Sunday, 20 July 2014

Book Ramble: Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

At this stage it's becoming apparent what we can expect from an Ian Sales Apollo Quartet novella: alternate histories of the Apollo space program, lovely yet minimalist design, meticulously researched, detail-laden hard science and superficially straightforward narratives with subtle twists, sometimes so subtle you can only understand them by reading the extra-textual material.  Which is something else they all have in common, thinking about it: appendices and plenty of them, though Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (oh, and long, wacky titles!) is relatively light in that department, with the actual narrative taking up a relatively whopping sixty percent of the page count.

So three books in and it's safe to say that there are clear patterns emerging.  However if the similarities are what justify the Apollo Quartet being an actual thing, as opposed to four books with just an author and a design ethos in common, it's the differences that are starting to become more interesting at this point.

I said in my review of The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself that I found it slightly disappointing after the brilliant and BSFA award-winning Adrift on the Sea of Rains.  It's indicative of how good Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is that I now want to go back and reread it to see if I was wrong.  (I suspect I was.)  Like I said, if the similarities are what superficially grab you - and let's face it, there's something intrinsically fascinating about that alternate-history Apollo program concept - it's the fact that within the rules he's set himself Sales is crafting stories with such individually rich identities that's proving most rewarding in the long term.

All of which is to say that, despite feeling very much of a piece with parts one and two of the Quartet, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is not much like them at all.  For a start, at least half and probably a little more of it is set not outside Earth's atmosphere but beneath the ocean, as Lieutenant Commander John McIntyre and his two man crew venture in the tiny Trieste II bathyscaphe to recover what it soon becomes apparent is a downed spy satellite.  It's not particularly a criticism to say that this is the less interesting of TWtGOWDA's two plots, for while there are some genuine faults - it feels a touch padded, there are only so many times you can use the word 'abyssal' before it starts to stand out - its greatest flaw is simply that it's an intriguing story set beside a superb one.

For plot two follows the Mercury 13, America's all female astronaut team, as they play desperate catch-up with the Russians, with the ultimate goal of putting the first woman on the moon.  You remember how that happened, right?  No, of course you don't, because that's not at all the way it went down.  But perhaps it should have been, for there really was a Mercury 13, and their history - covered by Sales in a brief nonfiction epilogue - is every bit as fascinating as the fiction.

Which is to say, a lot.  Because the Mercury 13 subplot is deeply engaging stuff, and for that matter entirely novel-worthy.  The greatest frustration in Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, in fact, is that of the two plot lines it ends first - and really, that it ends at all, since I could happily have read another three hundred pages.  At any rate, it's thrilling stuff, and absolutely the best kind of feminist fiction writing, in that it makes little surface effort to convince while steadily constructing an argument of just how brazenly ignorant and absurd it is that these woman should not be given exactly the same opportunities as their male counterparts.  It doesn't proselytize, it merely shows, but it shows really well.

Like I said, the McIntyre plot pales a little by comparison, though it more than pays off by the end, when it finally interlocks with its counterpart narrative.  There are also some odd design decisions; I would really have liked a clearer distinction between the fiction and non-fiction sections, though I wonder if the lack of one wasn't deliberate.  I'll be hearing the word 'abyssal' in my nightmares.  I sort of missed have a glossary, even though one wasn't particularly required, certainly not the way it was with books one and two.  And with that, I have no more nits to pick.

Looking back, I realise I was fence-sitting a little on the Apollo Quartet.  It was hard to guess if it would be a thing of greatness or just a great novella and three unrelated sequels.  Well, I'm not fence-sitting anymore.  With Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I have no doubt that this series is going to be masterpiece, even if Sales's forthcoming All That Outer Space Allows turns out to be seventy pages of astronaut-related fart gags.  I have a feeling it won't be; I suspect it's going to be brilliant.  But even if it isn't, I'm damn sure it's going to interesting.

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