PROS: Excellent use of space science; doesn’t overstay its welcome; solid prose.
CONS: An ending that feels a bit forced even given its symbolic power.
VERDICT: Interesting premise with solid, if not quite perfect, execution.
The USSR and America have ruined the world in a thermonuclear conflagration. The fate of astronauts stranded on a moonbase, their return capability extremely limited, seems to be to slowly die even as the Earth did. But fortunately, they have a Nazi wonder weapon: a device to move an area into a parallel timeline. And so the search is on for a timeline which has not died in nuclear fire, and has a space program far enough along to help them get off of the Moon. But even when such a timeline is found, the technical challenges in getting back to Earth are not the least bit trivial, to say nothing of the psychological strains of their ordeal…
This is the setting for Adrift on the Sea of Rains, a small press (Whippleshield books) novella by Ian Sales. It is intended to be one in a series of novellas and stories exploring alternate Apollo programs in a very Stephen Baxter premise, reminiscent of his Manifold trilogy. The novella features solid and crisp writing that, while full of technical details, has literary merit and chops. Going in, I was afraid the novella would skimp on one or the other, but I am happy to report it threads the needle well. The author has done meticulous, serious research to make the nuts and bolts of the story be firmly grounded in its precision and accuracy. The science makes sense and is integral to the problem of the novel.
But as jargon and as science-heavy as the story gets, it doesn’t feel as clunky as some of the Analog-model science fiction extant in the field. It’s well written, flows well, and it has an engaging voice. Characterization focuses mostly on the main figure, Colonel Peterson, leaving the others less developed. Through flashbacks and action, we see a solid arc and development for the Colonel, which sells the story. We come to understand him and through his experiences we learn just how the alternate world he comes from got to its current state. It adds a definite patina of tragedy to the entire situation and premise of the novel.
One of the other things I really liked about it, and it firmly puts this in Baxterian territory, is the appendix. In it, Sales sets out an entire alternate Apollo history for the original timeline. This meticulous detail shows a deep appreciation for the Apollo program. I also liked the idea of the Nazi Torsion field generator, the Bell. It’s a Macguffin, certainly, but wonder weapons and the Nazis are as old as the 1940’s and as new as, say, Captain America. I was reminded of a Piers Anthony story in an 80’s anthology where a group of monks in a fantastic monastery/library, under threat from polities around them, use an analogous device to change the world around their monastery to find a realm where their precious knowledge will be safe.
The weakness in the story is something that is difficult to discuss, because I eschew giving spoilers whenever possible. That weakness is the denouement of the story. Given the setup, the premise and the course of events, I can see the strong symbolism of one aspect of the ending. It’s a sting in the tail and it makes sense given the characters. On the other hand, from a development point of view, it feels like it was written with the conclusion first, yet the last portion of the story is not robust enough to support that conclusion. I was left with several unanswered questions. Given the importance of a good ending, this does weaken the novella in a disproportionate idiosyncratic manner. Other readers may feel very differently.
Even given issues with the ending, Adrift on the Sea of Rains was worth the time and investment, and I look forward to the other Apollo Quartet stories Sales has to offer. I’d definitely be up for reading more of them.