There are many who consider astronauts heroes of the modern age. Where Eric the Red, Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, and a variety of others are idolized for their exploration of wild lands of yesteryear, most people today know the names of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong (Michael Collins gets the short end of that mission’s stick for some reason) as the first on the moon in the mid-20th century. Attempting (emphasis on ‘attempting’) to put such feats in perspective for contemporary readers, Kristin Kathryn Rusch’s “Recovering Apollo 8” (2007) is alternate history of the space variety.
The novella has a premise that can only be described as strange. Taking one of NASA’s most successful, heralded missions as its Jonbar point, the story flips the success on its head such that it was a failure, and then sets a billionaire genius, one Richard Johansenn, on its heels to recover the lost ship and the men presumed dead inside. Seeming a setup for a deconstruction of something, Rusch nevertheless plows ahead, telling her own tale of relative heroism.
‘Relative’ the key term, on one hand the juxtaposition of trail blazer vs. trail follower does a good job highlighting the risks and sacrifices the three Apollo 8 astronauts made, as well as emphasizing what a key step in human history they took. On the other hand, what they did in reality accomplishes the same if not moreso given the fact the astronauts lived to bask in the glory of their mission, as well as its success compared to the tragedies of later missions. The moral of Rusch’s conclusion is readily understandable (it is presented on a silver platter), but I’m left wondering whether the alternate history route actually served any purpose?
“Recovering Apollo 8” is a Hollywood story. From the uber-glorification of astronauts to the can-do spirit of Johansenn, unlikely coincidences to heroes worshiping heroes, the Hollywood hills glow in the background of nearly every page. (See finding the needle in the haystack—three times). For me, this detracts from proceedings to some degree, but for others will be a point of recommendation.
In the end, “Recovering Apollo 8” is sure to grab the reader who doesn’t think too deeply about the stories they read. Using lucid prose, Rusch unveils her tale one unpredictable element after another, and closes on a sentimental moment. That being said, for those who look deeper, there may be issues. Anything from the underlying science (looking out the window of a spaceship hurtling through space and seeing a body floating?!?!?) to the purpose of re-visioning one of NASA’s most successful missions to the negative will in the least provoke thought, if not more. For this I would recommend Any Duncan’s “The Chief Designer” or Dan Simmons’ “The End of Gravity” as better novellas. Rusch’s is not bad in terms of mainstream genre, but it just doesn’t feel as coherent as more ambitious efforts.