BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In an alternate world where the Korean War dragged into an endless meatgrinder, a female-led space program ties in with a black ops spy satellite program
PROS: Solid research into dark and strange corners of the space program, both in terms of people and technology; three-dimensional characters whose depth belie the shortness of the work.
CONS: Not all aspects of the alternate history are as plausible as others; divergent time points in the alternate history could have been bound more tightly together.
BOTTOM LINE: An impressive depth of research combined with a love of space programs is aptly married to excellent writing.
Ian Sales’ love of the space program and the often rickety technology that has carried men from Low Earth Orbit to the Moon has found flower in his Apollo Quartet. Like Stephen Baxter’s novel Voyage, Sales’ vision in this series is to explore how the space program might have flowered with slightly different initial conditions.
Adrift on the Sea of Rains saw an Apollo mission grapple with the death of the Earth and the use of a Nazi wonder weapon to try and find a new home. The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself imagines a space program with the helpful and unexpected boost of alien faster-than-light technology. Now, in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, Sales turns towards pure alternate history.
While the first two novellas in the series are alternate histories in their own way, this third novella explores alternate history as a form and a subgenre. Absent are any alien or strange devices to change the flow of the space program. Instead Sales posits a longer and bloodier Korean War that is just on the edge of going hot. With this endless conflict, the U.S. space program turns towards two tracks only touched on in our own history, but which became the dominant paradigms in this alternate world.
In our own history, there were abortive efforts at training female astronauts. In this imagined timeline, all the fighter pilots that might have gone into the space program are instead fighting in Korea, thus the astronaut corps turns toward Jerrie Cobb and the rest of the Mercury 13 program for their first intake of people to send in space.
In a track set some years later, the war has ended into an uneasy peace. Lt. Commander John Mcintyre is being sent to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean near Puerto Rico. What he, as part of the Trieste submersible, finds down there might once again change the course of history.
The much more purely alternate historical approach to this novella as compared to his previous work is married with his strong writing. I’m only passably familiar with the Mercury 13, but in the alternate history of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, Cobb and her compatriots leap off of the page as depicted through their struggles and hopes. The mystery of what is at the bottom of the ocean near Puerto Rico makes the “down” strand of the novel as compelling as the “up” portion.
Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is a fascinating and engrossing look at a space program that very possibly could have been. It’s also an invitation for the reader to learn more about the history of the space program, an area that informs Sales’ work.