Adrift On the Sea of Rains – Ian Sales
(Whippleshield Books, 2012, 77pp)
Ritual disclaimer: Ian Sales is a friend of very long standing. When he asked if I’d like to take a look at this novella, I was happy to do so. I am equally happy to give my free and frank opinion of it.
A character in Ben Bova’s tiresome Grand Tour series has a habit of echoing Buzz Aldrin’s comment ‘magnificent desolation’ every time he goes onto the moon’s surface. After the first half a dozen times it becomes vaguely irritating; when, books, later, he’s still doing it, it becomes intensely annoying. Bova is, of course, attempting in a ham-fisted way to emphasis continuity with the heyday of the space race, when America briefly ruled the firmament. In Bova’s universe, the space race never ended and he makes sure that the reader never forgets it. In Bova’s world, the emphasis is on the ‘magnificent’, even when his protagonists are struggling for survival. For, needless to say, they will triumph, because this is the American can-do way.
However, when Colonel Vance Peterson thinks of magnificent desolation the emphasis is very much on the second word. As he puts it, ‘This is not a landscape in which hope can grow; these monochrome plains and mountains can sustain nothing, real or abstract’ (12). As to what has gone wrong, the clue lies in part in the first sentence, ‘when it feels like the end of the world again’ (11). Gradually, the reader comes to realise that the world has now ended, and more than once; Peterson and the group of scientists he commands have been stuck on the moon for two years, and are searching for a way to get home. Except that there is no ‘home’ as such to go back to; everything they know and love has been destroyed by worldwide war. The earth they can see from the moon’s surface is not the ‘blue marble’ with which we are familiar but is instead ‘sere and blasted’. However, they are relying on the mysterious piece of technology they call ‘the Bell’ to shift them through time to an unaffected version of the earth so that they seek help. The Bell is a Nazi Wunderwaffe or wonder-weapon and no one is entirely sure how it works. But it is all they’ve got.
The presence of the Bell might serve as an oblique reminder of how, after World War Two, the USA exploited the work of aerospace scientist Wernher von Braun and his colleagues as the superpowers began to look beyond Earth for new areas in which to acquire supremacy. Certainly, this novella is underpinned by a deep sense of the history of space exploration, particularly missions to the moon. An early description of the lunar surface makes it sound like an extension of Washington’s Museum of Air and Space, and this feeling is picked up again later as the station staff search among the abandoned craft to collect enough fuel for a space flight. Indeed, some might argue that there is just a little too much detail; for anyone who is not that knowledgeable about the history of space flight, or indeed who is not a particular fan of hard sf, it’s occasionally a little too easy to skim the details. (This attention to detail surfaces too in the description of life in the base; one is aware from time to time that Peterson dwells on something not because it is of any interest to him but because it enables to reader to envisage the setting. Peterson, one suspects, has long since stopped noticing.)
Some may well skip the overly ample glossary as well; it is possible to read the novella without it and come out with a reasonable idea of what’s going on but paying closer attention to the glossary reveals that Sales has embedded within it an alternative history of the space race. This creates an odd effect for the reader who doesn’t know that much about the subject in that one is never quite sure what is reality, what isn’t; one teeters between seeing the novella as part of a secret history set in this timeline and as outright alternative history, but it works well enough.
Given that I am not that deeply engaged with the history of spaceflight, I was more interested in Sales’ portrayal of daily life in a moon base which is slowly dying. It is very low-key, very understated. There is no ‘can-do’ belief in being able to fix the situation, just the certain knowledge that unless the device works, they cannot go home. Yet faith in the device is minimal and Sales underlines the pilot’s distrust of, if not contempt for, the scientist, although the one is now reliant on the other for what would be effectively a miracle. Sales’ prose is very subdued; no one speaks about what might happen but it is clear that it is on everyone’s mind. Unspoken anxiety pervades the story.
Intriguing too is the back story threaded through the novella, as Peterson recalls his career. For the reader it becomes clear that Peterson himself is responsible for the events that will eventually trigger the final war but whether he is himself fully cognisant of this will remain a matter of debate. One suspects not. Peterson may be an all-American top-gun type but his judgement is frequently shown to be suspect. Even what should be his finest moment – which could be seen as akin to Ernest Shackleton’s extraordinary voyage to fetch help for his men – will be undermined by his adherence to an entirely inappropriate perception of himself and his situation.
As I noted earlier, I am not normally that much of an admirer of hard sf but Sales combines the interest in total accuracy and adherence to scientific likelihood with the more human angle in a way I found very satisfactory. I have no idea what I have missed in terms of carefully planted clues about space flight but the novella worked very well without that. Sales catches the dreariness of base life very well, and also conveyed a very convincing portrait of a man who is not only adrift in time but also in terms of how he can account for his life; his lack of engagement with the base he supposedly commands is striking throughout. His attempt to at last give some meaning to that life is fatally flawed.