Cover by Kay Sales
THE EYE WITH WHICH
THE UNIVERSE BEHOLDS ITSELF
APOLLO QUARTET 2
Pages: 77 (Including glossary/appendix)
Publisher: Whippleshield Books
Published: 17 January 2013
On the cover:
(From the publisher's website)
For fifteen years, Earth has had a scientific station on an exoplanet orbiting Gliese 876. It is humanity’s only presence outside the Solar System. But a new and powerful telescope at L5 can detect no evidence of Phaeton Base, even though it should be able to. So the US has sent Brigadier Colonel Bradley Elliott, USAF, to investigate. Twenty years before, Elliott was the first, and to date only, man to land on the Martian surface. What he discovered there gave the US the stars, but it might also be responsible for the disappearance of Phaeton Base…
Like Sales previous Apollo Quartet novella, Adrift on the Sea of Rains (review), I'd define this as Hard SF Alternate History. It's not a direct follow up to the previous novella, in fact it's not even set in the same timeline. That sounds strange for two books that have a title collecting them together, but it really isn't. The operative word in the quartet's title is Apollo. That is what keeps these stories together. Not the god by that name, but NASA's Apollo Program.
This time the main character is Bradley Emerson Elliot, who we follow at two major turning points of his life. Both have to do with space exploration, and both have significance for much more than Elliot himself.
The Apollo space program, specifically the alternate history expansion of it, is very well handled by Sales. It's used as a really strong foundation for the story, and keeps it grounded in our reality even when it diverges from it. There's absolutely no doubt that the author has done his research. I especially liked how theories from the "fringe/alternative" corners were integrated.
Sales has managed to stay on the right side of the Hard SF worldbulding/infodumping divide. There's more show than tell, and even when he does tell he manages to do so in an interesting manner.
Being a novella, there's not much space for intricate character building (, not that I think there should be). But Sales has found room for giving us some insight into the character traits of Elliot that effects the story. Within the confines of this little slice of his life, Elliot is fully formed. And we also get some insight into his personal life that gives us a deeper understanding of him.
There's isn't really room for getting to know the other characters that pop up in the course of the story, but that doesn't matter one bit. At least it was not something that I felt was missing. This is in one way the personal story of one man, and the focus on him makes the story more intimate.
This is really an intimate story, but at the same time it's a very big one. The main character is present at some very important events, and thus this becomes his personal story. Bu for humanity as a whole, this story has much greater implications. And the story excels at that blending that together. Elliot isn't dumped into events, he as a natural place in them.
There's a lot of tension in the story, even when we know that what the story makes us fear is not going to happen. Sales is very good at building up that atmosphere of uncertainty, there's a real feeling that anything can happen. Which is a testament to good writing when the storyline is split into two parts that are twenty years apart.
More important than the mysteries though, is the journey. Both Elliot's personal/physical journey, and the bigger one that humanity does because of what Elliot experiences. The former is connected to space exploration and the latter follows from that. And although there are certainly strong Science Fiction elements in both, they feel like they are a natural extension.
I must make a small addendum to my mention of the journey here. When you reach the end of the novella itself, it doesn't feel very fulfilling. It's like there is something missing, and there is. The following Glossary and Coda are a part of the story. They fill in the little bit that was missing, and adds quite a lot more of the history around what precedes it. I'd like to add that the story we get through the appendices to some extent exceeds what is contained within the relatively few pages of the book.
Overall this is a great Hard SF novella. It is also a great Alternate History novella. Sales has created an excellent alternate world, that reads like Near Future Hard Science Fiction of the 1960s without in any way feeling old-fashioned. There's enough story here to comfortably fill a much larger volume, but it still doesn't feel crammed together.
This is an excellent starting point for those that want to take a look at Hard SF or Alternate History. For anyone who enjoys those genres this is an absolute must.
NOTE: I got an e-ARC of this from the author.
REVIEW: Adrift on the Sea of Rains