BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Four alternate histories revolving around how the US Space Program of the 1960’s and 1970’s might have gone differently in each.
PROS: Strong characters; interesting takes on history; meticulous, painstaking research that comes through in each story.
CONS: The end notes and other matter included, while seeming optional, often provide necessary context to understand and fully appreciate each novella; the setup for each novella may be of varying interest to readers; the sometimes bleak nature of the author’s fiction is not for everyone.
BOTTOM LINE: A quartet of novellas well worth your attention.
The Apollo Quartet has been a project of author Ian Sales for several years. All that Outer Space Allows is the fourth and last of the series of novellas by Sales published by Whippershield books. I am taking this opportunity to not only discuss the new novella, but the previous three as well.
The Apollo Quartet is full of technical detail, meticulous research and a strong focus on the real history of the space program as well as how that history veers from our own. All of the four novellas are copiously punctuated by end notes, bibliographies, suggestions on further reading and much more. While many authors eschew showing their work, for Sales, showing his work, so that the reader can delve as deeply as he did, is part of the point and his mission.
Adrift on the Sea of Rains combines Nazi superscience, dimension hopping and a poignant tale. Colonel Vance Peterson and his crew have taken a strange Nazi science device, The Bell, with them to the Moon. The device proves to be a key to accessing other worlds. This is useful, as the world they have left behind has killed itself in a Thermonuclear War. But can they find a world where the Cold War has not gone Hot? The story itself is the least hard SF of the quartet, and relies and focuses much more on the internal struggle of the character than more traditional SF tools.
The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself presents an even more fantastic alternate history and is an even more central-SF focused tale. In this story, Major Bradley Elliott, first person to set foot on Mars, takes a longer journey still, to discover the fate of Phaeton Base, an extra-solar colony. The reason how and why NASA has a colony in another solar system, its ceasing of transmissions, and what Elliott discovers is a subtle and powerful revelation about the nature of its universe and those who inhabit it.
Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above turns from the more fantastic alternate history to a more political one. A long-lasting Korean war and continual conflict means that the American space program can and must turn to female astronauts to close the gap and allow America to compete with the Soviet Union for the High Ground. Sales takes the real-life history of the female astronauts that served in our world, and uses that as the template and springboard for the alternate space program he details.
The fourth, newest and last of the Apollo Quartet novellas is All that Outer Space Allows. The truly alternate nature of this world only slowly becomes clear. V.G. Parker is an astronaut’s wife, standing by her man as best as she and the rest of the Astronaut Wives Club can, as her husband Walden struggles to get a position in the space program, and then a chance at an Apollo flight. Parker also has a secret, a secret that she doesn’t tell her husband. A secret that she doesn’t tell her astronaut wife counterparts. She writes disreputable women’s fiction, read and written mostly by women. For, you see, V.G. Parker writes science fiction.
All that Outer Space Allows is audacious in its imagining of a completely alternate history not so much of the space program (although Parker and her husband are alternate versions of a real life astronaut’s wife and astronaut) but of the science fiction field itself. Sales imagines a world where science fiction is the province of women, started by women, supported and read by women.
Sales’ point, one that is extremely pointed in recent months with a struggle over the nature of science fiction, the way it used to be and the way it is now, is that women have always written science fiction, always have read science fiction, and always have influenced science fiction. If Kameron Hurley can say “We have always fought”, Sales’ protagonist Parker can stand up and say “We have always written.” The idea that science fiction was only a province of men is shattered in the novella.
In many ways, this novella is a science fictional, alternate world counterpart to Jo Walton’s Among Others. The space program, like Walton’s 1980’s Britain, goes on much like our own, and it is the dialogue with the science fiction field that is the real rich part of the novel. Sales does invent much of the alternate science fiction referenced in this novella, but he also uses real stories written by real contemporary women SF authors to reinforce this point. There is even a full length short story written by Parker “The Spaceships Men Don’t See”, within the text of the novella that feels like an import from the 1960’s into the modern day.
All that Outer Space Allows, even as it’s the strongest of the novellas in my opinion, is best read as the capstone to the previous three novellas and doesn’t quite stand alone. The alternatives to the space program that Sales present in each of those novellas is punctuated, counterpointed, and are in dialogue with the fictional worlds of the final novella. Together, the four novellas are some of the best in science fiction and anyone interested in the Apollo program or the history of science fiction should read Sales’ four novellas.