Thursday, 20 December 2012

Ian Sales's The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself


Ian Sales’ second novella in his Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, will be published in early 2013. The first, Adrift on the Sea of Rains (which I wrote about here) projected an alternative 1970s during which the Apollo program was not discontinued, but was developed to found a moonbase, a research station for the investigation of Nazi ‘wunderwaffe’ (miracle weapons). These ‘wunderwaffe’ include die Glocke, ‘the Bell’. In a short story available as a chapbook or ebook, Sales imagines a pre-history for this wonder-weapon, in which the Nazi scientist Rotwang constructs a cyborgised ‘Maria’ to travel through the portal that the Bell opens in space-time, he presumes to another part of the planet. When the protagonist follows Maria through the portal, he discovers that the Bell is no teleportation device, but a means by which to travel into the far past, or (perhaps) another, parallel world. ‘Wunderwaffe’ is a highly enjoyable mash-up of Metropolis, Nazi myths, Ultima Thule/ Atlantis legends and time-travel sf; in its playful use of a range of generic and pop-cultural material, it corresponds to a story like Charles Stross’s ‘A Colder War’, where the Cthulu mythos is stitched onto the Cold War and Space Race eras.

‘Wunderwaffe’ also has a bibliography; so do Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself. In some ways, this seems like an extension of Sales’s preference for verifiable, science-based sf that didn’t need implausible gosh-wow special effects and OTT space-operatics to be good science fiction, or indeed to entertain’ (from his Introduction to the collection Rocket Science, 2012, edited by Sales himself). The bibliographies seem to privilege fact, not fabulation; research , rather than making up worlds out of whole cloth. We can, however, see the bibliography as part of the apparatus of the text itself, part of a world of documentation, a textual world: the world of scientific reports, NASA manuals, technical files. In both novellas, much of the historical backstory and framing context is given in a ‘Glossary’ section, which ostensibly concentrates on the technical details of the story (Apollo or Ares missions, names for craft and suits) but is a kind of parallel texts, a means of providing information without disrupting the economy of the novellas’ narratives. In The Eye With Which..., an important ‘Coda’ is placed between the Glossary and Bibliography. So, while seeming to offer a transparent, hard-sf narrative, Sales’s texts actually reflect the playfulness of what once might have been called ‘postmodernist’ fiction, and require the reader to do a bit of decoding.

This is also true of the actual story of The Eye With Which..., because, as the second text in the Apollo Quartet, one might expect a continuity with the world of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Not so. Careful examination shows that the latter novel is, in fact, on a subtly different time-line, though both novellas extrapolate from the Apollo program. In Adrift..., the extended Moon program is a direct extension of the historical Apollo; in The Eye With Which..., the point of divergence is the moment in the descent of Apollo 11’s LM when Armstrong, in ‘our’ world and history, piloted the module manually to a safe landing. The Eye With Which... predicates NASA’s Mars program (named Ares) on Armstrong’s decision to abort the landing, which then gives the opportunity for the Soviet Zond program to land Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov on the Moon first. (In our history, the catastrophic failure of the 3 July 1969 test of the N1 rocket delayed the Soviet program for 2 years, and no Cosmonaut ever walked upon the Moon.) This failure drives the US to land a human being on Mars, which is the Ares program; this first man is the protagonist of The Eye With Which..., Major (later Brigadier General) Bradley Emerson Elliott.

The Eye With Which... is a narrative with a double time-frame; in 1979, Major Elliott lands upon Mars, and makes a discovery that will alter the possibilities of human exploration of the galaxy; in 1999, Brigadier General Elliott (long since absent from NASA) is invited to travel to a distant star aboard a craft powered by the technology that is a result of his Mars landing. It’s a cunning device, and works really effectively: time is itself in a kind of flux, unstable, just as it is under the influence of die Glocke in Adrift... and ‘Wunderwaffe’. Sales ties in the second mission with Elliott’s growing estrangement from his wife, a consequence of his career as an astronaut (and the kind of desires and gratifications that career entails). The characterisation of Elliott is an advance on the heroic Peterson of Adrift..., and the sense of those left behind (the astronaut’s wife as a kind of symbol) becomes crucial to the emotional import of the story. A later novella in the quartet is promised to feature an astronaut’s wife in the centre of the narrative.

One of the strengths of The Eye With Which... is how it handles fairly hoary sf tropes (FTL drive, alien artefacts) within a concrete world not very far removed from the technological development of our own. Eliott travels to the FTL craft aboard ships not noticeably more refined than Apollo Command Modules; the interiors of the stations he visits are recognisable from Skylab or Mir. Inter-service rivalries and resentments are apparent, and the Space Command astronauts seem at once respectful of and suspicious of their distinguished visitor. There’s a human emotional complexity to The Eye With Which... that is an advance upon the technical homosocial group of Adrift..., though it’s is still predominantly a masculine world. The consequences of that gender imbalance are, though, much more apparent.

Both Adrift... and The Eye With Which... are published through Sales’s own Whippleshield Books imprint, and the impressive design of the first novella (and high-quality feel of the book as object) look to be repeated here. If you bought and liked Adrift... (or ‘Wunderwaffe’), The Eye With Which... is a worthy sequel and impressive advance, a  must-buy; if you don’t know Sales’s work, I thoroughly recommend it. It’s detailed, thoughtful, artfully constructed, and highly impressive sf. It will be published in January 2013.


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