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