Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet is an award-winning sequence of alternate history novellas which explore different aspects of the twentieth-century space race.
I have a lot of time for what Sales is doing here with the Apollo quartet project. Each novella is published separately in ebook, paperback or handsome and affordable hardcover (which I recommend!) and I hope that once the sequence is complete a mass-market publisher buys up the rights to publish the complete collection. Its an interesting achievement: the goal of each appears to be to try write with the style and depth of ‘literary’ fiction but with a careful focus on the details of the hard SF subject matter. Sales’ research appears comprehensive and nuanced.
The previous two stories were both superb, but also, for me, ever-so-slightly lacking. The first, a tale of a military moon base after the end of the world, seemed to rely on an unexplained macguffin that also pops up in another of Sales’ stories (but not one of the Quartet). The second was my favourite: a superb exploration of the astronaut mindset and the reality of relativity on space exploration. My minor quibble here was that important story details are hidden away in a rather dry timeline of this alternate history, and the vital final scene of the story is positioned after the timeline (the details in the timeline do bridge the two parts of the narrative, I just wish it was more elegantly done). Now I’m all for a good paratextual game, and I love appendices, footnotes and found documents as much as the next bibliophile, but there was no real need, and it detracted from a superb story, rather than enhanced it.
This third story, published late last year tells two different stories in parallel, alternating segments, and then concludes with historical notes about the real life events that they are based on.
The first part of the story tells the story of the “Mercury 13”. If the Korean War had gone on for longer then our Mercury 7 would not have been available for the early NASA programme, and thus the Mercury astronauts are recruited from female aviators. This part of the narrative begins in the early sixties and follows the first Americans in space: all women, from Mercury to Gemini and Apollo. Our viewpoint is that of Jerrie Cobb, the second American in space and part of each of the different programmes. What starts as novelty quickly becomes normalcy and the astronauts are accepted as such.
At every stage beaten by the Russians, and with rumours of male astronauts returning from the extended war in Korean this part of the narrative concludes with the astronauts in the second Apollo mission (1969) servicing early spy satellites. In this reality, as in our own, the great hopes of discovery and dreams of exploration that inspire space programmes are inevitably grounded by the mundane realities of the Cold War.
As I said, Sales has done an impressive amount of research into the space programme and in lesser hands this level of detail would overwhelm the narrative and make it just another info-dumping hard SF tale. His skill is in using it to support the narrative, by giving it a layer of authenticity. It might be overwhelming for some – but I have limited knowledge of the details of the different space missions, or of twentieth-century pilots, and I worked it out.
The interleaved storyline is of a 1970s military deep sea search for the camera film from one such spy satellite. Early satellites ejected their film and let it fall to earth, where the agencies would catch it. In this instance the film has missed its window for some reason and fallen to a great depth which can only be reached by a bathyscaphe (similar to a bathysphere crossed with a submersible). This segment of the narrative is rather inscrutable – the aquanauts discover the classic ship and plane undersea graveyard beneath the Bermuda Triangle but eventually recover the missing film. The year isn’t clear, though the historical note about the equivalent mission in our reality establishes that it took place in 1971. Upon their return to the surface the mission commander is told that America has just landed a man on the moon, which seems to establish this as a further alternate universe – neither our own nor that of the Mercury 13 with its extended Korean War.
Yet the two universes seem to cross in the final part of the story, with unexpected and tragic consequences. The collection concludes with historical notes, interleaved in the same way as the fictional narratives, on the “real” world Mercury 13 and the bathyscaphe mission. While a little dry, it contextualises what has gone before, and I for one only deduced the implications of the story’s resolution after I’d carefully looked through this. It took some work to deduce that the undersea story takes place in a different time period to the astronaut story. The juxtaposition of fiction with non-fiction works well here
While I still prefer the second novella, this is purely because of my preference for stories about the space race which extend into the future (Stephen Baxter wrote a string of such “future NASA” stories a few years ago and I devoured them all). I particularly enjoyed the world-building required to posit a space race that included the female astronauts. It’s never overt, but the implications of that first twist – extending the Korean war – inexorably lead to the concluding moments where Cobb services the satellite in Apollo 2. To say any more would be to spoil your enjoyment of the story.