limit you can almost feel the G-forces pressing down on you, the smell of sweat in the cockpit and that alienated thrill as another American jet trails black smoke and plunges to the earth.

'The aircraft fitted him and he fitted it. The picture outside the cockpit represented a universe in its most comfortable and understandable aspect: a patchwork land below, a sky above, and in between a sport of death and survival for men to play.'

But due to the hidden nature of the Soviet involvement 'Ivan the Terrible' receives glory only whilst the war continues and only amongst his colleagues (and that begrudgingly due to the competitive nature of ace pilots). At its end he is shipped off to Franz Josef Land, a freezing exile from which he will be saved when the man from the Space Committee comes calling. As he joins the race to put men first in orbit and then to the moon itself we feel the real pressures of pulling off so difficult a challenge. Mercurio conveys this even more effectively by making Yeremin by this stage a man past his absolute prime. His body is wracked by pains from his past and with weight limits playing such an important part in crew selection we see him training with the dedication of a sportsman and rejecting food itself in an effort to bring his weight down to an acceptable limit. With the Russians falling ever further behind as the Apollo missions progress how far will the programme and Yeremin be prepared to go?

I read this novel with the kind of zeal you only feel as a child. There is something a bit boys own about it all which may mean that the novel has limited appeal to women, especially as the solitary female character is underdeveloped and only ever referred to as 'the widow'. But for sheer thrills and page turning excitement it can't be beaten. Imagine a combination of Top Gun, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and you'll have a fair idea. Yeremin is an interesting hero, damaged like the country itself at the outset, his desire to rise through the ranks and achieve glory in the name of his country, even one that treats him as a mere subject, means that we empathise with a man who can seem distanced and cold when it comes to personal relationships. His physical flaws mean that there is no sense of inevitability to his successes which keeps us always involved. The final sections of the book are incredibly focused; it's just you and him and his predicament. If you're a nail-biter don't expect to have any left by the final page. Mercurio includes just the right amount of technical info without it becoming boring but it's his ability to convey the excitement of being airborne, the impossibility of men conquering that realm to which we don't belong, which really makes this book soar.


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