Props for accurate post-soviet vibes, and special props for a space mission with obnoxious af mission sponsors. But. The protagonist is such a whiny idiot asshole. Jesus Christ in a space tin can. This reminded me of nothing so much as The Magicians, yikes.
And yeah, he’s a whiny asshole on purpose, but that’s not exactly helpful when he’s basically Mark Watney-ing the story. (Coupled with the spider alien, I’d say that maybe the author is just an Andy Weir fan, but this book is older than Project Hail Mary).
Anyway. Good window dressing, strong vibes, but never answered the question of why I should care about any of it. I guess the absurdity of secret space Russians should answer this question, but instead, I just lost any and all suspension of disbelief when the author looked to just … not understand distances in space or something. Idk. Nah.
Beware: full spoilers! Also probably incomplete and possibly incomprehensible.
A comet has entered the Milky Way, and in its wake, a mysterious cloud had formed. Automated vessels can’t manage to bring back probes, so a human is sent. How? By having a shit ton of mission sponsors who get to claim that their products are space-worthy.
Anyway, Czech astronaut Jakub tells his life story. His father was a torturer for the state, so everything went to shit even harder than usual after the Iron Curtain dropped. His parents died just before they were to be sentenced, and he grew up with his grandparents. They got hunted out of their home by a guy who was tortured by the protag’s dad, and ended up moving to a cheap shitty flat in Prague (from a normal house in a village).
After growing up, he meets his wife, who isn’t quite manic pixie dream girl, but appears so in comparison to him, a whiny, self-torturing/re-traumatising idiot. Lenka and Jakub keep contact while he’s up in space, but things get strained, until one day, she just … walks out and is nowhere to be found. Jakub either suffers a psychotic break or really meets an alien in his tiny ship, a huge spidery being with psychic powers and a love for Nutella. And red human lips.
We casually get to see him being his true pathetic self in flashbacks (Lenka turns out to have left him once before, when he left her alone and hid in his office for days after she went through a miscarriage. What the fuck, man.) Also, increasingly psychotic, he sees Laika’s dessicated corpse float by.
Anyway, Spider Alien is one of the last of his kind after most of them got devoured by some kind of other bacterial/fungal alien. They get to the cloud and his space ship is shredded. He nearly dies (and Spider Alien does), then he’s saved by Russians who are up there on secret mission. After a surreal trip back, he manages (with help) to escape/kill the three Russian astronauts and gets away, into a world where he is presumed dead.
He meets with his advisor, after a strange trip back to Prague, who gets him medical care and recovery. Afterwards, he goes to see Lenka, but sees that she’s happy and decides not to be egoistical and intrude (after, y’know, having listened to her therapy tapes and discovering how unhappy she was with him leaving, and casting her as Penelope, and never even ASKING HER IF THAT WAS OKAY and also him generally. He never even asked if she wanted children. Dude).
He meets with the dude who threw him and his grandparents out of his childhood home, and is given back the house, after a weird confrontation in the preserved torture chamber. He goes back to the house, which is absolutely ruined, in a village that is increasingly empty and dead. Jakub will stay there, apparently.