Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review of Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales

It is a minority of Americans who are aware the Soviets were first to put man into space.  (See Andy Duncan’s wonderful novella The Chief Designer for an overview of the Soviet space program.)  Even fewer are aware it was the Russians who first put a woman into space—twenty years before the the ‘land of the free’.  Into this unrealized possibility stepped Ian Sales in 2013 to write the third alternate history in the Apollo Quartet, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (AQ3).  Once again balancing hard sf and humanism, the novella imagines what it would have been like were women the first NASA astronauts in space, and in turn reveals a few skeletons from the program’s closet.

Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, while continuing the trend of ostentatious titles in the Apollo Quartet, likewise continues the trend of featuring astronauts—thirteen of them to be exact.  Led by the ambitious and stubborn Jackie Cochrane, the Mercury 13, as they are called, are trained for space while American men are off fighting communism in Korea and the USSR circa 1953.  Rosie the Riveter shifting her attention to the heavens, the women prove themselves, through the rigors of simulations, to be up for the task, and one by one are sent on missions of increasing extremes into Earth’s orbit.  Jerrie Cobb, a devout young woman, is perhaps the most dedicated among the thirteen, and through her eyes the reader experiences the wonder of the great beyond, and, disappointment at what befalls Cochrane’s presence in the space program once the war in the East ends.

And there is a second story.  Cobb’s chapters called “Up”, the story of John Grover McIntyre and his mission to locate a black box deep in the Atlantic trench near Puerto Rico form the chapters called “Down”.  McIntyre’s story capturing Sales interest in bathyscathes, it retells a real life, deep dive (20,000 feet deep) retrieval mission that the Cold War CIA undertook when a satellite data dump did not go as planned.  It likewise serves to feature this novella’s bit of the fantastic.  Where AQ1 had wunderwaffe technology and AQ2 a Martian rosetta stone for FTL, AQ3 offers the Bermuda Triangle.  The most subdued usage of the fantastic among the three, the depths of the ocean are mysterious indeed. 

Given McIntyre’s story is connected to Cobb’s by a single, thin strand, that the Cold War could have been featured in other ways, that McIntyre is the only non-astronaut featured thus far in the series, and that Cobb’s story could easily have been split into two parts to sustain the trend of dichotomous story present in the first two novellas, I’m left wondering whether McIntyre’s story is not spurious?  As one novella remains to round out the Apollo Quartet, I am, however, willing to give Sales the benefit of the doubt that it is a significant tile in a larger mosaic.

Where AQ1 and AQ2 both featured lengthy glossaries explaining the terms and technology contained within their stories, the additional twenty pages of background material in AQ3 are devoted to a historical breakdown of the bathyscathe Trieste II and women’s roles in NASA.  Sales having done his homework (evidence in the bibliography that follows), there is much of interest beyond just oceanography and space geekery.  My favorite is the John Glenn quote.  One of the stars of the US space program, to hear him voice thoughts to the effect women are not suitable for space puts a chink in his square-jawed, all-American male legend.  But it is reading of Cochrane and Cobb’s real life existence and plight to actually put women into space that puts the preceding alternate history into perspective.  An affective juxtaposition, the yearning which results is only part nostalgia, the remainder empathy for what could have been.

In the end, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, despite the concentration required to rattle off the eight words, is the most relevant work in the Apollo Quartet thus far.  While the Cold War revenge/homesick motif of AQ1 can be appreciated, and likewise the personal conflict of desire and love in AQ2, AQ3 has more traction in real human events.  Women in space—the actuality of women in the real vacuum of space with pressure tanks, mirrored visors, navigation manuals and not a curvy body suit or ray gun between them—is a topic little breached in sci-fi.  Thus, like the preceding novellas, AQ3 possesses an understanding of the human side of life outside Earth’s atmosphere and a sharp eye for the details of the technology that supports said life.  Cobb’s story is empathetic, realistic, and, a political statement (for what its worth given half a century has passed since NASA had a chance and failed to put women alongside men in space).  James Tiptree Jr. would be proud.

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