The Automatic Cat

Who knows what evil lies in the hearts of men? The Automatic Cat knows

Adrift On The Sea Of Rains

Marooned in a top-secret base on the Moon, a group of US military astronauts waits for their inevitable death after nuclear war renders the Earth uninhabitable.

That’s the nutshell of Ian Sales’s novella ‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains,’ but this fabulous little book literally contains worlds.

For we’re in the 1970s, in an alternate history where NASA was overtaken by the military and space has been weaponised. The Cold War has become hot and the crew of Falcon Base now have nothing to do but gaze up at the ruined home planet and wait for their supplies to run out.

Except…

Shortly before the final war began, civilian scientists arrived on the Moon with ‘The Bell,’ a Nazi superweapon of uncertain purpose liberated at the end of World War II which holds out the hope of an escape in an unthinkable direction.

If this precis makes ‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ sound rather fantastical, I’m sorry, because one thing this novella is, above all else, is rigorous. Another reviewer has made the point that the story is not a romanticised view of space travel, or a view of space travel as we would like it to be, but a view of space travel as it really was in the era of Apollo. This is science fiction that smells of sweat, science fiction with fuel-to-weight ratios and delta-vee calculations, and it all makes the story claustrophobically real. Even The Bell has an alleged existence outside the story - there’s a Wikipedia entry for it if you want to look further.

This is also a story about professional men under incredible pressure, and there’s a great sense of authenticity here too. It’s a very quiet, matter-of-fact story, just like the astronauts it depicts, to the extent that a single moment of violence which might seem otherwise comical is actually shocking.

Intercut in italics with the story of the ‘present-day’ efforts of the crew of Falcon Base to escape is the backstory of its commander, Lance Peterson, which hints that he may have had a hand in causing the catastrophe which has overwhelmed them. Or at least moving things along somewhat; there’s a sense that in this alternate world catastrophe was only a matter of time.

Sales marshals the technology, the nuts-and-bolts of Apollo-era space travel, the acronyms and abbreviations of highly-technical operations, with great skill and, I suspect, a certain amount of joy. It is, quite simply, a beautiful thing, the hardest of hard science fiction. The book includes a fairly hefty section of appendices, and the reader would be mistaken in ignoring them because they not only list the meanings of all the abbreviations and technical terms but provide a backstop of the story’s world.

Self-published by Sales’s imprint Whippleshield Books, the print edition is a lovely thing and I’d urge everyone to get hold of a physical copy, but it’s also available as an ebook, which you can get here: http://tinyurl.com/crmljy8

I bought a copy of this at EasterCon, having never read any of Sales’s previous work, and read it a couple of times while we were still there. I’ve read it several times since and I still can’t find a thing wrong with it. Sales’s choice not to use speech marks threw me a little initially, as it always does when I come across a piece of writing which uses this device, but it was only a momentary dislocation and it contributes to the calm, professional, almost chilly feel of the story.

The cover of the chapbook announces that this is part one of ‘The Apollo Quartet,’ which heartens me enormously. I understand Part Two will deal with Mars, which heartens me even more. Go out and buy this thing; I suspect this is an important work. And even if it doesn’t rock the world of science fiction as it should, it’s still among the two or three best things I’ve read so far this year.

  • 2 June 2012