Adrift on the Sea of Rains is the first novella in Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet. An alternate history in which the Apollo programme didn’t fizzle out in the disappointing manner that it did. The US has a permanent presence on the moon and a space station named Freedom. In this reality, however, the cold war has become decidedly hot, leaving the astronauts stranded on the moon to wait for death.
The novella follows Vance Peterson, one of the men on the moonbase, from being a pilot to the commander of the base. The narrative is set in the present of the novel and through a series of flashbacks telling Peterson’s back story.
This is an interesting piece of writing. It is a piece of fiction and yet Sales has clearly done a great deal of research into the science and technology behind the moon landings. I sometimes have a problem with hard-SF because it spends too much time on the science part and not enough on characterisation and story and yet, with even my dilettantish knowledge of the sciences, I know they have failed to get that part of it right. The result being that I’d rather just have read a decently written popular science book.
Sales avoids this by writing actual human beings. Though this is a short novella, the hopes and fears of the men on the moon are expertly evoked. The destruction of the world in a nuclear war leaves the astronauts isolated and doomed to a lingering death as they run out of that which is necessary to sustain human life. Whilst, admittedly, I wasn’t old when the Soviet Union collapsed ending the cold war, I do still have a sense of what Mutually Assured Destruction and cold war paranoia felt like. Sales evokes this well in his novella.
I noted that Sales has meticulously researched the novella (really, check out the glossary; fascinating in its own right). This is SF, though, so there is a major fictional element to it. It transpires that one of the reasons for the US maintaining a permanent moonbase was to house and research Nazi wunderwaffe (wonder weapons). In this case the mysterious device is capable of shifting people between parallel realities.
This, of course, presents the men on the moon base with a very real opportunity to escape the inevitability of their death by finding a world which wasn’t destroyed in a nuclear war. The discovery of a living earth doesn’t provide the safety desired by Peterson and leads us to our, slightly grim, but satisfying conclusion.
All in all, this is a wonderful little novella. I recommend it to any of you who desire a good piece of hard SF with a strong sense of humanity. The realism of the science makes the central fiction all the easier to accept; I didn’t feel at all cheated by the author with some hand-wavium. Further more, the sense of isolation and paranoia evoked is believable when compared to my own memories of a childish fear of nuclear Armageddon and looking at cold war art now. Not to say (at all!) that he is coming from the same place, but I watched early 80s oddity, Red Dawn, a few days ago and believe that this novella evokes that same sense of fear and paranoia but without looking backwards.