Friday, 13 November 2015

Book Ramble: All That Outer Space Allows

It would be silly by this juncture to suggest that I'm actually reviewing Ian Sales's so-called Apollo Quartet of conjoined novellas, or approaching them with anything that could be considered impartiality.  Ian is a friend and I can't pretend to be anything other than an admirer of his work.  And it's fair to say that my reviews of the previous books in the series - Adrift on the Sea of RainsThe Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above have only been growing more gushing as they've progressed.

Nevertheless, if I'd hated All That Outer Space Allows I certainly wouldn't have kept quiet about it.  I mean, maybe I wouldn't have gone and blogged about it, but Ian would certainly have got an earful, because there are few things more frustrating than urgently wanting to read a book and actually knowing the author, and then having month after month of them narrating ever single infuriating delay.  Of which there were a fair few in the case, as a planned novella blossomed (or possibly exploded) into what would eventually become the short novel it is now.

Needless to say then, since I am talking about it, I didn't hate All That Outer Space Allows.  But before we go any further than that, let's get the premise out there.  And because I'm lazy and it's a rather fine bit of writing in and of itself, here's the official blurb:
It is 1965 and Ginny Eckhardt is a science fiction writer. She’s been published in the big science fiction magazines and is friends with many of the popular science fiction authors of the day. Her husband, Walden, has just been selected by NASA as one of the New Nineteen Apollo astronauts… which means Ginny will be a member of the Astronaut Wives Club. Although the realities of spaceflight fascinate Ginny, her genders bars her from the United State space programme. Her science fiction offers little in the way of consolation—but perhaps there is something she can do about that… Covering the years 1965 to 1972, when Walden Eckhardt lifts-off aboard Apollo 15 as the mission’s lunar module pilot, this is Ginny’s life: wife, science fiction writer, astronaut wife… because that is ALL THAT OUTER SPACE ALLOWS.
Well doesn't that sound worryingly straightforward for an Ian Sales novella?  But there are wrinkles, of course - though less, I'd suggest, than in the three previous volumes.  I would go so far as to say that ninety percent of All That Outer Space Allows is in fact a particularly straightforward narrative, by the convoluted standards Ian's set for himself but by any others as well.  It's a character study, in essence, and though that study is transparently a way into a great many wider themes and events, it's never less than central.  This is Ginny Eckhardt's story from beginning to end, or something less and more even than that: a slice of her life treating ordinary and extraordinary events with approximately the same degree of interest.  And Ginny is a splendid protagonist, a being of flesh and blood and believable needs and wants, of her time while almost-but-not-quite transcending it, fascinating even in her smallest actions.

So that's the ninety percent, but that still leaves ten, doesn't it?  And those aforementioned wrinkles?  Which brings us to the point where All That Outer Space Allows, seemingly, has proven itself divisive amongst fans of the series.  (Though if you'd got this far into the Quartet without expecting to be screwed with then, honestly, I worry for you.)

Anyway, some reviewers have been put off by the fact that, at points in the narrative, Ian interrupts his story to comment directly, discussing points of research, inspirations, even openly stating and deconstructing his own themes.  Ian himself has suggested, perhaps jokingly but probably not, that this was an active effort to mess with his audience's expectations.  Yet - and this is the thing I find most fascinating - for me the intrusions had precisely the opposite effect.  They didn't break the narrative but strengthened it.  The author that elbows himself into All That Outer Space Allows is as much a fictive construct as Ginny herself, and ultimately a less persuasive one.  It's an extraordinary thing, but being told by a voice that was recognisably and yet not the author Ian Sales that Ginny was unreal actually made me believe in her more.  Bit by bit I began to doubt that this intruding voice was Ginny's creator.  And if they weren't then who was?  Was anybody?

There are many nice things that you can say about Ian's prose, but for me, above all, it's sturdy; it has an immense solidity to it.  And the more it tried to assure me that I was being lied to, the more I found I was persuaded by the lie.  This is crucial, because in its last third, All That Outer Space Allows moves on from trying to deconstruct itself and begins deconstructing the entire notion of the Apollo Quartet, in ways I've no intention of spoiling - except to say that if that prose weren't so sturdy, if Ginny weren't so believable, they would bring the whole game crashing down.  As it is, it's fascinating to watch a narrative trying to break itself from the inside, but what's most satisfying is seeing it fail.

By this point, it should hopefully be clear that I loved All That Outer Space Allows.  Whether it's my favourite of the four is too early to say, it's a toss-up between this and Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and the virtues of each of those books are so different that it becomes largely meaningless to compare them anyway.  One thing's for sure: now that the Apollo Quartet is complete, there's no question but that it's something extraordinary.  Like I said above, my obvious bias is really no bias at all, because I could just as easily have kept my mouth shut.  But this is great work, perhaps the pinnacle of a great series, and I'd feel remiss if I didn't recommend it without reservation.

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