NPR recently aired an extraordinary report on the sacrifice that lead to the death of Vladimir Komarov. In 1967 Komorov and national hero Yuri Gagarin were assigned to the same mission in a craft: a vessel that the two men identified as having hundreds of errors and was in effect unflyable. Nonetheless, because of the USSR’s blind rush to win the space race, one of the two men would essentially be forced to fly in a death trap.
Komarov, knowing that if he refused to fly, the back up pilot (Gagarin) would be sent in his place. On his decision to go instead of his friend, Komarov said, “He’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him,” before bursting into tears.
After completing his mission, and on reentering the atmosphere, Komorov’s craft began to burn up, incinerating the pilot alive inside. Within the article NPR has included the cosmonaut’s final transmission, where, crying out in the rage, Komorov curses the engineers who have led to his death. The recording is one of the most horrifyingly tragic things I have ever heard. The man’s agony; his rage and indignation over a completely avoidable situation permeate the foreign language.
In reading this article, I began to think about the fiction of destruction. More importantly what motivates us to continue reading a story if we are immediately aware our protagonist is not long for this world. Recently, a good deal of my short stories have detailed men and women facing personal and sometimes actual apocalypses. I think for a good number of people the end is so fascinating because many of us have considered what we would do if we knew we had only a single day to live. Our best and worst qualities would come to to light, some would pray and gather with loved ones while others would loot adult book stores and have sex in the middle of the street. In the case of Murakami, in the novel, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, his character chooses to eat at a French restaurant with a beautiful woman.
My favorite science fiction short story, Kaleidoscope, by Ray Bradbury, details the radio conversation between a group of astronauts who have been flung from their ship and are drifting at fast speeds out into space. The protagonist is thrown towards earth, aware that when he enters the atmosphere he is going to burn alive. In the moment before this happens, he wants to be able to do just one more good thing, even if no one is aware of it. A little boy walking below sees what he thinks is a shooting star and mesmerized he makes a wish. Being aware of a set end brings out the extremes in character, and if we’re lucky, they produce men like Vladimir Komarov who use them for good.