Look. Really - LOOK. Here is the literal apogee of human endeavour - a spacecraft, just lifted from a foreign celestial body, journeying home to that blue smudge hanging in the blackness beyond. Have you ever seen anything so achingly analogue? No, forget analogue - this is borderline steampunk - crumpled paper-thin skin, a guidance system with less computing power than your labradoodle's pacemaker and the perfect beauty of shape and finish dictated by function not aesthetics - move along Jonathan Ive, move along, nothing for you to see or do here…
Growing up with the space race meant that Apollo was and is my porn, my heroin - a flawed and perfect endeavour - either the greatest single act of our species, or the most pointlessly expensive piece of Cold War dick-waving possible, or both, or neither.
Apollo-themed fiction though is relatively rare - at first glance it seems a narrow, limited palette for an author, with little potential for teasing out new narrative journeys. This then is the challenge that Ian Sales has taken on and met with Adrift on the Sea of Rains, an intriguing little curate's egg balanced somewhere between a short story and a novella.
There's a lot packed into very few pages here - deft flashbacks reveal how we got to the novel's opening page - abandoned astronauts on the lunar surface with a lifeless, post-armageddon Earth hanging above their bleak horizon.
Front and centre is Colonel Vance Peterson - an unreliable and, as the novel unfolds, increasingly unlikeable character whose extreme, jihadic anti-communism and total belief in his causes's righteousness may just have led him, and our race, to this point. Peterson and his crew are simply existing in a primitive lunar habitat, watching their food and air dwindle - still technically alive, but really - in essence - dead.
Oh goody, I do like the total abandonment of all hope and joy in a novel - it's The Road, in a vacuum, without even a shopping cart for comic relief. But curses, that's not where Sales is taking us. There's a MacGuffin - the astronauts' only hope is a Nazi wonder weapon that might or might not be able to open alternate timelines and histories.
Mid-read, this didn't work for me - it all seemed too easy - feckless, lazy, welfare-scrounger writing. Wrong Christian, sooo wrong. Y'see, the thing about alternate timelines is that mileage may vary - not every timeline is, how can I put this? divergent… This reader was happily fooled by the Twilight Zone sleight-of-hand Sales deploys to deliver his ending - not quite sucker-punched, but pleased I hadn't smart-arsed-it-out - Adrift is almost fable-like in places - you need to just go with it and not Poirot too much at the decisions and actions of the characters.
The story stops dead at 71% on the Kindle, denouement delivered. That's cheeky I thought, but this is no scam - Adrift is a little acronym-heavy in places, so an abbreviations list is a necessity for those poor souls who don't know the difference between a TEI and a TLI (you really don't want to get them confused). The genius here though is how this simple appendix then arcs into a brilliant reworking of the Apollo timeline we know, extending it out and onwards towards the one which Colonel Peterson and his crew stand at the end of. Keep reading people - it's a lovely structural conceit.
Sales describes this as part one of an "Apollo Quartet". More of the same will do just fine, thank you Ian.
This review first appeared on Goodreads
The Apollo Image Archive
The picture that opens this review is taken from the Apollo Image Archive, which is definitely worth a good clickaround. Oh, and btw - that's not a batch-processed Instagram retro filter you can see applied to the whole collection - it's history.