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Penguin: Putnam Trade Summer 2019

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First Cosmic Velocity
By (author): Zach Powers
9780525539278 Hardcover English General Trade FICTION / Literary Aug 06, 2019
$35.00 CAD
Active 6.5 x 9.2 x 1.22 in 352 pages Putnam G.P. Putnam's Sons
A stunningly imaginative novel about the Cold War, the Russian space program, and the amazing fraud that pulled the wool over the eyes of the world.

It’s 1964 in the USSR, and unbeknownst even to Premier Khrushchev himself, the Soviet space program is a sham. Well, half a sham. While the program has successfully launched five capsules into space, the Chief Designer and his team have never successfully brought one back to earth. To disguise this, they’ve used twins. But in a nation built on secrets and propaganda, the biggest lie of all is about to unravel.

Because there are no more twins left.

Combining history and fiction, the real and the mystical, First Cosmic Velocity is the story of Leonid, the last of the twins. Taken in 1950 from a life of poverty in Ukraine to the training grounds in Russia, the Leonids were given one name and one identity, but divergent fates. Now one Leonid has launched to certain death (or so one might think…), and the other is sent on a press tour under the watchful eye of Ignatius, the government agent who knows too much but gives away little. And while Leonid battles his increasing doubts about their deceitful project, the Chief Designer must scramble to perfect a working spacecraft, especially when Khrushchev nominates his high-strung, squirrel-like dog for the first canine mission.

By turns grim and whimsical, fatalistic and deeply hopeful, First Cosmic Velocity is a sweeping novel of the heights of mankind’s accomplishments, the depths of its folly, and the people—and canines—with whom we create family.

Story Locale: USSR, Ukraine - Cold War era

GORGEOUS, DARK, FANTASTICAL, AND STRANGE: Beautifully written with a touch of the magical, First Cosmic Velocity hits the sweet spot of literary dark whimsy that has propelled writers such as Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Victor LaValle.

FRESH TAKE ON AN EVERGREEN PERIOD AND SETTING: Interest in Russia and the Cold War era is consistently high—and, given current events, will continue to be so—and this story explores the secrecy, the dissonance between the curated projection vs. reality, and the political knife’s edge that made the USSR such a fascinating and dangerous place.

AUTHOR CONNECTIONS TO SPACE: Zach Powers has a lifelong fascination with space that was inspired by his older brother, an actual rocket scientist. He and his brother belong to or have connections to several space exploration organizations, which they will leverage in any way possible for the publication.

WEIRD HISTORY: The novel is inspired, in part, by a real conspiracy theory put forward in the 1960s by an amateur radio operator who claimed to have heard a cosmonaut in orbit who was stranded in space. Several other elements in the story are inspired by the real history of the Russian space program, including the use of canine cosmonauts and a Chief Designer known only by his title, whose name wasn’t publicly revealed until after his death.

A DEBUT WITH BONA FIDES: Powers has previously published a tour guide of Savannah, Georgia, and a short story collection, Gravity Changes, that won the BOA Fiction Prize, made the Washington Post’s “A Summer Book List Like No Other,” and earned a rave blurb from Karen Russell. We’ll have the benefit of publishing his debut novel, First Cosmic Velocity, buttressed by prior recognitions.

Zach Powers is the author of Gravity Changes, which won the BOA Short Fiction Prize, and his work has appeared in such places as American Short Fiction, Black Warrior Review, The Conium Review, and the Tin House blog. First Cosmic Velocity is his first novel.

Author Residence: Arlington, Virginia

Author Hometown: Savannah, Georgia

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“Powers’ writing style is delicate and almost otherworldly; as in his collection of stories, Gravity Changes, each word is carefully chosen, every sentence deliberately flowing into the next…Scenes centered on the characters’ emotional lives are touching, and the dreamy tone brings a touch of fantasy without pushing too far into whimsy. A lovely and hopeful story from a promising writer.”—Kirkus Reviews


One of B&N Reads’ Best New Fiction of August

"Cleverly conceived and beautifully delivered…The darkness and gravity of the narrative is mixed with stirring prose and dialogue that make First Cosmic Velocity a novel of ideas from the Cold War era.”—Associated Press

“[An] entertaining and winning debut novel…Through [the intriguing premise] Powers refracts glimpses of the competitive Soviet space program and its personnel [and] the sometimes absurd politics of the Khrushchev era…Powers’s deadpan depiction of the ruse that drives his tale and the historical figures duped by it will give readers pause to wonder if it really is that improbable.”—Publishers Weekly

“Powers masterfully evokes postwar Russia and his inventive plot offers moments of tenderness and grace along with interjections of dark humor. Themes of family, home, and identity are explored with great pathos and psychological acuity. The dichotomy of national ambition versus the day-to-day heroism of citizens is a timely and timeless reminder of what makes a nation great. For fans of Anthony Marra.”—Booklist

“For fans of: Original alternate histories and juicy tales of Soviet secrets. Read it for: The psychological burden placed on the twins who are selected to survive.”—BookPage

“[First Cosmic Velocity] is full of attention to physical, geographic and historic detail, but what makes it a truly gripping work of imagination is its ability to create an emotional reality for its lead character amid an ambitious, delightfully strange look at a different version of the Soviet space program…[Powers’s] attention to emotional detail, combined with a powerful supporting cast and a masterful sense of historical table-setting, makes First Cosmic Velocity a delightfully complex page-turner for space enthusiasts and fans of alternate histories. You will never look at the space race the same way again.”—

“Each fictionalized twist in Powers’ darkly whimsical world illuminates something true about human nature and man’s obsession with greatness. The dialogue is at once exact, grim, and hopeful…This book is fantastical, yes, but it is also clear-eyed, original, and an exciting read.”—Do Savannah

“Mixing history and fiction, the book isn’t so much about the foibles of geopolitics as it is about one man’s search for truth in a world built on lies.”—The Millions

“[A] genre-defying alternate history tale…[Powers’s] details of the time period paint such a vivid picture that we frequently wonder what is real and what is imagined. The characters come alive as Powers puts forth a speculative adventure that might as well be true, full of Soviet intrigue, a secret training program with astronaut twins, hidden failures, and an almost mystical lineage of canines that helps to unravel the whole thing. Powers’s love of space is evident from start to end. This novel is his tribute to the wonder of it all.”—Washington City Paper

“[A] stirring, black-humored debut…A Kafkaesque parable of the seductive power of lies in the service of bold and worthy aspirations…In addition to its meticulous and ingenious blueprinting of a past that never was, First Cosmic Velocity is the story of breaking through the veils of identity that stiflingly enwrap us and blinker us, in public and private, and seeing the stars for the very first time.”—Locus Magazine

“I ate this right up. Boldly imagined and deeply human, Zach Powers’ re-creation of the Russian space program is a story that will entertain you, and then haunt you.”—Michael Poore, author of Reincarnation Blues

“Beguiling and artful, First Cosmic Velocity is an absorbing tale of ambition and desire.  Blending folklore and alternate history, conspiracy theory and historical detail, Powers forms a compelling narrative of strange propaganda that conceals far stranger truths.”—Tom Sweterlitsch, author of The Gone World

“In the darkly comic vein of Martin Amis and Mark Leyner, First Cosmic Velocity mixes the earnest with the satirical and the profound with the absurd for a ride through a fictionalized Russian space program that is as thought-provoking as it is fun.”—Courtney Maum, author of Touch and Costalegre

More Praise for Zach Powers

“A wonderfully vertiginous, through-the-looking-glass story collection, packed with Powers’s one-of-a-kind humor and insight. With his extraordinary imagination and vitalizing prose, Powers can make anything live, and does. He is fluently conversant with the Devil, the dead, children, animals, astronauts, and newlyweds―and this is just a partial roster of the wild crew aboard this ship. Goofy and profound, lyrical and exhilarating, Gravity Changes is a thrilling, rocket-fueled debut.”—Karen Russell

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