Sunday, August 26, 2012

Adrift on the Sea of Rains - Ian Sales

Adrift on the Sea of Rains is the first novella in a series of four chronicling four alternative histories of the Apollo program. The second novella, with the interesting title The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself is scheduled for some time next month and parts three and four, which as far as I know are still without a title are due to appear in 2013. Adrift on the Sea of Rains was published in April by Whippleshield Books of which Sales is the founder. As of yet, it is their only publication so you might say it was self published. Sales is ambitious though. He means to expand and it looks like he has a very particular taste in science fiction. He believes that "science  fiction does not need implausible gosh-wow special effects and  over-the-top space-operatics in order to be good science fiction" and aims to publish only a very small number of titles a year. A project to keep an eye on. From what I read on their website good stuff that would be very hard to sell in other markets might get a shot here.

Colonel Vance Peterson has been fortunate enough to be on the Moon when the Earth below him, was tearing itself apart in a nuclear war. Now, he and the surviving members of the expedition look at the ruined Earth in the knowledge that nobody is going to show up to take them home. Although the Moon base is equipped to support them for quite a while, food is becoming scarce. In desperation, the men have now turned their hopes to the experimental torsion field generator. This offshoot of a near mythical Nazi Wunderwaffe has recently been transferred to the Moon for further research. It may just be able to get them home, if they can make it work in time.

Sales has taken the Apollo missions as the basis for his story and he has researched them meticulously. The history he describes is obviously not our own but it is very hard to tell the point of divergence. The story is filled with details on previous Apollo missions and technical details on existing materiel, ranging from spacesuits to landers. The Cold War, conflict that in large part drove the US space program in the 1950s and 1960s, is clearly still ongoing. Very little is mentioned about the Soviet achievements in space but Peterson's hostility towards the soviets is quite clear, as is his sense of achievement and technological superiority.

In the novella, hostilities between the Soviets and NATO has moved beyond posturing and proxy wars. Skirmishes are frequent and in the flashback sections of the story we are shown Peterson's involvement in them. He doesn't seem to think so himself but I can't help but wonder how much his actions contributed to the eventual escalation of the conflict. Sales switches from the present tense, in which most of the story is written, to the past tense for these flashbacks. It both helps to develop Peterson's character and explain his attitude to his situation the people who are caught up in this nightmare with and his decisions later on in the story. They also provide a break from the tense and  gloomy atmosphere of the Moon base. Sales may be fascinated by the Apollo program, he is obviously very aware that is was a show of power and a propaganda tool as much as a scientific endeavour.

That is all in the background of the story however, Peterson is more concerned with the situation at the Moon base. Sales describes it in depressing detail. The poor food, the lack of meaningful work to do, the low morale amongst his colleagues. Sales uses a third person perspective for the story creating a bit more distance between the reader and Peterson. He goes though a wide range of emotions during the story and experiences high levels of stress. I started out sympathizing with him to an extend but as the story progresses Peterson becomes increasingly unlikable. We start out with a man who is disillusioned, see him gain hope and accept once more the burden of leadership and end up with a man who can't imagine a geopolitical situation than his own. It may seem to story is pretty straightforward but the real twist is at the end.

The follows the absurd tendency of the US military to insert at least three acronyms into each sentence. The novel is very heavy on them.
     Alden shakes his head. How much does the ascent stage weigh?
10,024 lb, says Curtis from memory. 
     You add a DPS onto that, plus 20,000 lb of fuel, continues Alden, and the APS is not going to reach lunar escape velocity. 
     APS thrust is 3,500 lbf, says Curtis. You can get maybe 12,000 lbs into lunar orbit with that. 
     We don’t need 20,000 lb of fuel, Bartlett points out. We only need enough for the TEI burn. 
     Again, Curtis quotes figures from memory: The CSM is 66,871 lb fully loaded, the SPS has 20,500 lbf thrust. You need a 203 second burn for TEI. 
     See, says Bartlett. Our LM will be maybe one-fifth that. As long as we can get the delta vee for TEI from the DPS— 
     It’s too heavy, Alden repeats.

The crew discussing the technical problems they encounter when trying to get a landing vehicle off the Moon's surface
Nobody not familiar with the US military and the Apollo program can be expected to make sense of such conversations. Sales has included a lengthy appendix explaining the important technical concepts. He also uses it to give an overview of the historical Apollo missions before veering of into his alternative history. The two are mixed up seamlessly making it a perfect excuse to go exploring on the Internet to see what is history and what Sales made up. Some appendices to works of science fiction beg to be ignored, this one is a must read.

The  quote also shows another feature of Sales' writing. He doesn't used quotation marks in the dialogues. It's a style that takes a bit of getting used to. Again, it made me feel a bit more distanced from the characters than I would otherwise have felt. The reader is very much an observer in this story. People who want to be dragged into a tale might find this novella hard to get into.

Just as Sales promised, Adrift on the Sea of Rains does not include implausible special effects or over-the-top space-operatics. A very deliberate choice by the author, the story could easily have contained some big explosions or 'pulse-pounding' action scenes. There is no shortage of such stories in science fiction. Some of the events are quite dramatic but the distance to the characters, Sales' acronym laden prose, and the way in which he writes dialogues makes the drama appear understated. It makes Sales' literary quirks stand out and shifts the reader's attention to some of the more subtle things going on in the background. There is a lot going on in this novella stylistically. It's a piece that needs and deserves to be read carefully. If Sales manages this kind of quality writing in the remaining three parts we'll end up with something special indeed.

Book Details
Title: Adrift on the Sea of Rains
Author: Ian Sales
Publisher: Whippleshield Books
Pages: 68
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-9571883-2-7
First published: 2012

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