Thursday, 17 May 2012

Adrift on the Sea of Rains

Ian Sales' recent novella, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, comes in at a mere 17,000 words, perfect for my sf reading habits that cavil at 500-page blockbusters. I have the slim hardback before me, nicely designed in white with a grid of 96 Apollo Lunar Landing Modules ranged on its cover. The signed copy, number 30 of 75, was published by Sales's own Whippleshield Books. It's a nice object, testament to the quality within reach of indie publishing these days.

And I like the narrative, although I am at heart a New Wave rather than hard sf fan. I might be predisposed to do so, I admit; it does tie in to my own ongoing fascination with the Apollo programme and the 1960s, for Adrift on the Sea of Rains imagines a NASA programme (eventually part-funded by the Pentagon) that extends to 25 missions, encompasses the building of a lunar base, and is ongoing in 1979. A timeline of missions is given in extensive detail at the back of the novella, lending authenticity to its extrapolation of the Apollo programme. A glossary follows, additional documentation that attests to the novella's hard-sf credentials.

What struck me most forcibly when reading the novella was that it seemed very old-fashioned (in a good way). It reminded me very strongly of American sf of the 1940s and 1950s, in which a group of scientists or technical professionals (engineers, etc) struggle with the concrete detail of a scientific problem. The milieu is resolutely homosocial, and the novella deftly articulates the personal dynamics between members of this masculine group, mainly from the point of view of its 'leader', Peterson. Peterson is an ex-USAF pilot (like many of the early astronauts, drawn from the ranks of test pilots in the Air Force and Navy) who seems to be conceptually limited to the horizons of his own institutional embedding and of continuing Cold War antipathies, a set of prejudices which ultimately leads to destruction. (While true to the background of many NASA men, it doesn't take into account the more speculative or even philosophical cast of mind of astronauts like Alan Bean, Pete Conrad or even John Glenn, men who were open to the wonder of space flight as well as its technical accomplishment).

Criticism of Sales’ technique that the men of Falcon base 'all seem alike' is beside the point, or in fact is the point: these men are alike because they are produced by the institutional imperatives of a techno-military system that weeds out mavericks. Similarly, the men offer little in the way of sympathetic engagement because they are trained to use intellect and logic before emotion. Tensions between them definitely run beneath the surface.

This leads partly to the 'old-fashioned' impression, for these men seem like the scientist-heroes of Golden Age sf, more at home with slide-rule and laser-rifle than with emotional expression. I don't think Sales's conception is that simple, however; this isn't nostalgia, or pastiche. Sales's insistence on the Pentagon's involvement in the Moon programme reflects the development of the ('real-world') Shuttle programme, where many of the low-Earth orbit missions were secret and with military objectives, but also suggests that the men on the Moon are Cold Warriors as well as astronauts, and the Falcon moonbase (named ostensibly for the Apollo 15 Lunar Module, but with significant echoes of Captain Scott and the implication of 'discovery' and 'exploration' in national and political contexts) is not simply a scientific station.

It is the repository for the novella's main novum, the 'Bell', a remnant of Nazi ‘wunderwaffe’ (wonder weapons), outrĂ© science and technology programmes (like von Braun and the NASA rockets themselves). The Moonbase is a research station for investigation of these wonder weapons, and the ‘Bell’ is a means by which alternate realities can be reached. This is vital, as a nuclear war has stranded the men on the moon, and they activate the ‘Bell’ to search for an Earth in which armageddon has not taken place. The men work the 'Bell' until a blue, unharmed Earth is seen in the Moon's sky, though they do detect some low-orbit activity around the Earth. (Again, there is a clear implication that this Earth is 'our' timeline, for the detected spacecraft are Soviet Soyuz vehicles.) In true hard-sf fashion, the men set about an engineering solution to their problem: they drain the fuel from landed LMs dotted about the Sea of Rains, then refit a module to take Peterson back to Earth, so he can alert the authorities to the need for a rescue mission.

Sales' novella demonstrates, however, that engineering solutions are not enough on their own. The narrative ends badly, but through no fault of the calculations made by the scientists or through failure of their engineering skills. Rather, it is the very world-view of these military astronauts, their narrow ethical and political horizons, that dooms the mission. They are Cold Warriors, not 'explorers'; technicians rather than philosophers; the very nuts-and-bolts emphasis of hard sf is implicated in the mission's (very human) failure.

This, then, is the main thing that engaged me about Adrift on the Sea of Rains: not its admirable technical detail, not its hard sf homosocial can-do, and not even its Apollo-era setting; but its willingness to risk the entire narrative on an ending which implicates the foundational principles of hard sf itself. That's smart, incisive thinking that takes the novella beyond its own seemingly narrow horizons, into something much more thought-provoking. I'm looking forward to the next novellas in the Apollo Quartet.

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