Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The deep above

The film Gravity ends with a splashdown, as did the American Gemini and Apollo missions, whereas the Soviet space program opted for a dry, bone-rattling landing on the Russian steppe. For NASA, then, the space program is inextricably linked to the ocean. The launching grounds are, of course, on the Florida coast, at Cape Canaveral; astronauts train for zero-g EVAs in a large pool, to simulate weightlessness; and the discourse of space exploration recapitulates that of the maritime, from ‘voyages’ to ‘ships’ to ‘deep’ space to the very names given to NASA craft: Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis. At the same time, deep-dive films often, perhaps unsurprisingly, echo the cramped, functional interiors of NASA vehicles: sweaty cabins crewed by hard-bitten professionals battling an inhospitable, indeed deadly external environment from within small pressurised canisters.

 In Sphere (1998) and in The Abyss (1989), where ‘non-terrestrials’ are discovered in the ocean deeps, this claustrophobic confinement is countered by the view out of the window (or porthole), the vast unknowable deeps which bring on a kind of (pardon the pun) sublime. These films, with denouements of ‘alien’ craft emerging from the ocean depths (a visual conceit repeated rather enjoyably near the beginning of Star Trek Into Darkness), make the connection between the depths of space and the depths of the ocean particularly explicit. As a further example, Arthur C. Clarke, author of that great deep-space fiction 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), went to live in Sri Lanka and had a fascination with the ocean; the science-fictional connection between the ocean and the space beyond this sea-blue planet runs very deep indeed. (I also remember an Asimov short called ‘Waterclap’ in The Bicentennial Man (1976) – apparently itself begun as a treatment for film – which featured a submarine habitat called ‘Ocean Deep’ in strategic competition with ‘Luna City’, but the granddaddy of oceanic SF is of course Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1860): as I said, very deep indeed.)

Ian Sales’ intriguing new book, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (Whippleshield, 2013), the third in his Apollo Quartet of alternate-history SF, is split into two distinct narratives, one of which is an alternative history of the Mercury/Gemini/ Apollo programs, in which an ongoing Korean War means that the NASA craft are crewed by female astronauts, and the other concerns a bathyscaphe dive to retrieve a spy-satellite film ‘bucket’ containing photographs of Sino-Soviet military build-up on the North Korean border. In the previous novellas Sales had used the technique of double narrative time-frames to focus his extrapolation of divergent post-war histories. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains (note the marine language), moonbase commander Peterson’s catastrophic error of judgement upon embarked on a mission to help rescue his marooned colleagues is, in part, rationalised by scenes of his role as a hawkish Cold Warrior; in The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself (the title of this and the current book are derived from Apollo-themed quotations given as epigraphs) the narrative switches between 1979/80, when Bradley Elliott becomes the first man to walk on Mars, and 1999, when he travels to a far-distant exo-planet aboard a craft using the very alien technology that Elliott himself discovered on the surface of the red planet. In Then Will The Great Ocean, the two narrative threads seem distinct and separate worlds. 

Both the earlier novellas use appendix material to act as evidentiary matter for the alternative histories Sales proposes: in Adrift, an Apollo program that is appropriated by the US military and carries on into the mid-1970s to construct a moonbase, whose crew are stranded when Earth descends into a catastrophic nuclear war; and in The Eye, that Armstrong aborted the Apollo 11 landing, allowing the Soviet Union to land the first man on the Moon, precipitating a NASA ‘Ares’ program to be the first to land on Mars. The appendices are organised alphabetically, a kind of glossary or mini-encyclopaedia, re-articulating chronology in a textual form that opens up the novella in interesting ways. The appendices are at once a supplement (the narratives can be enjoyed without them) but are also central to Sales extrapolative method. The encyclopaedic form is a kind of extrapolation/ legitimation, working to deepen or expand the narrative world but also to make it more concrete as a historical extrapolation; at the same time, of course, as with all formal play with this kind of apparatus, the effect is also self-reflexive, to foreground the text as a text. I was reminded of Tony White’s method in Shackleton’s Man Goes South (published by the Science Museum), which intercuts fictional and non-fictional sections in a technique which is really ‘critical/creative’, appropriating the forms of British disaster fiction (and making explicit references to Michael Moorcock’s own re-writings of the form of the scientific romance in the Nomads trilogy) to make an explicitly political point about climate change.

In Then Will The Great Ocean, the relation between narrative and ‘appendix’ (non-fictional) material that ‘explains’ the extrapolative method is different: more directly historical, even polemical, and also not bracketed off as a supplementary ‘appendix’, rather following directly from the narrative. Sales gives us the real histories of the ‘Mercury 13’ women who undertook the same physiological testing as the male NASA astronauts in a privately funded program; the 13 women passed ‘Phase I’ of the testing, and the only one to pass ‘Phase III’, Geraldyn ‘Jerrie’Cobb, is the narrative focus of the ‘Up’ (space) sections of Then Will The Great Ocean. He also outlines the career of the bathyscaphe Trieste/Trieste II, the submersible that features in the ‘Down’  (oceanic) sections, whose historical mission to retrieve a film ‘bucket’ from the Pacific Ocean in 1971 seems to be the model for the events narrated in the novella. The question is, why expose the historical basis of the extrapolation in this way?

The section on the female ‘astronauts’ is clearly polemical; at the very end, Sales notes that it was not until 1983 that NASA sent a woman crew-member into space (Dr Sally Ride), and not until 1999 that a NASA mission had a female commander (Eileen Collins). (What Sales does not state is that Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe, aboard Challenger, and Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark, aboard Columbia, lost their lives on Shuttle missions. The fate of mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity is thought-provoking if read against these histories.)

Sales’ commitment to working towards establishing gender equality in SF (and restituting a ‘lost’ history of women writing SF) is demonstrated in his involvement in the SF Mistressworks project, and in Then Will The Great Ocean the focus on an alternative history where female astronauts are the norm seems an overt act of historical recuperation. The exclusion of women from the NASA program is revealed to be purely ideological, if a woman such as Jerrie Cobb is as physiologically, psychologically and technically capable of enduring the rigours of spaceflight as their male counterparts. Cobb is markedly different from either Adrift’s Peterson – whose violent action on seeing ‘our’ world’s Mir space station seems, upon re-reading, something like psychosis – or The Eye’s Bradley Elliott, who is very much a man alone, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Rather than the military man or career pilot (the two masculine avenues into the astronaut program), both implicated in an institutional and philosophical narrowness of mind, Cobb is religious as well as ambitious, full of wonder for the universe as well as inhabiting a burning will to succeed. Would the NASA program be different if it had been crewed by women? Then Will The Great Ocean's realistic answer is: perhaps not.

For Cobb, though, spaceflight is an encounter with God’s creation. On an EVA, Cobb is so intoxicated by the freedom of spacewalking and her sense that she is completing God’s purpose (as well as NASA’s mission) that she barely finds the will to re-enter the capsule. Sales politicises this sense of freedom by referring to Rosie the Riveter, and this admixture of a sublime sensibility and feminist politics lends Cobb a particular interest. McIntyre, the commander of the bathyscaphe, is, by contrast, a rather shrunken figure, who is immensely relieved to return to the surface. (He prefers diving in shallower waters.) Even though he imagines himself as Orpheus, descending into the underworld (mis-remembering the myth), it is Cobb, through her perception of the sublimity of even low Earth orbit, that ascends to an ‘epic’ grandeur of vision. (By contrast, Gravity’s Ryan Stone, battling disaster, says at one point: ‘I hate space’.) The fourth book in the Quartet will apparently be called All That Outer Space Allows , the reference to Douglas Sirk melodrama a rather tempting prospect with regard to revisions of gender representation in NASA/space fictions.

So far, then, so interesting. But when Sales, in his Acknowledgements, reveals that writing Then Will The Great Ocean was ‘much more of a challenge than I’d expected’, my feeling that this novella didn’t work quite as well as the previous two began to crystallize. The timelines of both ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ narratives of the novella are different, and very obliquely managed indeed, so getting a sense of when and how the events take place becomes a kind of puzzle. While the 1969 dive of the Trieste II in ‘Down’ returns photos of the Sino-Soviet build-up, presaging war to come, in the Cobb narrative the Korean War is drawing to a close in the final section, which again seems to be in 1969, but a rather different one.

The rationale for the female astronaut crews – that all the male pilots are on combat duty in Korea – seemed to me not very watertight; after all, the Gemini and Apollo missions took place while US military involvement in Vietnam was ongoing (particularly at its height during Gemini). And would the Korean War have lasted 16 more years? Unlike the asymmetric, guerrilla nature of much of the Vietnam conflict, Korea was much more of a conventional war to begin with, and then became a kind of stalemate; it’s difficult to think that, even in this manner, it would have ground on for so long. After his election in 1952, indeed, Eisenhower visited Korea to investigate what might bring the war to a close.

Interestingly, Sales plays around with the historical timeline, and it seems that Ike is President from 1956-63, as Kennedy is the ‘new’ President in 1964. So who won the 1952 election? Truman (who declined to run after performing badly in the Democratic primaries)? Adlai Stevenson (who was well beaten by Eisenhower in ’52)? Another Republican? It’s a gap that piques my interest, as it’s clearly deliberate, but I can’t quite diagnose the reason for it. As all the different timelines in the Quartet refract each other, rather than intersect, I can’t see this be ‘explained’ in the closing book.

What is clear, though, is Sales’ critique of the structural implication between the NASA space program and US militarism. In Adrift, the seeming inescapability of the Cold War mentality leads Peterson to an act of (self-)destruction; in Then Will The Great Ocean, the recovery of the film ‘bucket’ augurs global war. Not only the Cold War, but a very hot one, looms over all of the Apollo Quartet novellas published so far.

In Gravity, it is the debris from a Russian spy satellite – incompletely  destroyed by the Russians themselves – that precipitates the ‘Kessler syndrome’ (or ‘ablation cascade’ of runaway collisions that create an orbiting field of debris) which causes the disastrous loss of several spacecraft and Ryan Stone’s attempts to survive and get back home. In Gravity and in Sales’ novellas, the dreams of ascension to the plane of sublimity, to be in a wondrous free-fall, are fragile indeed, hemmed in as they are by militarism, and are as fragile as the technology that propels the (male and female) astronauts out of the Earth’s atmosphere and protects them from cold, hard vacuum. Gravity’s astonishing transitions from inside to outside, from outside to inside of spacecraft and environment suits emphasise that technological fragility at the same time as the 3D CGI provides an intense technological sublime. In the case of Then Will The Great Ocean’s Jerrie Cobb, as in the case of Ryan Stone, and for all Sales’ hard-SF terminology, these space fictions assume a kind of spiritual outlook, emphasising a coming to terms with the universe. Cobb and Stone do not attempt to ‘conquer’ the void nor simply look out of the porthole. The necessity is to encounter space, in all its terrifying and wondrous sublimity.    

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