Monday, March 4, 2013

Microreview [book]: Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales

Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Ian Sales [Whippleshield Press]

My first exposure to serious science fiction came around age 12. I was already deep into fantasy and detective novels, but for whatever reason felt tugged to this one shelf of my father's book collection, where there sat a row of worn paperbacks with names like Childhood's End and The Martian Chronicles. I'd always found the notion of space travel romantic--I was a child of the Space Shuttle-era, after all, and I'd loved the kid-targeted SF films I'd been exposed to at a young age--Star Wars, E.T., The Black Hole, etc. So perhaps it was foreordained that I would gravitate to that part of the library? Before I dared read them, I would just pick the books off the shelf and sit there, staring at the detailed sketches of space stations, star ships and extra-planetary colonies that graced their covers.

When I did finally bite the bullet, I started with Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the Sky, a 1952 novel about a boy who wins a contest and gets to go up to an orbital space station. It felt incredibly realistic, like something that could actually happen--to me, when I was older and the space program was as advanced and evolved as it was sure to be. After devouring that and every other Clarke novel on the shelf, I moved on to Bradbury and Asimov. My father's taste for science fiction, though, trailed off sometime in the mid-1960s, and so I was left to discover things like the New Wave and everything that came after on my own. As I've grown older, my tastes have changed, reflecting changes in the genre. I am, generally speaking, more attracted to the "speculative" side of the past forty years, embodied by authors like J.G. Ballard and Iain M. Banks, than I am to "realistic" or "hard" side popularized by Larry Niven, Greg Bear and others like them. But I still have a soft spot for the exuberant, nuts-and-bolts SF of the 1950s and early 1960s.

And so it is with great pleasure that I recommend Adrift on the Sea of Rains to you. I'm tempted to say it feels simultaneously forward-thinking and like a throwback to those classics, but Lavie Tidhar beat me to the punch. Still, it is a good way to describe this strange, oddly satisfying novella, because injects a healthy dose of New Wave weirdness to a well-rendered Clarke-ian nuts-and-bolts setting.

Adrift of the Sea of Rains follows the decaying fortunes of a group of American astronauts stationed on the Moon in alternate-historical version of the late Cold War. The United States and Soviet Union have, in this timeline, done the unthinkable, and nuked each other (and the rest of the world) to oblivion. While this might ultimately doom the stranded astronauts, they have in their possession a Nazi Wunderwaffe called the Bell, which can cycle through "evolutions--alternate dimensions in a physics apparently ruled by M-Theory. The astronauts use the Bell to search for a version on Earth in which nuclear Armageddon has not, in fact, already happened.

Sales intersperses this story (told in present tense) with the (italicized and past-tense) recollections of protagonist Commander Vance Peterson. These segments tell the backstory of war, and Peterson's role in it, in some detail, though Sales never leaves character perspective, and thus mercifully keeps us safe from the horrors of infodumping. Throughout these sections Sales sprinkles little details about experimental aircraft that, judging from the appendix, are based on real Pentagon projects from the Cold War. It's all very nerdy, in the best possible sense of the term.

That said, I did take issue with one thing--the Wunderwaffe. To me it felt like a splotch of deus ex machina on an otherwise meticulously tidy fabric. I see how it gets Sales where he wants to go in the story, and I do appreciate how it allows him to talk about the psychology of the Cold Warrior, but I can't help but wonder if this was the most effective mechanism for getting there. In the end, though, that's a question I don't have an answer to, and it also didn't greatly reduce my enjoyment of this rather unique book. As it happens, Adrift on the Sea of Rains isn't just a good read, but the kind of book that begs for a re-read. And there aren't that many books I review that fit that bill, so take that as the high praise it's meant to be.

One Final Thing...

We all know about the lols involved with self-publishing, but we also should, by now, understand that there are legitimately good books being published this way. There's a reason for that, as this story attests. Now, I don't know if Sales tried to take Adrift to established publishers or if he thought it would be too much bother, but either way he's produced and published exactly the kind of book the established publishers should be trying very hard to get ahold of. The BSFA nomination is well-deserved. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for a happy marriage between the old school and the new; +1 for all the rich detail delivered through character perspective.

Penalties: -1 for the deus ex machina.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.