Sales, Ian. The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself [Whippleshield, 2013]
The most difficult reviews to write, I find, are of the books that affect you most deeply. After all, it's easy to say why something sucked, and similarly easy to stack up what worked and what didn't when there's plenty of both. But what about a book that hits all the right buttons, and haunts you long after you turn the last page? The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself, the second novella in Ian Sales' Apollo Quartet, is one such book. It's also the best piece of science fiction I've read in 2013.
Now, truth be told, I've had a difficult go with SF for a while now. It just, well, for a genre that is so self-consciously progressive, it really isn't producing a whole lot of exciting material right now. I thought Sales' BSFA-winning novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains was a major exception. So I went into The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself with high expectations. And the good news is that it does not disappoint. If anything, it's better.
The two novellas aren't linked by narrative, or at least not apparently so, but rather by theme. These are alternate histories of the space race, and very "hard," but in each case there's also a specific fantastic technological advancements not found in our timeline. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains it was the dimension-shifting Wunderwaffe; in The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself it's FTL travel.
The conceit is interesting enough, but the true genius of the Apollo Quartet lies in the way it reminds you of what reading science fiction was like when you first discovered it--especially if, like me, those early discoveries were of 1950s "ideas men" like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Of course, the thing about those 1950s "ideas men" is that they were, generally speaking, terrible writers whose books are filled with cardboard characters, egregious sexism, naive faith in progressive science and so forth. Many so-called classics are brilliant for the ground they broke and people they inspired, but do not stand up well as enduring works of literature. I often find myself wishing I could go back to Caves of Steel or Islands in the Sky and read them again with the wondrous eye of a twelve-year old, but know that it is not possible.
Reading The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself is the closest I can get to that. Sales channels the spirit of 1950s SF without reproducing its tropes and failings. And in the end, for all the hard SF trappings, it is at heart a deeply human novella--melancholic and ultimately bittersweet. It reminds the reader that, at base, science fiction isn't about scientific discoveries or technological advancement, but how we come to grips with such things.
Baseline Assessment: 9/10
Bonuses: +1 for making me feel like I'm twelve again without having to re-read a novel I remember loving but know as an adult probably isn't very good.
Penalties: -1 for I wish it had been longer.
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Standout in its category--well worth your time and attention."