Dave Hutchin­son on Adrift On The Sea Of Rains by Ian Sales.

SFX - - Contents - By Ian Sales, 2012

Ma­rooned in a top-se­cret base on the Moon, a group of US mil­i­tary as­tro­nauts wait for their in­evitable death af­ter nu­clear war ren­ders the Earth un­in­hab­it­able. That’s the nut­shell of Ian Sales’s novella Adrift On The Sea Of Rains, but this fab­u­lous lit­tle book lit­er­ally con­tains worlds. I bought a copy at EasterCon in 2012, hav­ing never read any of Sales’s pre­vi­ous work, and read it a cou­ple of times while I was still there. I’ve read it sev­eral times since, and I still can’t find a thing wrong with it. It’s gen­uinely mar­vel­lous.

The main ac­tion of the story takes place in an al­ter­nate 1970s where NASA has been over­taken by the mil­i­tary and space has been weaponised. The Cold War has be­come hot and the crew of Fal­con Base now have noth­ing to do but gaze up at their ru­ined home planet and wait for their sup­plies to run out. Ex­cept there may be a way to es­cape...

It’s a won­der­fully rig­or­ous story, the hard­est of hard sci­ence fic­tion, sci­ence fic­tion that smells of sweat, sci­ence fic­tion with fuel-toweight ra­tios and delta-vee cal­cu­la­tions. I’ve never read any­thing that quite cap­tures the sheer in­sane dan­ger of space travel like this novella, and it was with great plea­sure that I learned it had won the 2013 BSFA Award for short fic­tion.

But Sales is gun­ning for far big­ger game here. Adrift... is the first part of his Apollo Quar­tet, a se­ries of three novel­las and one novel. The sec­ond novella, The Eye With Which The Uni­verse Be­holds It­self – the ti­tle is from Shel­ley’s “Hymn Of Apollo” – al­ter­nates its at­ten­tion be­tween the first manned mis­sion to Mars, and an­other mis­sion, 15 years later, to dis­cover why a sci­en­tific mis­sion or­bit­ing a world of the star Gliese 876 has fallen silent.

The third novella, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, mixes an al­ter­nate-world take on the story of the Mercury 13 – a group of women as­tro­naut trainees who be­came part of an in­de­pen­dently-funded pro­gramme and un­der­went some of the same phys­i­o­log­i­cal screen­ing tests as the male as­tro­nauts se­lected for the Mercury pro­gramme in 1959 – and a de­scent of the bathy­scaphe Tri­este II to a depth of 20,000 feet in the At­lantic Ocean to re­cover film from a lost spy satel­lite.

But it’s with the fi­nal part of the Quar­tet, the novel All That Outer Space Al­lows, that we see the ge­nius of Sales’s vi­sion. It tells the story of Ginny Eck­hart, whose hus­band Walden is a USAF test pi­lot in the high desert of Cal­i­for­nia in the ’60s. Ex­cept this is not quite the world we live in. Ginny Eck­hart writes sci­ence fic­tion, but in this al­ter­nate uni­verse sci­ence fic­tion is dis­missed as “women’s fic­tion”, writ­ten for and mostly by women.

Sales tips the world – the one sci­ence fic­tion fans know, at any rate – on its head, nest­ing re­al­i­ties within each other, forc­ing us to look at the rest of the Quar­tet quite dif­fer­ently, with hints that Ginny ac­tu­ally wrote her ver­sions of the pre­vi­ous novel­las.

I’ve only re­ally scratched the sur­face of this won­der­ful piece of work. The Apollo Quar­tet is rich, deep, au­da­cious, in­cred­i­bly well­re­searched, thought-pro­vok­ing, and some of the best sci­ence fic­tion I’ve ever read, rais­ing gen­der is­sues in a way I haven’t seen be­fore in the genre. It’s not easy sci­ence fic­tion – Sales is a writer of ex­tra­or­di­nary skill and he makes the reader work for their plea­sures. I hope that one day soon the Quar­tet will be recog­nised for the gen­uinely sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment that it is. Go out and read it.

Dave Hutchin­son’s Europe At Mid­night is out now from So­laris.

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