Review: Adrift on the Sea of Rains, by Ian Sales

(Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to win a copy of this novella through The Future Fire.)

It's really quite hypnotic...

In an alternate reality, when NASA’s funding slipped the US military stepped in and shared the bills. Now, the military have a permanent, manned base on the moon and NASA barely have anything in low Earth orbit. However, the Cold War has boiled over and left the Earth a charred cinder. The military astronauts serving their six months on lunar surface now only have each other for company and dwindling supplies of food. Their relationships are as bleak as the lunar landscape, and their only hope is a stolen Nazi experiment.

This novella is a love letter to the space program. The descriptions of the lunar landscape are beautiful and Sales’ descriptions of rocket flight are truly empathic. The science behind mankind’s voyages to the stars are described in loving detail that borders on pornography–the spacesuits and the walks across the lunar seas, the Velcro shoes used in the station’s one sixth Earth gravity and the empty bands of radio that the stranded astronauts hopelessly scan. Even the calculations needed to plot planetary orbits without a supercomputer are given the space and time Tolkein gives to his swords. This isn’t the space travel of space opera, not even the space travel of science fiction. This is the space travel of our own past, of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. This is the closest you’ll get to orbit without being a billionaire.

Even The Bell–an esoteric experiment ‘liberated’ from the Nazi’s at the end of the war–is treated with the careful certainty of an experiment being put out to peer review. It revs up, it pops, they argue about its power needs and the probability of it working the way they need it to.

But this beautiful hard science suffers from the same problem as those peer review journals. There’s no speech marks around the direct speech, which only serves to make the line between reader and character even thicker. I felt no emotional connection to those stranded men on the Moon, no more than I felt to the space suits or the lunar descent modules or the Bell. Like all those pieces of tech, the characters are consistent and work the way they should… They just don’t ever quite feel human. They’re just one more part of the space program, no more or less important than the rockets or the lunar base.

And as a minor nitpick, there are a couple of places where the tenses change when they shouldn’t. But Hell, if there’s an editor that can pick out every single typo they deserve a medal.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains is a wonderful hard science novella that will make you feel as if you’ve left the Earth’s surface perched atop over seven million pounds of thrust and kicked up the sand of the Moon’s seas. Maybe it’s fitting that the humans are reduced to another machine in the program, that they’re put in their insignificant place in the cosmos. I miss it, though, that uniquely human element we always carry around in our skulls.

Still, this is subtitled Apollo Quartet 1, and I’m looking forwards to the other three parts. There’s no such thing as too much human space exploration porn, and this is the top-shelf stuff your slightly odd uncle brought you after making you promise you’d never tell your parents. You know, the really good shit.

(And as an important note, the book comes with three appendices:  abbreviations used in the book; a glossary; and a bibliography.  The glossary gives a piecemeal history of the alternate reality’s space program.  I read the novella first, worried it contained spoilers.  It doesn’t.  Read it before the story.

And visit Ian Sales’ blog hereAdrift on the Sea of Rains was published by Whippleshield Books, April 2012.  Whippleshield Books was set up by Ian to publish fiction he found was lacking in the market, fiction like Adrift.  Love to the man for setting up his own publishing company to follow his tastes.)