Adrift on the Sea of Rains is a novella by British writer Ian Sales, self-published by the author under his new imprint Whippleshield Books.
Sales, active as a reviewer and blogger, has been publishing short stories for some time, mostly in small-press magazines and anthologies. This novella is his most substantial piece to be published to date. I have to admit I had not expected to like – let alone admire – this book.
Which is all the more reason I’m glad I read it: because Adrift on the Sea of Rains is very, very good indeed.
It comes in a minimalist, yet attractive, paperback (as well as a Kindle edition) with, moreover, a host of additional material which in itself adds to the narrative (and of which more later).
In Adrift…, the American moon mission did not end with Apollo 17. By the time the story takes place the United States has a space station in low earth orbit - Freedom – and a small moon base with a handful of men. The story follows Vance Peterson, the commanding officer of the lunar base, in a world where the United States and the Soviet Union are locked in an escalating no-longer-Cold War; and by the time the story opens, in fact, we learn that the long-dreaded nuclear war had finally broken out on Earth. The men on the moon base are trapped, looking at a no-longer-blue marble on the horizon, a dead Earth. They have enough food and air for a couple of years but, after that, they, too, will die.
Sales does a remarkable job maintaining the sense of isolation and alienation the astronauts experience on the moon. Told partly with flashbacks, we follow Peterson’s career path (could he be responsible in part for the start of the war?) as a pilot, and the sense of Cold War paranoia, of 1950s Mutually Assured Destruction, is expertly evoked.
But alongside the 1950s vibe, Sales introduces the central conceit of his novella: the Bell, a Nazi wunderwaffe, or Wonder Weapon, a mysterious device discovered after the Second World War and taken by the Americans to the moon, the better to be studied. The Bell, it turns out, is able to shift into parallel realities; and the men of the lunar base pin all their hopes on finding a world where the Earth was not destroyed in a nuclear war – their only possible escape. But when, in one of the novella’s most superb moments, a blue Earth reappears on the lunar horizon, their problems only just begin…
This is a slow, meticulous novella, lovingly and carefully crafted, combining incredibly realistic depictions of the day-to-day life of astronauts on the moon, their slow disintegration in the face of despair, with the sort of alternative history I’m a sucker for, and with the added bonus of Occult Nazi Science which shows Sales’ love for – and fascination with – the lunar landings, but also a sense of fun, of playfulness, which combine together – Hard SF and Pulp – into a bewitching story. The ending, when it comes, feels inevitable, and the whole thing punches way above its modest (20,000 word) size.
It is not entirely without fault. The numerous technical terms (given their own appendix at the end) could have been more smoothly integrated, perhaps, and the use of italics for the past sections could have been avoided. The appendices are amusing – particularly the time line which begins in our reality but slowly evolves, matter of factly and without comment – into a space programme that never was – yet a part of me wishes the novella would have been allowed to stand on on its own (though the extensive bibliography is certainly fascinating, and will send you to Google, if only to learn more about our world’s real-life fascination with the wunderwaffen).
Having read it, I really can’t rave about this novella enough. It is 1950s science fiction as could only be written by someone in the 21st century, a knowing, smart, ambitious story where hardly a word is out of place. I came to it ready to mock, and came away with admiration instead. This is probably the best piece of science fiction I’ve read so far this year, and would be a more than worthy nominee for a BSFA Award next year. I urge you to read it.