Spaceman of Bohemia
By Jaroslav Kalfar
Little, Brown and Company, 2017

Spaceman of Bohemia is a literary science fiction novel, with most of the emphasis on literary. The majority of the text deals with the rather depressing life of a Czech astrophysicist, but he does go into space and make first contact, so it is generally put in the science fiction section.

Jakub Procházka was born in the USSR controlled Czechoslovakia, but early in his life the Velvet Revolution brought the Western world to his country. Unfortunately, his father had worked for the communist government, and after the revolution things got very bad for the family. His history and childhood experiences have laid the foundation for him becoming the spaceman of bohemia, but it has also made him a rather unlikable and dysfunctional adult. We are to explore this in detail.

In the present day Jakub is a stuffy academic with a (mostly) comfortable life. However, when an inexplicable nebula appears near Venus his specialist training in spacedust suddenly becomes very relevant, and his personal history makes him a politically appropriate choice. Like it or not, he is to become the first Czech in space.

While most of the narrative does consist of flashbacks to his troubled youth, there are certainly a lot of science fiction elements. The mysterious gas cloud is huge, glowing from an internals source, and does not appear to follow the laws of physics. And then on his way to collect samples of the cloud, his spaceship is visited by an alien being, which he may or may not be hallucinating. Alone in space with a giant talking spider, he must decide if he should tell mission control about humanity's first contact with an alien species, or hide his psychotic break from them.

This novel oscillates between angst-filled childhood flashbacks and repeatedly jumping the shark. While mysterious clouds and alien beings are par for the course in science fiction, Kalfar wants to make sure that we don't take these aspects of the story seriously -- the alien is some kind of religious fanatic that just happened to be passing through at the same time as Jakub, and he doesn't really want to make contact, except that he has been looking for a human with a painful past history, and would really like to raid the pantry for some Nutella, thank you. But the story is well enough put together that neither the angst nor the rather extreme circumstances are very jarring to the reader; it all fits together, and all makes narrative sense.

Overall, I did not like this novel, but that's primarily because I was mislead by the jacket blurbs. This is not primarily or substantially a work of science fiction, but a dark comedy on the human condition. Picture a book about a young Czechoslovakian boy whose family finds itself on the wrong side of history, but who struggles to redeem himself through academics, and then has at least one mental breakdown: this is that book, exactly. Except in space, with occasional aliens. If that sounds good, and you like a bit of depressing prose done well, then this is probably your cup of tea.

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