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‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books, 2012)
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

Stranded on the moon, a group of American astronauts watch with horror as the Cold War turns hot and the Earth begins to tear itself apart. Painfully aware that reserves of food and good will are running low, they begin experimenting with a new technology in the hope that it will somehow allow them to find a new home.

First in a series of four self-published novellas, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains offers an unusual but compelling combination of immaculately researched hard sf and literary fiction. Central to the book’s strangeness is that, despite drawing on two very different literary traditions to tell his story, Sales makes no attempt to integrate the prose styles associated with these traditions. This collision of styles results in a series of arresting passages where beautifully formed and intensely poetic images loom up unexpectedly from a fog of numbers and acronyms. Initially quite unsettling, this discordant style proves highly effective once Sales begins exploring similar tensions within his characters. By juxtaposing the inhuman and technical elements of hard sf with the humanistic and lyrical elements of literary fiction, Sales suggests that his characters may well be burying themselves in the technical aspects of their jobs in order to escape from feelings which, though perfectly human, have no place amidst the square-jawed heroism of the American space programme. This ambivalent attitude towards the character of Apollo-era astronauts also provides the basis for an unflinchingly brutal assault on the myth of the ‘right stuff’. In fact, it is hard not to think of science fictional archetypes like Robert Heinlein’s Capable Man when Sales takes all the machismo and patriotism of a Sixties astronaut and forces it to decay into a hideous radioactive sludge of pride, resentment and petulant sentimentality.

Though packed with invention and fleeting displays of true literary grace, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains is a somewhat unbalanced piece of writing. For example, while the experimental juxtaposition of different prose styles is successful on the whole, Sales does occasionally lose himself in technical detail, resulting in readers having to pick their way through needlessly dense thickets of acronym-studded exposition. This sense of imbalance is also evident in his tendency to lavish attention on world building while expecting readers to fill in the gaps when it comes to characterisation. Particularly annoying is the way that Sales ends the book with both a bibliography and a potted history of his fictional space programme when those pages might have been better put to better use unpacking the human elements of the story. Thankfully, though undoubtedly a source of frustration, these imbalances prove relatively unproblematic when weighed against the scope of Sales’s ambition and the adroitness of his execution. The Apollo Quartet promises much but in order to deliver on this promise Sales must learn to trust his instincts as a literary stylist as the muse of technological correctness is only holding him back.

This review originally appeared in Vector #271.

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Written by Martin

28 March 2013 at 15:44

7 Responses

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  1. [...] Adrift On The Sea Of Rains by Ian Sales – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont [...]

  2. I would like to point out that I have actually warmed to the book quite a bit since I turned in this review. The turning point in my appreciation of the novella was realising that the astronauts use all the technical detail and jargon as a way of occupying their minds and ignoring the precarious nature of their position. there’s a lovely bit quite early on where one astronaut explodes at another and it seems to come almost from nowhere but in truth, all the astronauts are filled with rage and hopelessness only they throw themselves into their chores and their maintenance as a means of keeping those negative feelings under control.

    What I love about this idea is the fact that it takes one of the great conventions of hard SF and turns it on its head. Indeed, usually, hard SF uses technical language and concepts in order to uncover some deeper hidden truth. However, Sales uses technical language and concepts in order to keep the truth bottled up… because the truth sets you free by destroying the walls of your cage and when the only thing keeping you from the vacuum of space is a carefully constructed psychological cage, the truth tends to be something you might want to avoid.

  3. I agree that this works very well in the present sections but it is more numbing in the flashbacks. For example, this line stood out: “food, all freeze-dried or flash-frozen and about as appetising as a Pan-American economy class meal consumed somewhere over the Atlantic in a Boeing 2707 SST.” You could dump half the words there; Sales often doesn’t seem to know when enough is enough. In contrast, the technical detail when, for example, they are plotting their escape is much more successful.

    Like you, I wish the utterly unnecessary glossary had been jettisoned and more time had been spent on character. I kept comparing the story to Jed Mercurio’s Ascent which has a similar backdrop and affect but digs considerably deeper into the psyche of its cosmonaut protagonist. Perhaps that will come as the quartet develops.

    Martin

    28 March 2013 at 17:09

  4. The second book in the series does tweak the format quite a bit and so feels less stylistically claustrophobic. However, while this results in a better story, I did find it less interesting. Maybe I’m a masochist for weird stylistic tics.

  5. The last time I commented on a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains I got stalked, so I probably shouldn’t… but Tim did, so why not?

    “food, all freeze-dried or flash-frozen and about as appetising as a Pan-American economy class meal consumed somewhere over the Atlantic in a Boeing 2707 SST.” You could dump half the words there

    Adrift on the Sea of Rains is science fiction, which of course implies there is a world to be described within the narrative. But Adrift on the Sea of Rains is also very much based on the real world – while some of the hardware described actually existed, some of it never got beyond the drawing-board. Like the Boeing 2707. I used the detail to not only provide verisimilitude but to also obscure the boundary between the real world and the invented alternate 1980s of the story. Some of the glossary entries, for example, are plainly made-up by myself; but a lot of them have corresponding entries on Wikipedia, even though the items they describe never really existed.

    Ascent was definitely a touchstone work – not just for Adrift on the Sea of Rains, or the entire Apollo Quartet, but also for some of my short fiction. It’s also considerably longer than Adrift on the Sea of Rains. With Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was trying to do a number of different things – and a character study was just one of them – and some of those things were better suited to novella-length rather than novel.

    iansales

    29 March 2013 at 07:55

  6. I used the detail to not only provide verisimilitude but to also obscure the boundary between the real world and the invented alternate 1980s of the story

    But it fails in the first aim and is unnecessary for the second. The sentence promotes not verisimilitude but artificiality because it is so unwieldy that jolts the reader from the character to the author. Economy class food tastes just as bad regardless of the plane – there is no reason for the character to continue the thought with such specificity. (Would you even have economy class on an SST?) As another example, he twice thinks of his wife as blonde; within the story this has a point in establishing his all American credentials but seems unlikely within his head as a character.

    As for the blurring of the boundary, I think that is pretty clearly established and I’m not sure how an instance like this adds anything to it.

    Martin

    30 March 2013 at 18:14

  7. [...] ‘Limited Edition’ was the most interesting and least flawed and got my first vote but this novella got my second slot. However, I’ll expect his next story in the series, ‘The Eye With [...]


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