Friday, 19 June 2015

What Men Don't See: All That Outer Space Allows

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a while. It’s the final book of Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet, and where the other books are novella length, this one is longer, a short novel. It’s a curious text, in some ways: a recapitulation, a revision, an inversion, an alternate history of the Apollo programme that is more an alternate history of science fiction, and ultimately, an alternate history of the Apollo Quartet itself.

The main character is Ginny Eckhardt, the wife of Walden Eckhardt who is, as the novel opens, a test pilot at Edwards AFB in the mid-60s. Ginny is not only a pilot’s, and then when Eckhardt is accepted into NASA, an astronaut’s wife, but is also a science fiction author, writing under the name V.G. Parker (Virginia Parker, her birth name). The rather brilliant conceit of All That Outer Space Allows is that sf is a genre written and read by women: its most famous authors are women (Ginny is pen-pals with ‘Ursula, Judith and Doris’), the editors of Galaxy and Astounding are women, its readers and correspondents are mainly women. The gender politics of this alternate scenario mean that sf had still less cultural capital in the 1950s and 1960s than it had in our world: disregarded as a ‘women’s genre’ (like romance fiction, or the melodrama that the novel’s title overtly refers to) sf is something of a social secret for Ginny. Frowned upon by her ‘flyboy’ husband, who inhabits a retrograde patriarchal machismo, her writing is kept hidden, like the copies of sf magazines she stashes in her cupboard.

This allows Sales to make some play with the idea of performance and role-playing; we first see Ginny in a plaid shirt and slacks, which is both her writing attire and a symbol of the ‘real’ Ginny masked by the enacting of the role of ‘wife’ that she must do to support Walden’s career. Later in the novel, Sales suggests that Ginny no longer needs that hidden persona symbolised by the clothes, that Ginny is able to bring public and private personas together, but the details of her career – after some success in the late 60s and early 70s, she drifts away from sf – indicate otherwise. The importance of clothes is connected to a crucial theme in the novel, to do with gender and women’s lives under patriarchy: that of seeing and being seen.

At the beginning of the novel, Ginny watches a plume of smoke hanging over Edwards AFB, and fears that it is her husband who has crashed, perhaps fatally. This isn’t so; an officer comes to seek out Ginny’s neighbour with the news that the pilot has been injured, but is in the hospital. She invites him in for an iced tea while he waits, and after an awkward interlude, wonders whether she has overstepped the bounds of social propriety, but he soon leaves, wanting to wait outside in the car for the neighbour ‘so I don’t miss her’. In an unassuming way, this introduces a recurrent motif in the narrative: men not seeing women, both physically and literally. When Walden takes Ginny on a tour around the Houston MSC, he runs off to check on a missed appointment. Abandoned to her own devices (another recurrent motif) Ginny is taken into the suiting room by Dee, a female technician. Searching for her, Walden pokes his head around the door, scans the room, scowls, and departs, only later coming back to locate her. He has physically not seen his wife. Other details compound this motif: when she has lost an item in the house, he ‘happily’ joins in the search, but ‘never’ finds it, and Ginny often comes across the object in a place he has already looked.

This idea is literalised through a short story Ginny publishes, given in full in the novel, called ‘The Spaceships Men Don’t See’. Like the title of the novel itself, this is a playful intertextual allusion, this time to James Tiptree Jr/ Alice B. Sheldon’s famous story ‘The Women Men Don’t See’; in a mocked up Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction entry for VG Parker, it is suggested that Ginny’s story gains more visibility retrospectively, after readers make the intertextual connection to the Tiptree story. There is a curious and playful fiddling with chronology here, where Ginny’s story anticipates the more famous (and ‘real’) Tiptree’s, which then refers back to and legitimates it in some way. This playfulness has the effect of stitching Ginny’s story into the history of actual science fiction written by women throughout the twentieth century, and in that sense, we can see All That Outer Space Allows as a parallel project to Sales’ SF Mistressworks project, which explicitly challenges the gendered language of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. In both, Sales attempts to make visible the unseen history of sf by women.

All That Outer Space Allows does not only re-write, through an alternate history scenario, the gendered history of science fiction; it also re-writes the gendered history of the Apollo Quartet itself. It has become ever clearer, in each successive book, how an underlying tension between Sales’ admiration for and investment in the Apollo programme (one I share) and a critique of the patriarchal masculinity and codes of ‘heroic’ endeavour are being worked out. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the first book in the Quartet, the pathological Cold War antagonisms underpinning the Space Race are embodied in Colonel Vance Peterson, one of the astronauts marooned on the Moon after World War III; All That Outer Space Allows explicitly re-writes this in gender terms, as when Ginny begins writing the novella ‘Hard Vacuum’, her last significant sf publication, the opening paragraphs are given in the text itself:

Some days, when it feels like the end of the world yet again, Vanessa Peterson goes out onto the surface and gazes up at what they have lost.

This is, of course, the opening of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, with ‘Vanessa’ substituted for ‘Vance’. Several other moments in All That Outer Space Allows suggest that Ginny is the ‘author’ of narratives that approximate The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself (where a mission to Mars uncovers an alien ftl drive) and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (where one of the two narratives proposes an Korean War ongoing into the mid-1960s, and a NASA astronaut programme populated by women).

This is very interesting and I admire the playfulness as well as the serious intent, the implication of Sales’ own writing in the patriarchal imperatives of sf (and the Apollo programme). Cannily, he doesn’t spare himself. However, I get the sense that Ginny is, in part, a version of Sales-the-sf-author, as presented in the novel. Throughout the narrative, it is suggested that Ginny writes sf in part because the patriarchal structures of the post-war USA means that she cannot and will not be allowed to go into space herself; it’s a kind of displacement activity that stands in for all the exclusions suffered by women in a patriarchal social and cultural circumstance. But this displacement is also one assigned to Sales-the-sf-author in the end matter. In ‘About the Author’, he writes: ‘Ian Sales wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, but sadly wasn’t born in the USA or USSR. So he writes about them instead.’ How should we take this? A confession? A performance? A cryptic clue that Ginny’s ambivalence is his own? A message that Sales’ re-imagining of the Apollo project is in some ways an appropriation, a means of playing out or re-negotiating a fantasy investment in it?

I don’t think that we can take the Quartet as a mea culpa; Sales has no need to apologise for NASA’s (and by extension post-war United States’) ideological exclusions and oppressions, and his own cultural work (in the SF Mistressworks project as well as the Quartet) should leave the reader in no doubt as to his politics. It is, however, a critique, and ultimately this turns into a kind of auto-critique, and for All That Outer Space Allows this becomes a formal principle, one of the boldest manoeuvres in the text.

All of the previous novellas in the Quartet have offered a formal extension (and by the time of And Will The Great Ocean, perhaps formal difficulty) to the political and thematic revisions offered in each text. Adrift has a Glossary and Chronology section at the end, offering an alternative series of Apollo missions; The Eye With Which… also incorporates these, but also has a dual time-frame, where the narrative intercuts the protagonist finding the alien artefact on Mars and then, years later, journeying on an ftl ship to the stars; and Then Will The Great Ocean… has two different alternate histories placed side by side in a kind of narrative interlocution. As I noted in a previous review, I found this the most awkward and problematic, though not really because we are given two time-lines. But in All That Outer Space Allows Sales goes further still, and begins to deconstruct the narrative from within.

The first such moment takes place in chapter 1, on p.17. Ginny muses that it was ‘so strange that his parents should name [Walden Eckhardt] after a book subtitle “Life in the Woods” … ’. And then we have this:

They didn’t, of course; I did. I named him Walden for Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 polemic. There is a scene in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie All That Heaven Allows – the title of this novel is not a coincidence: the movie is a favourite, and in broad stroke, both All That Heaven Allows and All That Outer Space Allows tell similar stories: an unconventional woman who attempts to break free of conventional life …

After a paragraph and a half, we segue back into Ginny’s point of view. This technique recurs throughout the novel, wrenching the reader out of the immersive experience of reading Ginny’s story into something else entirely. And notice how halting it becomes, the syntax and flow as though unsure of itself, jumping from Thoreau to Sirk, interrupted by dashes, by colons (twice), by ellipsis marks. What I think is going on here, as well as Sales demonstrating that (of course) this is a fiction, is a kind of crisis in the parameters of his own project, a point at which narrative can no longer be written, where the cultural work of revision and re-scripting comes to a halt because it is narrative.

As Sales points out, partly through these ‘authorial’ disruptions, Apollo was always embedded in a range of different narratives, from official documents, jargon and acronyms (some of which are directly reproduced in All That Outer Space Allows) to the Life magazine news-management of NASA’s image to the memoirs of astronauts and their wives, many of which appear in the novel’s bibliography. To re-write Apollo, particularly in the way Sales does so (through exhaustive research and citation) is, in part, to be complicit in Apollo and its narratives.

If it is ‘no coincidence’ that All That Outer Space Allows refers to the Sirk film, it is also no coincidence that each of the chapter titles refers to a part of the process of an Apollo mission: ‘Liftoff’, ‘First Stage Separation’, ‘Lunar Orbit Insertion’. The personal (Ginny’s story, or even Sales’ investment) is mapped onto the procedural and public. The last chapter is ‘“We have touchdown”’, and is then a kind of closure; but the Eagle landing was never the end of the story, of course. Armstrong and Aldrin (and Collins) still had to get back. The end of All That Outer Space Allows is then a closure that is not a closure, because the novel has refused those gestures all the way through (as, in other ways, the other books of the Quartet had also done).

The deliberate disjunctions and disruptions will make All That Outer Space Allows a problematic, even difficult read, for some, I would guess. I really admire the ambition and boldness behind these manoeuvres, though, a willingness to take formal risks, even if (as with Then Will The Great Ocean…) they don’t quite pay off. All That Outer Space Allows foregrounds the acts of writing and reading, of narration and reception, and provoked me into asking ‘why is he doing this? What is the purpose?’ In a few months which will see the publication of Ben Johncock’s The Last Pilot and in which a tv version of The Astronaut Wives Club has just aired in the States, the figure of the test pilot’s/ astronaut’s wife has herself suddenly become a lot more visible. Ian Sales’ All That Outer Space Allows is provocative in more than one way: about Apollo, about science fiction, about the Quartet, about its own narration and story, and I like that very much. It’s a worthy conclusion to the Quartet, albeit one which refuses the idea of closure even as it ends.