From 2012 to 2015 Ian Sales self-published a series of novellas collectively known as the Apollo Quartet. The stories share a love of Apollo-era space hardware, alternate history, Forteana, and bleak outlooks for their characters. Now that the series is complete, it's reasonable to look back on the set as a whole and see what it all adds up to. Given that the last volume has been out for several months, I feel free of the constraint of avoiding spoilers so: SPOILER WARNING!! I'll be discussing endings as well as beginnings and middles.
Perhaps the most important element when addressing the series as a whole is a sense of disappointment; disappointment at squandered potential. When Sales casts his eye back on the twentieth century, he finds a lot of promise that has failed to pay off in any meaningful way, not just with the Apollo program itself but also with its surrounding history (e.g. the women of the Mercury 13) and even with social history. As such I think he captures a very important element of the current mood. As the baby boomer generation begins to move towards retirement age, we can look back on the incredible excitement generated by parts of the 1960s and 70s—Civil Rights! Moon Landings! New Wave Science Fiction!—and look at how little progress we've made in these areas today. The Civil Rights movement now needs Black Lives Matter. Gene Cernan still bears the title "Last Man on the Moon," even though he left there in 1972. Since then astronauts have been no farther than extended stays on space stations in Low Earth Orbit—venturing no farther than 385 miles from the ground, compared to the 250,000 mile journey to the Moon. While New Wave SF featured all sorts of non-standard genders, sexualities, economics, and psychologies, we now contend with the Puppy backlash. (Apologies for the somewhat US-centric nature of these examples in a review where the author under discussion is British. However, due to the uniting theme of the Apollo program, all the works under consideration are US-focused.)
How does this disappointment play out in the novellas? The first one, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, made quite a splash when it debuted. Chock-full of technical details, it depicts a military base on the Moon, cast adrift from our universe through the intervention of a Nazi Wunderwaffe and trying to find a way home. The "Bell," captured technology from the end of WWII, shifts the Moon base between different universes, and in each one they encounter the blue marble of Earth above them is instead a blasted, lifeless wasteland—the men are stranded with no supplies coming in and no place to go.
Told in a very distancing style with a Cormac McCarthy-esque lack of dialog markers, the Cold Warriors on the Moon are completely isolated from the world and from one another. There are only brief glimpses of personality or characterization from the supporting cast. The coldness of the hardware-heavy narration is heightened by some authorial choices; not only the lack of quotation marks or other dialog tags, but also in following NASA's love of acronyms without following its practice of spelling out each acronym the first time it is used. Hence on the first page of Adrift Col. Vance Peterson "leans forward to counterbalance the weight of the PLSS on his back; the A7LB's inflated bladder pushes his arms out from his sides." Either you've read enough Apollo history to already know what these are, or you'll need to flip to the acronym section of the appendix to learn that the A7LB is "the spacesuit worn by the Apollo astronauts" and a PLSS is a "Personal Life Support System" (p. 61). Indeed, the details of the story's alternate history are built up slowly from glimpses in Peterson's flashbacks, but most thoroughly in the glossary, which is a must-read.
Peterson is convincing as a dedicated and now very frustrated Cold Warrior, marooned on the Moon with very little hope. When a blue-green Earth reappears in the sky, the men pull together in a great collaborative engineering effort to modify the equipment they have in order to get someone—without any NASA guidance since communications have not been reestablished—back into Earth orbit, and alert someone to mount a rescue effort. Then we get the twist: instead of Space Station Freedom in the universe Peterson came from, he sees the space station Mir. Convinced that this means that the Russians have won the Cold War, Peterson rams his spaceship right through the space station, dooming those cosmonauts, himself, and the rest of his crew rather than seek help from Russians. We know, of course, that he has actually found himself in our universe, in which space remained (mostly) demilitarized throughout the Cold War. Peterson has a pretty well documented anger management problem (as we would refer to it in today's corporate psych speech), but this turn towards suicidal nihilism really took me by surprise. Frankly it felt like an outdated indictment of the Cold War us-vs-them mentality—beating a twenty-year-old dead horse.
While Adrift limits its discussion of Peterson's family to "his blonde wife and tow-headed son" (p. 12) (or: "blonde wife Leigh and his young boy Mikey" [p. 74]), the second book, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, spends a lot more time on its protagonist's relationship with his wife, Judy. Most of that involves the hero, Elliott Bradley, having no idea about who his wife is as a person or how to relate to her on any real level. She is mostly just a picture that inspires him while he's on a solo mission to Mars, and thirty years later that's unsurprisingly not enough and she has left him. So when he embarks on a mission to an extrasolar planet—using a warp drive that was built because of an alien artefact he found when he was exploring the region around the famous "Face on Mars"—we understand that his ties to Earth have been weakened. It turns out that the colony placed on the far distant planet, Gliese 876d, commonly referred to as Earth Two or "Hell," has disappeared. For reasons Elliott only refers to as "classified," he is sent to investigate. This investigation turns out to consist of him taking a one-way shuttle to the planet's surface, looking around to see that: yup, colony is indeed gone, no trace of it ever having existed—and then settling in to wait and probably die. Again the turn towards suicidal nihilism is confusing and unsatisfying. However, the resolution to the mystery of the colony is, from a purely science fictional/world-building perspective, again very engagingly told in the Glossary and a Coda.
In Beholds, the alternate history is based on the very real possibility that the USSR landed a man on the Moon first—Armstrong had to abort his landing and Alexi Leonov had the honor of "First Man on the Moon," which provides the political impetus for NASA to move forward with a fairly desperate one-shot, never repeated, "boots and flag" mission to Mars. The mission architecture is very well thought out, with Elliott going solo in a beefed-up Apollo capsule for more than a month in order to land on Mars, spending nine days exploring (Sales does a great job of describing how hard this would be after the extensive deconditioning of being weightless for so long), and rendezvousing with the return craft—itself manned by only one astronaut. Only two things occurred to me here: I feel like the deconditioning could have been slightly mitigated by resistance band exercises even in the 1970s, but that was never mentioned; also NASA would have tested out the psychological effects of the prolonged isolation by marooning some poor astronaut candidate in a trailer somewhere for 60 days, because NASA tests everything like that. Part of me would like to read that poor schmuck's story, or at least have it mentioned. Again, this is a masterpiece of worldbuilding-as-plot, where the alternate history unfolds to explain the central mystery of the story. But as a character piece it is rather unfulfilling.
Next up, in Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, Sales tackles one of the most obvious alternate Apollo scenarios—the Mercury 13. This was a group of female aviators who underwent NASA-style testing (although conducted by outside research groups), proved to be as fit or better than the Air Force fighter pilot astronaut candidates, but were denied any chance to go into space when the White House got wind of them. (Check out the extensive bibliographies at the end of the each volume. Sales has read just about every book out there about the space program, from technical manuals to memoirs, and you'll find some real gems, including Martha Ackmann's Mercury 13.) In one thread of Ocean, the Cold War gets much hotter when the Korean War turns into a shooting conflict involving China, and the draft is extended. All the fighter pilots get called up to serve, and NASA has no male astronaut candidates left. Instead the architecture of the Apollo program progresses with the Mercury 13 women. This is tricky, as for the first time Sales is recruiting real people as characters. However, the characterization, especially of our main POV Jerrie Cobb, improves by bounds.
In the novella's other thread, a spy satellite ejects a roll of film, but this time it is not captured by a recovery jet (this was a real thing that spy satellites used to really do!) and instead splashes down in the ocean in the famed Bermuda Triangle region. The deep-sea Bathyscaphe Trieste is recruited to go down and find the film canister and see if any footage can be recovered. This replicates a real mission in Naval history with only minor changes of locale. At the very end some remnants of film are developed and we find out how the two plot threads relate to each other. The thematic similarity between space travel and underwater exploration is lovely.
Finally, in All that Outer Space Allows, we get the straight-up Apollo program with only a minor substitution: Walden Jefferson Eckhardt takes the place of the historical James Irwin, the Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 15. This allows Eckhardt's wife Ginny to take center stage. Ginny is a science fiction writer in a world where science fiction is considered women's literature, much too escapist for serious (male) people to take seriously. Writing under the pseudonym V. G. Parker, she doesn't produce much output, but the story describes her publication history, even reproducing one of her most noted stories, "The Spaceships Men Don't See," which describes something inspired by the infamous Philadelphia Experiment and runs it through a feminist lens. She keeps in touch with other authors such as Ursula, Judith, Doris, and Joanna, and works with editors such as Kay and Evelyn, even as she navigates the tricky waters of being an Air Force wife and then, much more demandingly, an astronaut's wife.
This is by far the most metafictional entry in the series, and it doesn't have traditional SF plotting in either its character work or world-building. Instead, it is a commentary on science fiction, the space program, and women's place in each. It is littered with extra-textual material: technical manuals, tables of contents from imaginary SF magazines (all pulling from real literary history), and, perhaps most gut-punchingly, Walden Eckhardt's very extensive Wikipedia entry contrasted with V. G. Parker's very tiny SF Encyclopedia entry. Also, in this case Sales does not hold his commentary for the end, as he does in the other volumes, but occasionally allows the narrative to drift into direct comment and then back to the story—a jarring technique but quite effective. This one is all about Ginny's character, and Sales pretty much nails it (although he doesn't quite nail the feeling of living in Houston—a place he admits in the narration he's never been to).
Each of these stories very deliberately operates on multiple levels, engaging in the sort of intricate layering that can make science fiction particularly rewarding to read. The common layers are: the actual plots; the character trajectories; the mystery plot embedded in the world building; the Easter eggs for Apollo, SF, and Fortean fans; and the social commentary. Each of these levels is more or less rewarding, depending on the story and the reader.
The first three novellas are particularly strong on the world-building mysteries—having much of the payoff occur in the glossaries is a risky move that totally paid off. The fourth is strongest on character, while the first two are absolutely mystifying when they end with their heroes having essentially committed suicide. The actual plots are pretty straightforward: contriving escape from a stranded lunar colony; traveling to Mars and investigating a missing colony; the Apollo program with the Mercury 13 astronauts and the Trieste's secret film retrieval mission; the Apollo program seen from the perspective of an SF-writing astronaut's wife. The Easter eggs are abundant; there are clever touches here to delight any SF fan—for instance in Adrift naming the military version of the Apollo program Phoebus.
Which leaves the commentary. I came to this series fearing an overwhelming nostalgia for the Apollo program, and I am happy to report that I did not find it. Although these stories are littered with Apollo hardware, they make a much more interesting statement about the demise of NASA's beyond-LEO astronaut program. Adrift, for instance, shows a dream world where the Apollo program established a successful lunar base—but it is heavily militarized and only enabled by the Cold War getting much hotter. When this world intersects with our own comparatively (from Peterson's perspective) wimpy world, the results are catastrophic for us. In Beholds, meanwhile, we get that manned Mars mission—a one-off, never-repeated mission architecture scrabbled together when the Russians beat us to the Moon. Little else seems to change in the course of world events, despite the alien artefact–enabled warp drive. In Ocean, we finally get to imagine the Mercury 13 in space—but again at the cost of the Cold War heating up and reinstating the draft. Once again, when that world intersects with our own at the end, the implication is that things will go very badly for us. Lastly, Allows makes perhaps both the most minor and the most improbable alternate history change: that SF was written primarily by women, and was treated with the same marginalization (but less commercial success) as the romance genre. And life goes on, the Apollo program proceeds. This massive change in science fiction makes very little impact to the real business of space, and Ginny at least is just as frustrated as her counterparts in our own world. Here the intersection with our world comes out only in the meta-commentary and in our own minds, but is a sobering reminder of science fiction's place in the universe.
That is, in the end, what we have in the Apollo Quartet: a fairly graceful, multifaceted look at the intersection of science fiction and space exploration through the lens of the Apollo program. While science fiction is traditionally disappointed with the way the Apollo program failed to continue, this series points out that the universes in which it was extended may not be universes that we want to live in. These works are also deeply disappointed with the way women have been treated, both by NASA (as in Ocean) and by the science fiction genre (Allows). There's not a lot of wiggle room left for SF or space aficionados to claim a moral high ground, and there's no room for wishful thinking. Sales has combined an amazing amount of research and no little literary and science fictional skill into a thought-provoking and thorough look at one of the central set pieces of our modern mythology.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an electromagnetics engineer and avocationally a science fiction book reviewer and critic. She has worked on various space programs such as the Orion capsule and the Dream Chaser space plane. She reviews for venues such as Locus magazine, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and published a book on the work of Greg Egan with University of Illinois Press in 2014. She lives with her husband and two children near Baltimore, Maryland.