Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Alt-Hist File: The Soyuz Files

Audio drama podcast are capable of telling all kinds of different stories. However, you don't really see that many focusing on alternate history. There are certainly some exceptions, such as Twilight Histories, but overall alternate history remains fairly rare in the world of fiction podcasts. However, as I've said, there are exceptions to this, and I've found one to share with all of you. We're taking a look at The Soyuz Files.

The Soyuz Files takes places in a world where the Soviet Union landed a manned mission on the Moon in 1968. Naturally, this sends shockwaves around the world. America is reeling with humiliation at having officially lost the Space Race. It is during these tumultuous times that investigative reporter Jack Schechter is determined to get to the bottom of the Moon Landing. He has been receiving postcards from two scientists, one Soviet and one American, named Nikolai and Jacob, who claim that all is not as it seems. They claim that the Soviet government is hiding something about the landings. Something that could change the world. It's up to Jack to find the truth.

I must say, this podcast was a pleasant surprise. Like I said, there aren't many alternate history podcasts, so it is always a treat when I find one. Especially one that is so well-made. The Soyuz Files definitely goes for that NPR feel, and the producers certainly succeeded on that account. The voice acting is also very strong. The actors playing the American characters are all excellent. The ones playing Soviet characters are, overall, still good, but do vary somewhat in quality. A lot of them do that exaggeratedly fake Russian accent you tend to see in a lot of media. Though, all things considered, it wasn't too bad, and was even kind of endearing after a while. Though it was a little odd in Natalia's case, given that she's mentioned to be from Hungary. Unless that means she was born in Hungary, but moved to Russia later in life. Also, I find it endlessly amusing that the podcasting company that created The Soyuz Files is called The West.

The writing is also extremely well done. It is interesting that The Soyuz Files takes a more pessimistic view of a Soviet moon landing. Most alternate histories of the Space Race have Soviet moon landings result in more advanced manned spaceflight for America. That's not the case here. In fact, NASA winds-up getting decommissioned and folded into the Department of Defense. Numerous scientists are laid-off, and the Saturn V rockets are re-purposed into intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was pretty depressing to think of the vehicle used for one of humanity's greatest adventures being turned into a weapon of war. It made me briefly pause the podcast just so I could be sure I was in the universe where America was the one who landed on the Moon.

I think this largely has to do with the year at the point of divergence occurs. 1968 was, in many ways, the year America collectively attempted to commit suicide. It saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, numerous race riots, the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and countless other protests and civil unrest. Moreover, NASA was still reeling from the Apollo 1 disaster. A fire had started in the test module the astronauts were practicing in, and because of the almost pure oxygen air supply, the fire spread quickly. Unfortunately, the door was very difficult to open, as it had been made extra secure due to concerns that the Gemini crafts' doors didn't secure well enough. Thus, the astronauts all burned to death before NASA engineers and personnel could free them. Congress ordered a halt to all spaceflight for twenty months to ensure a repeat of the disaster wouldn't happen.

The Apollo 1 disaster also saw many in congress question the need for a lunar program. For example, Walter Mondale was particularly adamant that the money ought to be used to solve problems on Earth. But it wasn't just congress who questioned the need for Apollo. Apollo wasn't as popular with the general public as you might think. The general public constantly rated Apollo among the top five programs they'd cut to reduce government spending. Only about fifty-three percent of those polled said they believed that a moon landing would be worth the cost. That number was even lower among blacks and other minorities. All of this is to say, I can certainly believe what happens to NASA.

The Soyuz Files is an interactive podcast of sorts. The postcards Nikolai and Jacob send are up on the website, and you can play along and decode them if you're so inclined. Or, if you're lazy like me, you can just listen to the show to get your answers. You don't have to solve the postcards, but it is a fun little extra if you want it.

The Soyuz Files is only six episodes long, and clocks in at a total of an hour and a half. You can easily binge the whole thing in an afternoon. I bring this up because we've now got to talk about some spoilers. So. if you don't want the big reveal spoiled, turn back now.

Seriously, this is your last chance. You sure you want to continue?

Well, okay. If you've made it this far you must know, or want to know. So, let's dive in.

Turns out the Soviet space program hit a bit of a snag with the design of the Soyuz craft. They couldn't figure out how to get it to carry enough air to get to the Moon and back. The Soviet government, fearing America's lunar program was about to kick into gear, forced the mission to launch anyway. They didn't bother to tell the cosmonauts that they were on a suicide mission until it was too late to turn back to Earth. The cosmonauts went through with the mission, but not before cursing and condemning the Soviet government. The Soviet leaders hired specially trained actors to pose as the cosmonauts on Earth.

Well, damn, that went in a very different direction than what I was expecting. I assumed it was going the Capricorn One route of having the whole thing be faked. I must say, this did make for a very interesting twist. It's all very reminiscent of the death of Vladimir Komarov. He was the pilot of the Soyuz 1 craft. The craft had over 200 design flaws, and other complications, before it launched. However, it's launch date coincided with Vladimir Lenin's birthday, so the Soviet government forced the launch to go ahead. Pretty everything that could go wrong did. The electronics constantly fluctuated, fuel ran low, the guidance systems didn't work correctly. However, the worst came during reentry. The heat shield failed and Komarov was roasted alive. The parachute also failed to deploy, but he was dead well before he hit the ground, so it was a moot point.

Some say that an American listening station in Turkey captured Komarov's final words. Specifically, that he cursed and disavowed the Soviet government. However, this is the subject of much debate among historians. The listening station where Jack discovers the truth is indeed the same one that is claimed to have listened in on Komarov's last words. Whatever Komarov's final words, one thing that is certain is that the Soviet space program was notorious for cutting corners and placing rushed production over safety. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, nearly met disaster upon his reentry. Alexei Leonov, the first man to perform a spacewalk, nearly asphyxiated when he couldn't get back into his Voskhod module because his spacesuit had inflated too much. Moreover, one out of five, if not more, of all Soviet rocket launches ended in failure. Incidentally, Komarov and Gagarin were best friends.

The Soviets often beat America to be the first to do several things, but American missions were almost always superior to their Soviet counterparts. For example, Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite launched into space, but all it could do was go "beep, beep, beep." Explorer 1, America's first satellite, had an independent propulsion system, and tons of scientific instruments. It was thanks to Explorer 1 that the Van Allen radiation belt was discovered.

We got a little off track there with our history lesson. Let's get back to discussing the podcast. Anyway, the truth comes out, and the Soviet Union is to answer before the United Nations. Jack's lost his job, and is being questioned by the American government, but he helped bring murders to justice...maybe. I'm just saying, the United Nations is notoriously bad at actually getting things done. Moreover, while embarrassing in the short term, I can't help but wonder if this will really be that much of a setback for the Soviet Union. Moreover, there's no indication that America is planning a manned mission to the Moon, so NASA is still probably dead for good. That isn't just a blow to manned spaceflight, think of all the unmanned mission that probably won't happen. That's a ton of information about the solar system, and beyond, that will be lost. That's not even getting into the numerous spin-off technologies that resulted from the space program. A bittersweet ending heavy on the bitter end of the equation.

Still, I absolutely loved this podcast. If I did have a criticism, it would be that I wish there were more episodes. I wanted to explore this world more. We do get tantalizing hints of what is going on in the wider world. There's mention of the Soviet re-occupying West Berlin, and NATO being on the verge of collapse. You can't just toss around things like that and not elaborate on them. I hope the creators decide to return to this world, or possibly create another alternate history audio drama. Hey, I can dream can't I?

Well, there you have it. The Soyuz Files is a short, but sweet, alternate history audio drama. I absolutely loved it, and I'm sure you will too. Check it out today, you'll be glad that you did. Well, I think that's enough from me for now. I will see you guys next time.


  1. This is a very compelling blog post -clearly you understand the history of the period and the space race. You have done a good job of getting your readers interested in checking out this podcas, which does sound a worthwhile listen.

    1. Ah, why thank you. It is always great to hear that I’ve done an exceptional job with my reviews. I hope you give it a listen, and happy listening to you.

  2. Your take on Vladinir Komarov and Soyuz-1 is wrong. The heat shield did not fail, it was in fact one of the things that worked just fine. Komarov wasn't fried while descending. He was killed on impact. The main parachute refused to open, the second chute was released but got entangled with the main chute and Soyuz-1 plummeted to the ground. Komarov died on impact. After impact the solid rockets at the bottom of the capsule fired and set the capsule on fire.