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.

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2 thoughts on “The Apollo Quartet

  1. I read the first three books about one year ago. They are exactly as you say, It took me several hours of thinking, and several sessions of tweets to and from Mr Sales, to figure out the ending. He told me I had understood the end. Hint: my background includes lots of technical philosoohy of physics.

    • – I keep having to ask Ian to explain the ending to me. I understand it while he’s telling me, but a few hours later it’s a mystery to me again.

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