One of the interesting phenomenon I observe in science fiction is the group of fans who believe that hard sf is the true sf. The ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ being the ultimate litmus test, writers like Larry Niven, Gregory Benford, Paul McAuley, Stephen Baxter are revered as gods, Greg Egan perhaps the ruling deity. Having a strong preference for works which foreground extrapolation on existing knowledge, their forums and blogs revel in the technical details and theoretical underpinning of their favorite authors’ conceptions. Looking at its title, and then perusing Ian Sales' blog It Doesn’t Have to be Right…it just has to sound plausible would give the appearance that the author would be subject to such discussion. But if there was any doubt, his 2012 BSFA winning novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains clinches it.
What Mike at Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature rightfully identifies as an “unabashed glorification of the heydays of NASA”, Adrift on the Sea of Rains fictionalizes in-depth research of the Apollo program, both conceptual and actual, to produce a Cold War alternate history that has a very real, very hard sf feel. In the story, the US has established a lunar base in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the USSR. A small group of astronauts and scientists calling Falcon base home, the story opens some time after a nuclear war on Earth has left them stranded with no contact. Only a few months of provisions remaining, the group, captained by Peterson, must deal with isolation, lack of morale, and character inter-tension as best they can staring down their fate. But when a radio signal is picked up from Earth one day—the first since nuclear hostilities, the hope of seeing Earth once again rises.
Like a pig in the mud of space technology—lunar modules, space shuttles, orbiting stations, space suits, etc., Adrift on the Sea of Rains at times reads like the science fiction novel Tom Clancy never wrote. Sales loading one half of the narrative with acronyms, tech (both real and alternate history), gear, equipment, physics, etc. no doubt is left: the novella is HARD sf. And if this is not convincing enough, roughly twenty of the novella’s seventy or so pages are dedicated to a glossary of terms and a bibliography detailing Sales’ sources of data and inspirations. Such a quantity, in fact, there are a couple of moments that the detail overwhelms. One part of Peterson’s story, for example, briefly crosses the line from fiction into technical manual. Something akin Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in terms of content, for NASA junkies or those interested in the tactile details of what mankind has achieved in space thus far, the story will melt like caramel.
The other half of Adrift on the Sea of Rains is prose of a more personal, more human nature. Offsetting the technical detail, the time Sales spends inside the heads of his characters likewise has a realistic feel. None of the astronauts a classic Heinleinian hero, they are men and women, scientists and pilots, watching their lives dwindle away, reacting in those subtle ways that trained, civilized, intelligent people do: controlled but straining at the leash. The limits imposed on them undesirable but sufferable, there are no grand melodramatics that such a scenario would lead to, and have lead to, in other genre stories. Thus, for as much technical detail their external lives are described in, Sales keeps his approach to their inner humanity likewise at a realistic level, much to the benefit of the story.
In the end, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is hard sf with human interest—otherwise known as geeking out embedded with true emotion—that will appeal to anyone interested in a realistic vision of the possibilities for NASA and the Apollo program in the 70s and 80s. The first of a series of novellas from Sales, it is one facet to a projected four-sided object. Each of the three novellas to follow intended to present alternate facets of the Apollo program, Sales’ larger intentions - the qualities of said object - are just waiting to be defined by comparison. What isn’t waiting are the results of the litmus test: this is hard sf.