Europe in June 2: June Harder

So, the people have spoken. I don’t agree with what they said, and there are worrying signs that some of them voted to leave the EU without believing we would actually leave. but never mind. The deed is done and we have to get used to it sooner or later, so we might as well do it now.Petitions to have a second referendum are a way of making our dissatisfaction clear, but I seriously doubt there’s any stomach in the Commons, or the country at large, to go through all that again.

The result of the referendum leaves us in an awkward, transitional time. The news is still being digested and debated, the ripples from the decision still spreading out. Where do we go from here?

Well, we’re not going anywhere soon. The formal process for a member leaving the EU is provided by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. There are other ways we could leave, but those would probably involve terms unfavourable to us. Until Article 50 is invoked, nothing is going to happen.

On Friday morning, David Cameron announced that he would be stepping down as Prime Minister and that it would be up to his successor to initiate Article 50 and cope with subsequent negotiations about the terms on which we leave the EU. Myself, I would have pulled the trigger on the exit process at eight o’clock on the morning after the referendum, handed the keys of Number 10 to Boris Johnson, and said, “Right, I’m off on the US lecture circuit; you sort the mess out. Enjoy.” But that’s me. Anyway, nothing is going to happen until we have a new Prime Minister, and that may not be until the Tory Party Conference in October.

So, conceivably, we’ll still be in the EU until the Autumn. For its part, the EU is urging us to shit or get off the pot; they’re eager to get this over as quickly as possible and make the process as punitive as possible, to discourage other members – and there are some who might be thinking about it – having referendums of their own. But it’s up to us to invoke Article 50; for all its bluster, the EU can’t do it for us. We can take our own sweet time.

And our own sweet time is, it seems, exactly what we are going to take. The message coming from the Leave camp yesterday – after all the scare stories and 24-hours-to-save-Britain urgency of the campaign – was “No rush.”

This raises an intriguing possibility. The lawyer and legal writer David Allen Green makes the case for saying that the longer we wait to invoke Article 50, the less likely it is to be invoked at all. There is a scenario in which we have voted to leave the EU, but never actually do.

I can actually see this flying. The issue at the bottom of this mess was not our membership of the EU but who controls the Tory Party. Many of the crazier Tory MPs absolutely despise Cameron and Osborne and despise the European Union. The rise of UKIP and anti-immigration feeling in the country led to a situation where Cameron was obliged to put an EU referendum on his most recent election manifesto, or face a leadership challenge which he would almost certainly have lost. It was a gamble with unimaginably high stakes. He thought – as I did – that we would not vote to leave the EU, and we were both wrong.

The Leave camp are in no hurry to initiate negotiations – judging by the looks on the faces of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove yesterday, the general funereal tone of their press statement and the fact that there is a sudden vacuum where they used to be, I think it’s only just beginning to dawn on them what they’ve done.

It’s easy to do stuff in hot blood which we wouldn’t do if we had a bit of time to think about it and consider the consequences, and in David Allen Green’s scenario the longer we wait to trigger Article 50 – three months, probably – the longer the eurosceptics will have to see the consequences, the effects on the pound and on Britain’s standing in world markets. Our credit rating – which George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith et al virtually put the country to the sword to protect – has already been downgraded, and there’s a possibility that they might have to face a second Scottish independence referendum. This stuff concentrates minds.

The referendum was ‘advisory’ in nature – it has no force in law and the government is within its rights to ignore the result. In practical terms, this would be difficult to pull off and a Tory government which did that would take a beating at the next election. But it’s just conceivable that the eurosceptic wing of the party might try. They already have one of their goals – control of the party – and a deferred Article 50 might be a useful club to wave at the EU in any future negotiations. It could, in a certain light, under certain circumstances, look an attractive option. David Cameron gambled that he could survive; the eurosceptics might too.

In the meantime, after all the bluster about taking back control from unelected representatives in Brussels, we would wind up with an unelected Prime Minister, which is the kind of delicious irony that only the British could come up with.

And speaking, just briefly, of unelected representatives, a word on Nigel Farage. This puffed-up, self-important bullfrog of a man is not an MP. His party only has one MP at Westminster. It cannot, and never has been able to, deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. For all his bluster, for all his publicity stunts, he has no actual political power at all, and I’ve never understood why he’s afforded such weight.

However, by some occult conjunction of circumstance and opportunism, he and his party have actually altered the course of British history, and that is one of the many things I find so baffling and worrying about this whole sorry mess.

I could address what the referendum result means for the Labour party, but there seems no point. It’s going through a period of self-harm the like of which I’ve not seen outside a Clive Barker novel, and that’s going to continue whatever happens in the wider world. Personally, I thought Jeremy Corbyn – not the biggest fan of the EU – was at best a grudging participant in the Remain campaign. Whether that had any bearing at all on the final result, I can’t say. Whatever the Labour party is going to do, I hope they do it soon, because in the days and weeks and months ahead – whether we do actually leave the EU or not – we’re going to need a strong, effective Opposition.

So, here we are, on the White Cliffs, our toes dangling over the edge. Do we jump now? Do we wait? I’m angry and disappointed with the result of the referendum. I was angry and disappointed with the result of the last general election, but this is different. Deeper and more visceral. It’s going to take a while to process. Interesting times.

Europe in June

I really wasn’t going to put my foot into the EU Referendum debate, partly because others have framed the arguments far better than I could, and partly because life is just too fucking short to argue with people online, but I’ve found myself getting increasingly annoyed with the tactics of both the Leave and Remain campaigns, to the point at which I feel the need to rant in an opinionated, poorly-argued and badly-researched manner. So here we go.

Firstly, it seems to me that ‘leaving’ the EU is something of a misnomer. To my eyes, we’re not actually in the EU in a proper sense. The Eurozone and the Schengen Area are two of the central planks of the EU project – a single currency and a single, borderless zone – and Britain belongs to neither of them. What we’ve done is negotiate certain benefits of membership of the EU, without actually being part of the project. Okay, those benefits come with other responsibilities – we pay a certain amount into the EU every year – but if we’ve managed to remain outside Schengen and the Eurozone it seems like scaremongering for the Leave campaign to assert that a monstrous Federal Europe is coming and that we will be forced to join it.

Secondly, most of the arguments on both sides seem to me to be clumsy sophistry. What it all boils down to is immigration – all that talk about taking back control of our borders (which we already control) and vast sums of money suddenly being available to build hundreds of new hospitals a year is just carrot-and-stick politics. And it seems to me that a certain kind of immigration is at the bottom of all this. No one has complained about French people, or Germans, or the Dutch, coming and working here. It’s about the countries of Southern Europe, about Romania and Bulgaria, the Balkan countries. The fact that Turkey’s membership of the EU – something which may not actually happen this century – has been trotted out as a bogeyman seems to support this. In this, the argument is only reflecting what I’m beginning to see as a schism between the wealthier Northern EU countries and the embattled nations of the South, the possible beginnings of a two-tier EU. But that’s another thing. The real urge to Leave is to wall ourselves off. Everything else is just noise. And anyway, if we wanted to negotiate with the EU from outside, the chances are we would have to accept a certain amount of EU migration as part of any deal, as Norway has to. So what have we gained?

Thirdly, the Government has just put us through one of the most savage periods of austerity the country has ever seen. Many thousands of people have suffered, and are still suffering. The need to tighten our belts and be ‘in it together’ has been used to justify cuts which have driven many people to the wall and some to the grave. In particular, the Social Services have been hacked away at, people with long-term illnesses have been assessed as fit to work in order to stop their benefits, and food banks have become a familiar feature of what is, apparently, the fifth largest economy on Earth. It occurs to me, if things are genuinely so bad, how is the country supposed to pay for the renegotiation of our trading terms with the EU and the rest of the world, should we leave? How many hospitals could that pay for? How many unelected Whitehall bureaucrats are going to be making decisions that will affect us all for decades hence? There will, if we vote to leave, be at least two years of negotiations. It could easily be much longer than that. By the time things shake out, the people now campaigning for us to leave could mostly be out of public life, unaccountable. If things do go pear-shaped, if the worst predictions of the Remain camp come true, do we really think IDS and Johnson and Gove and everyone else will put their hands up and say, “Sorry, my bad; got it wrong. We’ll sort it out.”?

Fourthly, a lot of the arguments for leaving the EU seem to come down to “I want to leave because the EU doesn’t let me do what I want.” This feels a particularly juvenile argument, a spit-the-dummy sort of argument. The rules of any organisation are not all going to suit everyone; we have to put up with that stuff in order to obtain the larger benefits. The only way membership of the EU would suit everyone here is if we were running it. And I’m not sure that hasn’t crossed certain people’s minds.

The truth is, we don’t know what will happen if we leave the EU. This is very much a test-case – no EU member nation has ever left before – and nobody knows what effects it will have. We will, of course, survive a Brexit, one way or another. The country won’t just dry up and blow away on June 24. We’ll either stride confidently into a golden future, as Leave tell us we will, or we’ll become a shattered economic eunuch, a global laughing stock, as Remain tell us we will. Or we’ll just keep bumbling along somehow, as we always do. Nobody knows.

There are legitimate arguments for leaving the EU – its abuse of Greece and other desperate, impoverished states, and its inability to address the refugee crisis beyond firewalling the North from the South and letting the South cope with it, show a tendency toward bullying, and I worry about where that might go in future – but I haven’t really heard those mentioned. All I hear are soundbites calculated to panic us into jumping in one direction or another, with very little attempt to give us reasoned arguments. Both sides are trying to stampede us. And that makes me angry.

I’m not going to debate this post – it’s just a rant and I neither want nor expect to persuade anyone to vote one way or the other. I’m not even going to tell you which way I’m going to vote. You’ll probably be able to guess – although there was a point not too long ago when I was so sick of the whole thing that I seriously considered not bothering. We live in a democracy, and this is a democratic vote. But for fuck’s sake don’t let yourself be stampeded.

 

 

Europe at Midnight

I never planned to write a trilogy.

Actually, I never planned to write a sequel either. Actually finishing and getting Europe in Autumn published was a big enough thing for me. I’ve been used to my stuff coming out and being read by maybe a few hundred people and quietly sort of sifting its way down to the bottom of the fish tank, and to be honest I was happy enough with that, I never really expected much from what was sometimes satirically referred to as my ‘career’.

But Autumn did better than I could ever have dreamed. It was well-reviewed and well-received, it picked up nominations. It’s in its second edition now, which is unheard of for me, and it’s probably sold more than all my other stuff put together. Which raised the question of what to do next.

Well.

People who’ve read Autumn will know that the ending is kind of open/abrupt, depending on your point of view. That wasn’t deliberate; I tried for ages to think up a better ending and eventually had to give up. But it left room for a follow-up, which was handy because I had some stuff left over from Autumn.

As I got to the end of putting Autumn together, it occurred to me that there was stuff I hadn’t tackled – the nature of the Community, in particular, who they were, what they wanted. I’d managed to shoehorn in a brief visit, but it was kind of an elephant in the room, and it was nagging me. Also, after Autumn came out I was rearranging all my folders and I found a chapter I’d written some considerable time before and forgotten about. No, I’m not going to tell you which one it is.

So I had some material and I had a yen to write a follow-up. But I didn’t want to write a straight sequel. I’m not entirely sure what to call Europe at Midnight, but I was trying to explain it to someone and he said, “Oh, right. It’s a spinoff. Like Frasier.” And I rather like that. Europe at Midnight is kind of a sequel, and you’ll understand how if you read it, but what it is, mostly, is a spinoff. And Europe in Winter is the sequel to both Autumn and Midnight.

Which is nice and confusing.

It also let me indulge myself, because I’ve always wanted to write a proper le Carré/Deighton espionage novel. I’d sort of used the paraphernalia of espionage in Autumn, stuff about dead-drops and brush-passes and so on, but I wanted to set something actually in the espionage world, and so we have Jim, a youngish MI5 officer in a Europe that’s still refiguring, and we have Rupert, who’s kind of an alternate Jim. I also wanted to deal with the Xian Flu in a little more depth, because I thought I’d glossed over it a bit in Autumn, so I did, and it wound up being more important than I’d planned. And so on and so forth.

I also wanted to redress a failure in Europe in Autumn. A few people have come up to me since it was published and pointed out that there aren’t a lot of women in it. And that’s true; I think there are only two female characters, and more to the point there are several other characters who didn’t have to be male. I just defaulted to male because, to be honest, I’m a bloke and I don’t write female characters very well. Which is a pretty piss-poor excuse. It’s something I’m working on, now I recognise the failing in my writing; I don’t expect I’ll get things right straight away, but I’m trying, and there are at least more female characters in Midnight. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

Oh, and the title. I sort of painted myself into a corner calling the first one Europe in Autumn because the logical title for the follow-up would be Europe in Winter, which would mean the third book being called Europe in Spring, and I didn’t want that. The whole tone of the books is kind of autumnal, it’s a Europe where the leaves are falling and there’s frost at night. Spring holds out the promise of rebirth, of regeneration, and that’s not the tone I wanted. It was originally called Community. Then it was called A Song For Europe. Then it was called Community again. And finally it wound up as Europe at Midnight. It’s a reference to ‘the midnight of the century,’ as the outbreak of the Second World War is sometimes called; it also has a sort of noirThird Man feel which I like.

Midnight comes out on November 5. It’d be nice if it does as well as Europe in Autumn. Mostly, I just hope people enjoy it.

Pavane

I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Keith Roberts’s Pavane, maybe fifteen or sixteen, but it had a profound effect on me.

I’d begun my science fiction reading at junior school with HG Wells and Jules Verne and an enormous, dog-eared book that mixed fiction and fact, with pieces about Charles Fort and John Merrick packed in alongside stories like ‘The Screaming Skull’ and ‘The Dunwich Horror.’

The mid-70s were a golden age of science fiction cover illustration, and I moved on, attracted by the work of Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington and others, to short story collections – I read mostly short stories, back then – by Asimov and Heinlein and Niven and EE ‘Doc’ Smith. It was a wonderful, innocent time of discovery, and sometimes I miss it.

One day, going along the science fiction shelves of WH Smith in Worksop, I came across a book called Pavane, by an author I’d never heard of before. It was the Panther edition, with a very strange cover involving a castle on a distant crag, a line of robed figures queuing up before an executioner, and the disembodied head of a woman floating in the foreground. I can’t remember what the back cover blurb was like now, but it must have been interesting enough for me to buy the book. And my world changed.

Pavane was published in 1968, and it consists of a series of linked stories set in an England where Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Spanish Armada was victorious, and Britain is under the heel of Rome. It’s a world where technological advancement has been strictly controlled, semaphore stations carry news from hilltop to hilltop, and traction engines haul freight.

It’s not a perfect book, by any means. The Coda, which takes place some years after the main events of the book, seems tacked on and unnecessary, a little jarring. But it is a deeply moving book, in places, and its slow, stately, lyrical prose matches the slow dance of the title. It’s a significant achievement, by any measure. I was utterly bowled over by it.

I can still remember the thrill I felt when I first read it. Firstly, it’s a beautifully-written book. At the height of his powers – and I’d submit that Pavane represented the apogee of his work – Roberts was a wonderful writer. His prose was quite unlike the prose I’d been used to reading up to that time. I was knocked out.

But I think it was more what the book represented which changed things for me. Up till then I’d read nothing but American science fiction. Cocooned away in Sheffield in those pre-Internet days, I had no idea that British people were doing this stuff, and I had no idea that English landscape – the events of the book take place mostly around the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset – could be a location for science fiction, or be described so powerfully. I was so used to my science fiction taking place on distant worlds that it was a shock to discover that here was a book whose location I could actually visit.

The most important thing, though, I think, is that for the first time I realised that science fiction could happen to ordinary people. For all that it’s set in an alternate history, for all that it features ‘Old Ones’ – faerie creatures – Pavane is about ordinary people. The first story in the book is about a haulage contractor; another is about a semaphore operator. Science fiction, I found, did not have to be about the heroic captains of mile-long starships fighting battles in distant galaxies. And that was a lightbulb moment for me.

So I hunted down all the Roberts I could find. In his collection Machines and Men there are stories about people who run small-town fleapit cinemas and petrol stations. The landscape of Dorset was important to him – he returned to it in the novel The Chalk Giants – maybe not quite so successfully, to my mind. The Furies is about an invasion of giant wasps in the West Country.

I can’t overstate the effect Roberts’s work had on me as a young writer just feeling his way into science fiction. My first novel – although looking back it wasn’t probably much more than a novella – was either a straight rip-off of or an homage to the Lensman books. My second, though, was set in a Britain under martial law following an oil crisis. And no, you can’t read either of those – they were crap and they no longer exist. I started writing short stories about people who ran garages, people out for Sunday walks in the English woods, people on canal boats. I wrote a lot. That lightbulb moment is still with me today; Europe in Autumn is about a chef.

I’m not certain whether I would be the same writer if I had never read Roberts. That discovery of British science fiction led me on to JG Ballard and M John Harrison and DG Compton and Arthur C Clarke and Richard Cowper and John Wyndham and Chris Priest, and all the other writers whose work has not only helped shape my own but given me so much sheer joy down the years. I would, I’m sure, have read them all sooner or later anyway, but they came at an important time in my grounding as a writer, and if, one day, I ever write something half as good as Pavane I’ll consider all the hard work to have been worthwhile.

Keith Roberts died in 2000. You don’t hear people talking about him very much these days, and that’s a shame. He was an enormously talented writer whose work, for various reasons, was overshadowed by that of his contemporaries. Perhaps it’s because his work had such an impact on my own that I think he deserves a greater place in the history of science fiction, I don’t know. Some of his work, to my mind, is problematical, and I understand he could be a difficult man, but for Pavane alone I think he needs to be remembered as an important figure in British science fiction, rather than a footnote.

Europe in Winter

This is a slightly revised and expanded version of a thing I did for Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. They haven’t run it yet, because of certain events in Europe taking up all the news, and they probably won’t now, but what the hell.

On April 13 this year, three people travelled to a spot on the western bank of the river Danube between Croatia and Serbia, and carried out a brief ceremony.

They raised a flag and declared that this patch of wooded land about three square miles in area – over which neither Serbia nor Croatia has held full sovereignty – was now the Free Republic of Liberland, Europe’s newest nation, and invited applications from prospective citizens. A week later, it had received some 200,000 applications.

Liberland is the brainchild of Vit Jedlicka, a Czech politician, and as far as I can discover it began as a bit of a joke, but it seems to have tapped into something.

We tend to think, these days, of Europe as being something of a monolith, this great undifferentiated thing lurking somewhere across the Channel, but that’s not the way it is at all. Europe is nations.

The history of Europe is one of continuous flux, of change, of borders. There are some rather lovely and slightly startling animations available online which show borders changing, countries swelling and contracting, disappearing and reappearing, down the centuries. Germany, as we know it today, is a relatively recent thing, historically speaking. Czechoslovakia only existed for 75 years, Yugoslavia for not very much longer. In recent years Venice has spoken of becoming a city-state, some Sardinians want to become Swiss, and in this country Scottish independence was something of a…contentious issue.

That is, if you’ll excuse the pun, the natural state of Europe. Countries come and countries go. What we have at the moment – the EU, the borderless Schengen Zone – is a recent innovation, and it may still turn out to be something of a blip. There are parts of Europe where the wire is already going back up.

Not so long ago it was reported that Hungary was proposing a 110-mile-long, 13ft-tall fence along its border with Serbia to keep out migrants. In April, it was reported that Ukraine has begun what will be a 1,500-mile line of fencing, trenches and armed guards along its land border with Russia. And these aren’t the only ones.

The problem with fences is that they tend to be moreish. Nations see someone putting up border wire and think, “Hm, I fancy some of that.” Border fences, border controls, may start to look attractive to some countries facing what they see as an immigrant crisis.

In addition, the EU faces years – perhaps decades – of existential navel-gazing as a result of the Greek debt crisis.

I’ve been a Euro-enthusiast for years, but even I can’t deny that the EU has behaved appallingly towards Greece, and as I write this, the fallout is beginning, with Greek public sector unions calling a general strike to protest the EU-imposed austerity measures. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but I’d suggest that in future, other nations finding themselves in Greece’s position might opt to go straight to an EU departure rather than go through the Greek humiliation.

Whatever happens, the events of the past few weeks have shaken the idea that the euro is for life, not just for Christmas, and they will have a bearing on Britain’s membership of the EU.

There is an exit clause in the Treaty of Lisbon which provides for member states who want to leave the EU, but no member state has ever held a national referendum on withdrawal, although in 1975 the UK held a national referendum on withdrawal from the Common Market. 67.2% of voters chose to remain in the Community. I suspect our next referendum, whenever it comes, may deliver a closer vote. Eurosceptics will be making the most of the EU’s behaviour towards Greece. “Look,” they’ll say. “Do you want them to do this to us?” And people will listen. David Cameron doesn’t want to leave the EU. In a lot of ways the referendum is a sop to the crazier end of the Tory Party – he only has a 12-seat majority in the Commons and it wouldn’t take many of his backbenchers, many of whom despise him, to rebel in order to derail a lot of what he wants to do – and try to woo back the people who voted UKIP in the last election. What does he do if the referendum returns a vote to leave?

It’s harder than it looks to predict the future of Europe. The EU may struggle along as it is, or in some revised form, or it may start to peel apart, country by country, until only a rump remains, a diehard union composed perhaps only of France and Germany. No one knows, and anyone who tells you they do is having you on.

Whatever happens, I suspect there will not be a shortage of borders in future.

The Machine

The Machine arrives one day at Beth’s flat on the Isle of Wight, the way many things are delivered to us these days. It comes in several pieces, brought by delivery men, and some bits are so big that they have to take the windows off to get them into the flat. It’s a hot day.

James Smythe’s extraordinary novel begins with a scene of domestic banality. The Machine could be a new bed, or a flatpack wardrobe. But it’s not. The Machine is illegal. It’s a device meant to erase traumatic memories and help rebuild people like Beth’s husband, Vic, a soldier who returned physically and emotionally wounded from a foreign war. Hailed as a miracle cure, the first generation of Machines was outlawed when it became clear that they were in fact doing more harm than good. Vic himself is in a clinic in London, in a vegetative state – although it emerges that Beth herself may be responsible after misapplying the Machine’s treatments.

Now she’s going to make it right. She has a Machine, she has the recordings of Vic’s therapy sessions. She’s going to spring him from the clinic, bring him home, and rebuild him herself.

I’ve seen The Machine compared to Frankenstein, and there is something of that here. It’s also been compared to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and there is also that story’s sense of all-encompassing dread and descent into psychosis, but what it most reminded me of was one of Nigel Kneale’s television dramas from the 1970s, or an episode of Tales Of The Unexpected. And I mean that in a good way.

It’s an intensely English book, not just in its setting but in its cultural background. If it is Frankenstein, it’s a Hammer Frankenstein. Beth’s world is unremittingly awful. Just a few years in the future, the weather in the south of England is oppressively hot. Beth lives in a run-down estate of flats terrorised by teenagers, teaches in a school where the staff have all but given up, just going through the motions. It’s a relentless book; of all the characters, only the owner of the local Indian restaurant could be said to be sympathetic. Everyone seems on the point of some kind of madness.

At the heart of it all is the Machine, an almost alien presence. It’s cold to the touch, it makes strange noises – even when it’s switched off. At one point Beth looks inside and has the sense that it’s actually larger on the inside. It broods, there in the spare bedroom, a character in its own right

This is a novel about guilt and regret and memory and desperation, and Smythe never lets up, never spares his characters. His prose is lean and precise, uncluttered, Beth’s world – the estate, the school, the cliffs along which she walks – is carefully and vividly imagined. The atmosphere of dread only deepens. Like Frankenstein, it harks back to the tale of Prometheus, and Beth’s punishment for stealing the gift of fire is a terrible one.

This is, by any stretch of the imagination, a fabulous piece of fiction and I urge people to read it, and then go and read Smythe’s other work. If there’s any justice in the world, he’s on his way to becoming a major voice in British science fiction.

The Machine is published by Blue Door, and is available from Amazon.

The Apollo Quartet

It has taken me a long time to read Ian Sales’s Apollo Quartet. Not because I’m a particularly slow reader, but because it’s taken him a while to write and because it consists of three separately-published novellas and one novel. The first, ‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains,’ came out in 2012, and he’s just completed the fourth, ‘All That Outer Space Allows.’ I had a feeling, when I read ‘Adrift…’ in the lobby of the Radisson Edwardian at the 2012 EasterCon, that it was something rather special. And it is.

Sales writes the hardest of hard science fiction, alternate histories of the Apollo and Mercury programmes. These are stories which are fanatically well-researched. I’ve never read anything which conveys the sense of just how utterly, insanely dangerous space flight is before. This is not the world of Star Trek and warp drives; this is the real world, where a ten-year-old could poke a screwdriver through the skin of a spacecraft and life and death are decided by celestial mechanics and delta-v.

In the first novella, a group of US military astronauts marooned in a top-secret base on the Moon waits for their inevitable death after nuclear war renders the Earth uninhabitable.

We’re in the 1970s, in an alternate history where NASA was overtaken by the military and space has been weaponised. The Cold War has become hot and the crew of Falcon Base now have nothing to do but gaze up at the ruined home planet and wait for their supplies to run out.

Except…

Shortly before the final war began, civilian scientists arrived on the Moon with ‘The Bell,’ a Nazi superweapon of uncertain purpose liberated at the end of World War II which holds out the hope of an escape in an unthinkable direction.

If this precis makes ‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ sound rather fantastical, I’m sorry, because one thing this novella is, above all else, is rigorous. Another reviewer has made the point that the story is not a romanticised view of space travel, or a view of space travel as we would like it to be, but a view of space travel as it really was in the era of Apollo. This is science fiction that smells of sweat, science fiction with fuel-to-weight ratios and delta-vee calculations, and it all makes the story claustrophobically real. Even The Bell has an alleged existence outside the story – there’s a Wikipedia entry for it if you want to look further.

This is also a story about professional men under incredible pressure, and there’s a great sense of authenticity here too. It’s a very quiet, matter-of-fact story, just like the astronauts it depicts, to the extent that a single moment of violence which might seem otherwise comical is actually shocking.

Intercut in italics with the story of the ‘present-day’ efforts of the crew of Falcon Base to escape is the backstory of its commander, Lance Peterson, which hints that he may have had a hand in causing the catastrophe which has overwhelmed them. Or at least moving things along somewhat; there’s a sense that in this alternate world catastrophe was only a matter of time.

Sales marshals the technology, the nuts-and-bolts of Apollo-era space travel, the acronyms and abbreviations of highly-technical operations, with great skill and, I suspect, a certain amount of joy. It is, quite simply, a beautiful thing, the hardest of hard science fiction. The book includes a fairly hefty section of appendices, and the reader would be mistaken in ignoring them because they not only list the meanings of all the abbreviations and technical terms but provide a backstop of the story’s world.

It came as no great surprise to me that ‘Adrift…’ was not only nominated for the BSFA Award in 2013, but that it also won.

The second novella of the Quartet, ‘The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself’ – the title is from Shelley’s ‘Hymn Of Apollo’ – divides its time between the first manned mission to Mars and a mission, fifteen years later, to discover why a scientific mission orbiting a world of the star Gliese 876 has fallen silent.

Once again we are in the universe of an alternate Apollo programme. What the two threads of story have in common is Bradley Elliott, another one of Sales’s astronaut characters who could have stepped straight out of the pages of history. Elliott is the first man on Mars, and his landing there is intercut with his faster-than-light journey to Gliese 876. His discoveries at both destinations will fundamentally alter human history, but everything is grounded in Sales’s quiet, matter-of-fact, nuts-and-bolts prose. The starship which carries him to what will be an unutterably bleak destiny is not the Enterprise but something which we could conceivably build now.

As with ‘Adrift…’ the glossary is a fundamental part of the story, because it not only explains unfamiliar terms but also gives us the alternate history of Elliott’s world.

If ‘The Eye…’ is the most obviously ‘sfnal’ of the Quartet – not only is it set in an alternate timeline but it involves ftl travel, a journey to another star system, and implications of causality which, even after they were explained to me, I still don’t quite understand – then the third novella, ‘Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above’ is barely sfnal at all.

Again we are in an alternate universe, and again the story is made up of two threads – but this time the two threads are not, at the outset, fictional. One is about the Mercury 13, a group of female astronaut trainees who became part of an independently-funded programme and underwent some of the same physiological screening tests as the male astronauts selected for the Mercury programme in 1959. Except in Sales’s universe, an escalation in the Korean War means that with the male astronaut candidates away flying fighter jets, it’s a woman who is the first American to go into space, and the first to spacewalk.

The second thread concerns itself with the bathyscaphe Trieste II as it descends to a depth of twenty thousand feet in the Atlantic Ocean to recover film from a lost spy satellite.

The fourth part of the sequence, ‘All That Outer Space Allows,’ is a novel in its own right. It’s not, at first glance, science fiction. It tells the story of Ginny Eckhart, whose husband Walden is a USAF test pilot in the high desert of California in the 1960s, and it will be familiar to anyone who has read The Right Stuff. Walden is a career pilot in a world where macho has been distilled to its purest form, and he’s hungry to join the Apollo programme and perhaps one day go to the Moon. Society of the time requires that Ginny be the Good Housewife.

Except this is not quite the world we live in. Ginny Eckhart writes science fiction, but in this alternate universe science fiction is dismissed as ‘women’s fiction,’ written for and mostly by women.

While Walden progresses to astronaut training, Sales tips the world – the one science fiction fans know, at any rate – on its head. It’s a ‘what-if’ which seems particularly apposite in these Sad Puppy days. And Sales nests realities within each other, giving us, in a series of Wikipedia entries and magazine contents pages alternative versions of Ginny’s writing career, and, in one pointed moment, the list of nominees and winners of the 1966 Hugo Awards (the one where Dune tied with ‘…And Call Me Conrad‘ for Best Novel) which does not include a single woman’s name. He also forces us to look at the rest of the Quartet quite differently, with hints that Ginny actually wrote her versions of the other novellas, and I thought that was very sly.

The novela includes Ginny’s story ‘The Spaceships Men Don’t See,’ a seamless piece of 60s pastiche on Sales’s part and a very good story in its own right. It also includes a priceless in-joke where fandom has been trying to find a name for its premier award for almost a decade but still can’t decide – should it be named after Francis Stevens? CL Moore? Claire Winger Harris…? Sales is going after big game here, and in my opinion he pulls it off magnificently.

The writing throughout is calm and precise and the characters leap off the page, from the damaged, desperate astronauts of ‘Adrift…’ clinging to their training as the only way to survive, through driven Bradley Elliott and the women of the Mercury 13 to Ginny and Walden – who could so easily have been rendered as a caricature but who comes alive. Ginny, in particular, is a wonderful character.

Individually, the novellas which make up the Apollo Quartet are fabulous pieces of writing. Collectively, they make up what I think will come to be regarded as a genuinely significant work. I’m still hoping that one day we’ll see an omnibus edition and that then this notable thing will get the recognition it deserves.

The Apollo Quartet is published by Whippleshield Books, and of course is available from Amazon.