Monday, March 3, 2014

Microreview [book]: Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales

Sales, Ian. Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above [Whippleshield Books, 2013]
Buy: Print or Kindle
File Under: science fiction, hard

Sales four-part alternate history of the Apollo space program is one of my favorite on-going series in SF/F. But I use the term "series" in the most abstract sense possible, given that the novellas do not appear to take place in the same timeline, do not involve the same personnel and are, really, only bound to one another by dint of being alternate histories of a space program Sales clearly loved, albeit with some significant reservations.

Of the three installments published to date, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, is the most centered on on those reservations--specifically, the institutional sexism that barred women from space until the 1980s. It explores this theme through (surprise, surprise) an alternate timeline in which the Korean War drags on far longer than the actual one did, creating opportunities for women that wouldn't have been there had the men not been off fighting a war.

The women pilots chosen for the space program, called the Mercury 13, are modeled after actual historical figures who, in the late 1950s and 1960s, were tested as candidates for the space program. The real Mercury 13 were denied their chance, thanks to a combination of institutional sexism within NASA and dogged personal rivalries that undermined the possibility, however slim, that said sexism could be overcome. In Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, Sales reproduces the personal rivalries, but in the context of women being the only astronauts.

Though Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is undoubtedly a political story, and specifically a story about sexism, the politics are subtle enough so as not to overwhelm other elements of the narrative, thus broadening its appeal beyond the subset of fellow-travelers who are specifically looking for politically progressive SF. And as it happens, the story about the Mercury 13 pilots only takes up half the real estate in the novella, the other half dedicated to a deep-sea search for a missing cache of film from  a spy satellite, and a rather remarkable discovery made in the process.

As with its predecessors, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is decidedly "hard" SF--meticulously researched, pre-singularity SF that would recall Arthur C. Clarke, had Clarke possessed more interest in human subjects. It is both nostalgic and forward-thinking in a way I find deeply appealing, and of the three Apollo Quartet novellas I've read, this was the one that most made me rethink my assumptions about the historical space program.

At the same time, it feels a bit disjointed in comparison to the ultra-tight Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. The two narratives don't lock together as neatly as I had hoped, while the Mercury 13 storyline is, at least to me, significantly more interesting than its deep-sea counterpart. On balance, however, this is an excellent novella and a worthy edition to an eye-opening series.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for this being the most historical of these alternate histories, and for doing it right; +1 for striking a good balance between clarity and subtlety with the politics.

Penalties: -1 for lack of narrative lock; -1 for unevenness of two narratives.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).