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That's one small story for an author, but one giant read for mankind
on 15 October 2012
'Adrift on the Sea of Rains' is the first in a four-novella series of alternate reality hard science fiction stories by British writer, anthologist and reviewer Ian Sales.
This first volume of the Apollo Quartet tells the story of Colonel Vance Peterson and his crew, condemned to a slow, lingering death on a US Moonbase after nuclear war obliterates all life on Earth. Their one hope is 'The Bell', a piece of Nazi-era technology that is able to throw them into parallel universes. If they can jump to a parallel timeline that precedes the nuclear exchange, perhaps they will be able to look up at an Earth that is a living blue once more? But can they survive the endless tedium and an almost total breakdown in the relationships between the astronauts while they're waiting?
This is definitely a novella for the hard SF fan. It is well researched and stuffed full of Apollo-era terminology - so much so that the book includes a list of acronyms and a glossary, explaining not just what the APS (Ascent Propulsion System) is, for example, but also the launch schedule of the real and imagined Apollo missions that created the Moonbase which Colonel Peterson commands.
Sales is adept at switching between detailed descriptions of the technical equipment that keeps these few remaining humans alive in the hostile environment of the Moon's surface and haunting evocations of the emptiness of their daily routines, carried out in the increasingly vain hope that the mysterious Bell machine will rescue them from despair. You can almost taste the claustrophobia.
Colonel Peterson comes across as a man who is barely holding himself together in the face of their likely fate. Anger seethes just below the surface, and his constant need to get into his spacesuit and go for a walk outside the base highlights how isolated from his crew he has allowed himself to become.
I really enjoyed this novella. Like Sales, I'm a child of the Apollo era. While studying physics at university I got very interested in the technical detail of those missions and I remain in awe of NASA's achievements at that time. I love reading science fiction that ties itself in to the far from mundane realities of astronautics, and Sales has done that in spades. If you've watched some of the Apollo footage, perhaps even read books about the missions, and wondered what it might have been like to have actually been there, this story will put you right there with Colonel Peterson on Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Rains of the title.
My only slight criticism of the book follows from the above. This is an alternate reality story, where the Moon missions did not stop with Apollo 17 but continued for several years, with both civilian and military funding, and led to the building of a lunar base and a space station in Earth orbit. Most of this material is extrapolated from contemporary plans, so is certainly technically feasible. On top of this, however, the plot also involves the use of 'The Bell', a hypothetical Nazi 'torsion field generator', whose existence has been the subject of much speculation by Witkowski and others over the last decade or so. The effects of the device in this story, which are absolutely central to the plot, are however produced through a great deal of handwavium. Yet the glossary at the end of the novella includes all its entries - those that actually happened in our reality, those that might have happened if the Apollo programme had not been cancelled, and the invented properties of the hypothetical 'Bell' device - on an equal footing. Although that makes sense within the story context, I found this a bit confusing, and I think a little more flagging of the nature of the different entries might have been helpful to those not quite so intimately familiar with the history of manned spaceflight as Ian Sales so clearly is. This is, though, a minor quibble.
For those who like their science fiction hard and precise, 'Adrift on the Sea of Rains' will be a very welcome treat. I loved it, and I can't wait for the next volume in Sales' Apollo Quartet.