Fictional space tale ‘Holdout’ weaves Earth’s real woes into astronaut’s personal mission

Fictional astronaut Walli Beckwith attempts to save rain forest

Fire consumes land deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. Under military command, Brazil's once-effective investigation and prosecution of illegal rainforest destruction by ranchers, farmers and miners has come to a virtual halt, even as this year's burning season is about to begin. (AP Photo/Andre Penner) (Andre Penner, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Astronauts living on the International Space Station can often feel helpless when news of troubles down on Earth reach them in orbit, but what if they could intervene, helping an ongoing crisis from space? That’s the plot of author Jeffery Kluger’s new fiction novel “Holdout” that follows the journey of an astronaut defying orders for the greater good.

Kluger, a science journalist and editor at large for TIME, has spent his career covering spaceflight and used his deep understanding of the International Space Station to write a fiction novel that takes place 200 miles above Earth onboard the orbiting laboratory, but also the story of the ongoing crisis in the Amazon where deforestation is at a tipping point.

The protagonist is fictional Walli Beckwith, who has 300 days in-spaceflight experience and is a model astronaut who defies orders to return to Earth and remains on the space station.

Kluger said “Walli” was originally “Wally” and was going to be a male character, but he switched the genders after completing the first chapter.

“The fact that she became a woman sent the book off into a very different direction, at least in terms of her emotional connection with the world and some for interpersonal relationships,” Kluger said of the decision.

The character’s namesake comes from Wally Schirra, the only NASA astronaut to fly on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. He was the commander of the Apollo 7 mission flying with astronauts R. Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele. Apollo 7 was also what Kluger describes as “the closest thing to a mutiny in space ... the crew was pretty defiant and pretty resistant to a lot of the demands that were coming up from the ground.”

All three of the Apollo 7 astronauts came down with colds during their 11 days in space and faced numerous technical challenges they took into their own hands.

“They were flying a new spacecraft, just the year before that spacecraft had killed three astronauts in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire, and Schirra felt that there were too many experiments and too many frivolous things that had been packed into the flight plan,” Kluger said. “And he felt that it was not in the best interest of his crew to follow the flight plan. He felt that it was jeopardizing the safety of the crew in the integrity of the spacecraft. And as a result, he simply made up his own rules.”

Very much like Schirra, Kluger’s character “Walli” also takes measures into her own hands when she becomes involved with trying to stop some atrocities happening down on Earth as the Brazilian rainforest is being burned at an alarming rate.

“She is attempting to save the rain forest which, in the course of this story, is being burned at a much faster rate than it’s currently being burned, which is already fast enough. And she also was trying to help save the indigenous peoples living in the Amazon,” Kluger said of his protagonist.

Combining modern-day space technology with real-life environmental issues was intentional. Kluger has covered environmental issues as a journalist and said the deforestation of the rain forest is an issue he feels very strongly about.

“We are losing the equivalent of one New Jersey’s worth of land every year, and the rain forest is rapidly reaching the tipping point at which it could become unsustainable,” Kruger said. “If the rain forest were to lose about 25% of its tree cover, it would no longer be subliming enough moisture into the air in order to generate rain that could then feed it further, and you sort of break this cycle of evaporation and rainfall. And we are more than 20% of the rain forest has been lost so far. So we are rapidly approaching this tipping point at which it wouldn’t be sustainable any longer.”

According to a TIME investigation, satellite imagery shows the rate of deforestation of the rainforest has soared by 92% since Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018.

For his first fiction novel, Kluger said he learned even more about the 300 indigenous tribes living in the rain forest, many who have been displaced due to reforestation. Kluger said he hopes as people read “Holdout” they view it as a human story.

“It’s a story about loyalty, and about love, and less about romantic love and more about familial love and love of the species as a whole,” Kluger said. “And the larger thing I would leave people with, and I often say this, is that I’m hoping that we always retain a deep love and deep fascination with space.”

Many astronauts describe the feeling of looking down on Earth as the “overview effect” and say it forever changes their outlook of our home planet.

“You can’t see international borders from space, you know, countries will come to death blows over tiny patches of land over exactly where you’re going to draw the line that separates one nation from another. But they’re all invisible imaginary lines, and you can see them from orbit,” Kluger said of what astronauts have told him.

The author said the character “Walli” has her own “overview effect” moment when she looks down and sees destruction taking place, motivating her to do what she ultimately does, holdout on the International Space Station.

Brazil recently signed the Artemis accords, an international pact led by the U.S., to work together to get humans back to the moon by 2024. This gives Kluger hope.

“Brazil, which has a fairly robust space program, may have a little bit of an overview effect itself as it becomes involved in the Artemis accords,” Kluger said. “Perhaps the Brazilian people who elected Bolsonaro will have a greater sense of the responsibility they have as stewards of the of the rain forest and their responsibility to care for it.”

“Holdout” distributed by Dutton is available for pre-order now wherever you get your digital and hardcopy books and comes out Aug. 3 just in time for a good summer read.

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