Sunday, December 28, 2008

Book Review: Laika by Nick Abadzis

I should have known this book would be sad. I should have known, because I know the basic story of Laika, the first animal in space. Launched in 1957 in Sputnik II, Laika survived a total of five hours in space before succumbing to heat exhaustion and stress. She became the first animal to orbit the earth, and the first to die in space.

Nick Abadzis details the short life and death of Laika (Kudryavka, to the scientists and lab technicians who knew her best—she is actually renamed by the scientists shortly before launch), her trainer Yelena, and Koralev, the chief designer of the Sputniks in his graphic novel.

After the successful launch of Sputnik I, Koralev is ordered by Khrushchev to build and launch another satelitte to be launched by the anniversary of the October Revolution, a deadline only a month away. To make the launch stand out from the original Sputnik, they decide to send an animal. Little is known about the conditions a living organism can withstand in space, and with such a short deadline, they can make it a one-way trip.

These are the facts surrounding Laika's doomed flight. To fill out the story, Abadzis creates a world for Laika, focusing on her relationship with her trainer, Yelena. The real sorrow lies in how this relationship grows, and must ultimately be cut off. There is really nothing Yelena or anyone else can do to prevent the dog's death, and it makes the launch a sombre affair.

As the launch approaches the characters (the historical figures, indeed) try to rationalize to themselves and each other that the dog's death is for a great cause, but they cannot deny that it is a sad way for an animal to die.

I've never read anything so sad as this simple story about a Russian dog in space. It's made even more poignant by the final page of the book, a quote taken from Oleg Gazenko, the scientist who chose Laika:

"The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog."

The facts exist, cold and austere. Abadzis gives Laika a new story, one that shows that she was loved, even as an experimental animal. Her death may have been unnecessary, but she will always be remembered.

This is an excellent graphic novel, but I wouldn't read it if you've just lost a pet.

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