I seldom buy hard-cover fiction at full price. Having said that, I made an exception as the reviews of "Ascent" that I've seen or heard were uniformly enthusiastic - not that uniformity of opinion is a guarantee of anything. I purchased "Cloud Atlas" on a similar impulse, having forgotten that I grew weary of science-fiction by the age of 16, which was some time ago. But I've always been a bit of an aviation enthusiast, even if falling some distance short of the anorak-y, so I stumped up the full cover price for "Ascent".
It's as good as the reviews suggested, written in a sparse and transparent style that's completely appropriate to its subject matter. Jed Mercurio's decision (what a name!) to use technical vocabulary and associated acronyms without recourse to footnotes, glossary or explanatory digression is a bold move which may irritate some readers, but which only adds authenticity to what is, in general terms, a very convincing story.
Which makes a couple of plot points stand out as all the more implausible. Firstly, during air combat in Korea a pilot is said to have been hit in the leg by a ".22" bullet from another aircraft: yet another occurrence in the venerable tradition of the "minor flesh wound"... I haven't checked this out but it seems more than unlikely that such ammunition, more suitable for use on rats at close range, has ever been used in aircraft weapons. In early WW2, even the eight .303 guns used on some British fighters were quickly seen to be underpowered.
The second implausibility is the "push" which the hero imparts to his colleague's fighter after it runs out of fuel. Well, maybe. It's one way of generating a bit of necessary thrust to the plot, but it sounds absurd to me.
The characterisation of Yevgenii, the central character, is skilfully handled too. An essentially cold, orphaned individual, emotionally crippled beyond repair in an early childhood, is a difficult character for whom to create empathy, but the author pulls it off wonderfully, particularly in his evocation of Yevgenii's relationship with his almost equally damaged wife. It's hard to see many women readers being attracted to this novel on the basis of its overt subject matter, so it's a relief to see that at least one woman reviewer here has enjoyed what's liable to be seen as an archetypal "boys' book".
There are many other good things about the book. As an example of "counter-factual" fiction, frequently a doomed undertaking, it could hardly be bettered. Its handling of the human relationships within the Soviet military / scientific bureaucracy is both a convincing depiction of utilitarian callousness and an acknowledgement of human resilience and loyalty.
Despite minor criticisms "Ascent" is a brilliant novel which, like another reviewer, I could hardly bear to put down. I wish it had been a little longer.