Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man”, while not on the list of short stories many consider canonical, remains a poignant piece about a husband and father at war with himself. The joy and excitement he experiences traveling and working in space offset by the despair of spending time away from his wife and children, the resulting heartache is the centerpiece of the story—a heartache easy for a person to relate to looking up at the night sky in amazement and yet be grounded with love and life invested in their family. Layering on the technical details of the space program and adding a pinch of Genre 101 to spice things up, Ian Sales’ The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself (2013) is the second of a projected four alternate histories of the Apollo program.
Like Adrift on the Sea of Rains, an astronaut is the main character of TEwWtUBI. Brigadier General Bradley Elliot the first human to set foot on Mars, one half of the narrative is devoted to describing the mission, and all its ups and downs. Elliot’s nine days Mars-side anything but standard, a bizarre discovery has a direct effect on mankind’s next steps in the solar system, and beyond. The trip also affects the relationship with his beloved wife on Earth. Elliott now in his late fifties, the other half of the narrative (interwoven in alternating scenes with the first) finds the man once again suiting up for space. This time, however, his mission is top secret. After arriving at a system orbital, he is whisked away to the planet Gliese 876 where a mysterious occurrence has top layers of US government astir, even down to Area 51. His relationship only deteriorating in the time since the Mars’ mission, it is with heavy heart Elliot sets out for what is to be his final mission.
Where AotSoR clung as tightly as possible to realism (for a work of science fiction, that is), TEwWtUBI moves further from the mimetic to genre of a more standard facade. Elliot’s time on Mars, while easily within range with what one might expect humanity’s first steps on the red planet to be, features one scenario that requires a significantly larger suspension of disbelief than the reader has yet been called upon to perform. Eventually coupled with the usage of FTL, the plot devices Sales’ employs, while standard for mainstream genre, may have the hardcore hard sf fans up in arms.
But within the context of the familiar genre elements, Sales builds anticipation subtly. Elliot’s discovery on Mars blinks like a neon Dan Brown light, but its consequences, and particularly Elliot’s later mission, possess a light sense of mystery that needs to be answered. Considering much of the surrounding content regarding setting and technology is hyper-realistic, the fact Sales was able to pull off such a palpable feeling of suspense is worth noting. After all, knowing realism is the aim narrows the scope of explanations for what has happened on Gliese 876.
But regardless of the technical or ‘scientific’ perspective, Sales once again renders a very human tale. Like Bradbury’s characters, Elliot is someone the reader can sympathize with. Starting with the classic image of a pilot wedging the photo of his girl into the dashboard, Sales delicately works the man’s ego to produce a balanced character that is not entirely a sad puppy (i.e. his situation feels more realistic than manipulative.) Thus, as AotSoR comes recommended for character, so too does TEwWtUBI.
In the end, The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself is a story that, in a couple of ways, feels more conventional than the previous novella, but retains at its core something wholly human. Elliot, while present for some of the major milestones of mankind in space, remains an empathetic character who suffers for as much as he is rewarded for his pursuit of desire and duty. Technical detail (the novella is again one-quarter glossary and bibliography) and prose style the same as Adrift on a Sea of Rains, AQ2 only makes the reader more curious regarding the two facets to the Apollo program not yet revealed.