Pelevin traces the absurd fate of the fictional protagonist, named Omon by his policeman father (after OMON, Soviet and Russian special police forces, pronounced "Amon"), placing him in the circumstances both completely fantastic and at the same time very recognizable in everyday detail, and uses it to illustrate the underlying absurdity of the Soviet establishment with its fixation on "heroic achievements" in those fields of human endeavor which could be most favorably presented to the outside world - science, the military, but most significantly space exploration.
The book is narrated in the first person, in the manner of an informal memoir. The man reminiscing about the events of his life, beginning with early childhood, is Omon Krivomazov, born in Moscow in the post-World War II years. While a teenager, he comes to the realization that to free himself of the demands of the Soviet society and the rigid ideological confines of the state would involve for him also breaking free of the Earth's gravity, and so after finishing high school he enrolls in an Air Force academy. It soon turns out that the academy does not, in fact, teach future pilots, but makes "real men" out of cadets instead, starting with amputating both of their feet, so that they could repeat the sacrifice of Alexei Maresyev. Before that happens, though, Omon and his friend are whisked out of the academy into a top-secret installation under KGB headquarters in Moscow, where they start preparing for an "unmanned" mission to the Moon - he is told that to substitute for researching, building and launching an automated probe, the Party prefers people, trained for "heroism", to fulfill the tasks normally performed by machines, such as rocket stage separation, space vehicle course correction and so on.
Soon Omon indeed seems to be launched to the Moon, strapped into a seat inside a Lunokhod, which he is meant to drive like a bicycle on the lunar surface, as the last piece in the space mission puzzle, in order to deliver a radio beacon to a specific point and activate it. This he does, even though his protection against the vacuum and the interstellar cold, once he leaves the confines of the hermetically sealed Lunokhod, consists of a cotton-filled overcoat and oiled cottonballs stuffed up his nose. However, when it comes the time for him to shoot himself after placing the beacon, as ordered, the gun he was given for that purpose misfires, and he founds himself not on the Moon at all, but in an abandoned subway tunnel, where he had been driving his Lunokhod all along, carefully ignoring all signs which might have given him a clue as to his real whereabouts. He tries to escape, is given chase, but manages to find his way into the "normal" world again, coming up into one of the stations of the Moscow Metro.
The idea behind the charade, as explained by one of Omon's "teachers", is this: that even if the fact that the Soviet Union is a champion of peaceful space exploration holds true only inside a person's head (namely, the hero's; no one knows of him or his mission apart from its organizers), this is not much different from it being the reality; the reality, when it concerns subjects not capable of being experienced, is in fact only a perception formed in people's consciousness, and can be manipulated to the extent that the question of "true" version of events becomes meaningless (this idea juxtaposes with the conspiracy theories concerning the moon landing by the United States astronauts, even though the latter is never mentioned in the novel).
The book met with a significant success in the early post-Soviet cultural landscape and continues to be reprinted with the later works by Pelevin.