I picked up Ian Sales' novellette (novella? - its around 25,000 words...) because of its nomination for the BSFA short story award, and the accompanying article from Niall Alexander on Tor.com'sShort Fiction Spotlight, which reviewed it rather favourably. I must say, I really like Niall's reviews, and he's one of those people I look to before buying a new book.
The short story looks to be one of the frontrunners for the award, and I must say that its an entirely deserved viewpoint. Sales writes the claustrophobic and the tense with a knowing eye, casting the reader into the mind of the alienated main character, Commander Peterson, with aplomb.
Some days, when it feels like the end of the world yet again, Colonel Vance Peterson, USAF, goes out onto the surface and gazes up at what they have lost.
Adrift takes us straight into a bleak alternate history, one where Peterson and his crew are stuck on the moon after a nuclear holocaust wipes out the Earth. Reliant on the 'Wunderwaffe Device', or the 'Bell', an untested device to traverse parallel universes, the occupants of the moon, for all we know the only surviving humans, are fast running out of hope.
Away from the alt-hist mode and vaguely fantastical Bell ("Any technology sufficiently advanced..."), Sales' looks to the extremes of Hard Sci-Fi to power his work. Now, I don't normally enjoy Hard Sci-Fi unless its done really, really well (as in Peter Watts' Blindsight,to give an example), but this really does it well. There is a large appendix and glossary of terms at the back (which is almost as fascinating to read as the story itself), which I found myself referring to - a little too frequently at times, as the constant stream of acronyms can sometimes take away from the story. But the realism grounds the novel, takes it away from the typical, from the relatively poor 'Golden Age' moon landing stories, even away from recent attempts. Coupled with the claustrophobia we see from our one and only vantage point, it allows for the separation of Sales' narrative from what has gone before it in what must be admitted to be a trope of SF.
It is precisely because Sales is dealing with a trope that the novella feels so fresh. The present tense used in both timelines of the story (intriguingly alternating between italicized and non-italicized fonts) keeps the reader feeling the tension of Peterson, while the jargon causes a deliberate juxtaposition: a sense of the reader without, just a layperson would feel looking in at an astronaut. Oh sure, if you happen to be in the USAF, you'd probably get 80% of the terms used, but otherwise? Not a chance. This juxtaposition, to me, only emphasized Peterson's claustrophobia and separation: from his fellow crewmates ("despair has made strangers of them") and from the rest of humanity by virtue of the predicament in which the astronauts find themselves.
At times this separation becomes a little too much - we don't see much of the other crewmates, they are there as tools for the plot, realistic necessities. They are sketched in brief, which it feels is how Peterson views, them, but at times this brevity can be somewhat hostile, I found myself more than once wanting to know more than I was given.
While the text is entirely male, Sales has revealed on twitter that this is deliberate and that, as part of a series of four, women will slowly become more and more central as the series progresses: perhaps a comment on the archaisms of those stories that formed the trope itself, but we will have to see.
In essence; don't be put off by the hardness of this trope SF tale; it reveals something fresh, something exciting, a storyof ideas that has a character and his feelings at its heart.
Overall Rating: 4.5*
Addendum: I have yet to read the sequel, The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself, which is now out, but will soon, in between my other reading and review it here.