First, I must apologize for the lateness of this review. Mr. Sales has been remarkably patient with me and my repeated promises about getting it done. I’m a notoriously slow reviewer for the simple fact that I find it incredibly difficult to say what I think. A less cautious reviewer might simply speak from the heart and let the language be damned, but I think my academic side gets the best of me and demands I relate something more than a simple “I liked it.” And that means I get stuck for long periods of time on any work of art.
In any case, I have a lot to say about Sales’ novella, “Adrift on the Sea of Rains,” the first of a quartet of interconnected novellas called the Apollo Quartet (released by Whippleshield Books). Set in an alternate history where the Cold War ended with the destruction of the Earth, a group of astronauts conducting experiments on the Moon struggle to survive long enough to successfully test an experimental machine that may save everyone.
It’s a deceptively simple premise. Sales’ hard SF narrative of scientific discovery at times gives way to a character study of Peterson, Sales’ primary protagonist. Peterson’s past is interspersed throughout the novella in italics, providing a thorough account of a military-pilot-turned-astronaut and gifting astute readers with details of the American/Soviet conflict — a more educated reader might recognize details here that went over my head. The narrative shifts between the present, in which Peterson and his fellow astronauts attempt to conduct a successful test of their machine, and Peterson’s past, in which we we are given a glimpse into the man Peterson used to be. This device, however simplistic in design, provides the novella a comparative element that rounds Peterson as a character. Far from someone stuck in a seemingly hopeless situation, Peterson is humanized as an individual whose past complicates our understanding of his present. I wouldn’t call the format wholly successful — largely because I couldn’t quite discern the specific “pattern” in mind — but it did give the text a certain depth that would otherwise have been lacking, since the frame narrative, if one could call it that, is fairly straightforward by design. Short fiction, I find, benefits from some degree of narrative experimentation.
On a related note, Sales’ prose is never so overwhelmed by the technical, nor overly sterile — a formal quality I have noticed in my pitiful amount of reading in the hard sf field. An apt description of the prose would be “economical,” providing the right level of character depth, technical detail, and tension to keep the narrative from being dragged under by gravity. Sales’ pension for littering scientific detail throughout is largely responsible for this balance, though a less tech-friendly reader may not appreciate this balance.
For example, this brief passage from the middle of the ebook provides a combination of narrative elements:
They were trapped, but now there is an escape. All but Kendall gather in the wardroom to discuss their options, squeezing about a single table but, unlike at meal-times, confidently, keenly, meeting each other’s gazes. It occurs to Peterson that he has lived with these men for two years but he barely knows them. He sees seven men he knows chiefly by their reputations and the psychological profiles in their records. Their faces are as familiar to him as his own, but they might as well be the gold visors of spacesuit helmets for all their expressions tell him what each is thinking. Not once since they became isolated on the Moon have they worked together…
The Moon has changed them all; despair has made strangers of them…
Hope: half a dozen modules in Low Earth Orbit. An elusive hope: they need to find a way to reach the space station. They have one ALM ascent stage left — and Peterson gives thanks it still remains, not launched out of desperation by one of them during the past two years.
There are certainly more dense passages throughout the novella, but Sales’ style is perhaps deliberately careful with its science. Here, Sales establishes Peterson’s character in relation to his colleagues and provides snippets of technical detail as part of the mechanism for the emotional undercurrent of the entire narrative. Sales never quite lets that emotional element take over, which seems a reasonable product of the setting and the people involved. Unlike other “save the world with science fiction” narratives, Sales doesn’t indulge in melodrama to heighten the stakes (see The Core or 2012 for a prime example of this poor narrative practice). There’s an almost passive quality to the character development, which I can appreciate simply for my perceptions of realism in this case.
I can see where Sales might have turned the wrong way and made his deceptively straightforward narrative into something dull and lifeless. But that never happens. Rather, the narrative’s deceptively lackluster opening — a bunch of guys doing science on the Moon — is built up in slow, deliberate motions into a massive, world-changing conflict. The end of that conflict came as a surprise, and unexpected though it was, I was happy to have caught the minute details which gave away what had actually happened. Sales’ narrative seems to fall into a kind of rhythm in which the scientific “narrative world” becomes what Delany might call a reading practice or protocol; it invites attention to detail on the part of the reader, and that jolt to the brain actually saves me from getting stuck in a reader mode of one form or another. I admit that this doesn’t happen all that often for me, particularly not with stories which are, if one is to look at the appendices, meticulously researched and detailed — a space science nut will certainly pick up details I simply missed (one of them needs to review this).