BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Colonel Bradley Elliott, first man on Mars, is selected for an interstellar mission of secret importance.
PROS: Powerful and nuanced characterization; solid and flawless nuts-and-bolts Apollo program engineering.
CONS: The sting in the tail and the power of the story only hits in the coda; bleakness of Sales’ work may not suit all readers.
BOTTOM LINE: A solid second entry in Sales’ Apollo Quartet project.
In the year 2000, Colonel Bradley Elliott is two decades removed from his last trip in space. And yet here he is again, heading on the longest journey of his life. He may have been the first person on Mars, but a trip to another solar system is another matter entirely. But why would the USAF send the first Man on Mars — long since resigned to a desk job — on this trip, especially when it’s not the first such journey?
The Eye with which the Universe Beholds itself is the second novella in Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet series, a four-fold look at alternate universes where the Apollo program went very differently than our own. (The previous entry in this series, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, was reviewed here on SF Signal.)
The novella unfolds in two time frames, and tells two stories that inform and entangle with each other. The first, present day story is Elliott’s journey to Gliese 876. In the second story, we learn of Elliott’s epic trip to become the first man on Mars in 1979. The two stories are tied together by plot, theme, and characterization. The Apollo program science in the latter reflects and is a clear foundation for the 2000 era space program.
The technical details in both time frames is one of the strongest things about the novella. The author has clearly done his research on Apollo program technology and the story easily immerses the reader into it. The story is reminiscent of Stephen Baxter’s Voyage (which is listed in the bibliography) in that the Mars program is solidly grounded, thoroughly researched and really feels like it could have happened plausibly in this way. Also, the speculative elements in Elliott’s interstellar journey fit well with the post-Apollo technology. The other strong point is the characterization of Colonel Elliott. The division of his life into two parts lets us see how the relationship with his wife evolves and changes. There is an arc to their story that see out of order, letting us build it up piece by piece. There are nice little moments when jumping between each time frame that act as mirrors or reflections of the other thread.
It’s difficult to talk at length about much of the novella, for there is a real issue of spoilers. Suffice it to say there is a real puzzle here, and the spinning out of that puzzle and its implications are a joy of reading the novella.
The weakness of the story, I feel, is that it takes the coda and the interstitial material (the glossary and the coda) to get all of the details and fully unlock just what happened in this universe, and to really get all the details on what is going on, and why. That said, once the tumblers of the lock fall into place, it’s a very beautiful thing.
The other thing to keep in mind for readers who have not tried Sales work is that, like the previous entry in this series, there is an austere, arid bleakness to his work. It is a harsh, unforgiving, not-designed-for-humans universe out there, and Sales doesn’t pull that punch. Even so, the novella is a solid work of science fiction. It leaves this reviewer very curious and very interested as to what the alternate Apollo program seen in the next Apollo Quartet novella will be.