This book is an account of the development and use of Germany’s V2 missiles during World War Two. The story is told through the eyes of a pair of fictional characters; Rudi Graf, a senior German engineer supervising V2 launches against London from forests in the Netherlands; and Kay Caton-Walsh, a young WAAF officer, involved in an effort to trace V2 launch sites by calculating the missiles’ trajectory. The book’s action only coincides with a few months towards the end of the war, but through Graf’s memories we witness the whole of V2’s history. His recollections begin poignantly with a group of 1930s, sci-fi loving students flying rockets from waste ground near Berlin. The fun ends when the military come calling. Money and facilities are on offer, because rockets could make missiles. The group’s leader Wernher Von Braun, judges that working with the military is a price worth paying as a stepping stone to eventually building a rocket that can reach the moon. The V2 is his reward. But the price is appalling, in terms of money, but more importantly in terms of lives lost – thousands of people died building the thing, twice as many in fact, as died because of the weapon’s use. The book continues to the war’s end, when the German V2 engineers give themselves up to the Allies, and negotiate their subsequent lives building rockets for the American military and NASA’s space program.
So this is a book about lost innocence and awful compromise, where decent people end up doing bad things. There are a lot of contradictions like that. We get the situation of Kay, for example, who as a woman can only observe the big world of major decisions and seemingly significant acts. Even though she is in the RAF, a bone shaking flight to Belgium where the Air Force has its V2 tracking operation, is her first time in an aircraft. And yet her quiet calculations are as vital as the firing of any gun.
A similar ambivalence surrounds the V2 itself, which cost so much in terms of money, lives and energy, and yet in some ways was not significant historically. At vast expense, it could only carry one ton of explosives, whereas a much cheaper British bomber could carry six tons – and thousands of those bombers flew over German cities every night in the latter part of the war. But just to add another layer of contradiction, the V2 did influence developments in weapons and space travel in a hugely significant way after the war.
This brings me to the most striking contrast in the book, the one between exact mathematics, which go into building or tracking V2s, and all the chaos surrounding them. Both Graf and Kay find relief from their wartime lives in the reassuringly exact numbers of their work. And yet in other circumstances numbers are not so comforting. There’s a mathematical-like ruthlessness to Von Braun’s calculations about what compromises he has to make to get his rocket built, for example.
Now I’m going to make a claim for this book, which I don’t make lightly, because fancy claims can easily crash to Earth in an embarrassing manner. But in my opinion this book is a fascinating argument for what novels have to contribute. A novelist cannot make a rocket fly, or track one in flight, but a novel is much better at accommodating contradiction than maths. Novels are good at ambivalence – a novel can even portray maths as ambivalent. In life things are rarely one thing or another, as we see at the end of the book when former combatants from different sides meet to talk. There’s even a hint of romance between Kay and Graf! A novel won’t offer the analytic geometry necessary to get to the moon, but it will offer a little moonlight, softening hard lines – and maybe we need more of that.