I’ve been getting pushes from a lot of my SF buddy-reading friends to tackle the Quartet series (the 4 books). Here I’m limiting myself reviewing-wise to just the first book for now (more later on). What we have here is SF at its finest. If there’s a heaven and a hell for SF works, this one definitely belongs to the high spheres. The novel’s subject matter: The Apollo programme went much further than in reality, and it was also used to establish a reality-shattering technology that aimed to switch between universes. Seems easy and belonging to the mundane spectrum of SF, right? No.
The one thing I for one know for sure about the future is that it won’t be easy. For this reason, Sales’ highly alternate reality carry conviction. He and I also suspect that the future will be a different country and in there they’ll talk a different language as well. The story’s heavy larding of this imagined-mixed-with-reality-slang does yield to patient study, but not, I fear, before Sales lost a fair percentage of his readership. Why? This is SF of the hardest type (the one closest to my heart). The novel seems just an old and familiar story. Too many SF writers try to entertain me with pseudo-conflicts which turn on arbitrary pseudo-answers to pseudo-problems. That’s not my kind of SF. I know I’m sometimes duly entertained, even if one hour later I don’t remember much of what I read. That’s my issue with much of the SF of nowadays. Only a few seem to devise realistic and complex answers to problems. Those who pose good strong problems later on take them out of the picture with a wisp of imaginary physics. My kind of SF might not be the hard kind (might even belong to the so-called soft sciences; e.g., China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh). What matters to me is not the main character’s ability to solve the problem down there at the heart of the spaceship (as it’s the case here), or the asteroid, or the planet, or the nebula, or some such. Sometimes this is what puts “outsiders” off the SF genre (that’s why some readers find SF’s hardest kind so off-putting at times). What Sales accomplishes here is very rare in SF. The story here is not about understanding the physics or the technology, or believing the tilted outcome of this particular universe/alternate reality, because we are living in a reality so tilted as to lose the reader. Sales makes me believe in his reality, and there’s no other form of SF that generates so intense a feeling that the world we inhabit for the duration of the novel belongs by right to those who can relate.
For an interesting debate on the nature of SF vs Literary Fiction cf. Juliet McKenna’s essay from the Guardian: “Genre fiction is no different from literary fiction.”
It’s hard not to get in the mood by Sales’ enthusiasm for the science behind the fiction, even when he doesn't used quotation marks in the dialogues. This style is not new in SF (c.f., Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin”, José Saramago’s “Blindness” and The Elephant's Journey - my favourite novel from him -, Hal Duncan's “Vellum”, etc. I’m a sucker for this kid of technique. It makes the narrative more distanced, putting us very much as an observer in the story. Also quite effective was the way Sales “narrated” Peterson's past throughout the novella (in italics).
Downside to the story: the Wunderwaffe. It came off as a bit of deus ex machina. I’m not sure this way the best way to introduce String Theory and allowing for the possibility of alternate realities.
From now on Neal Stephenson is not alone as the master of the infodump and the “show-don’t-tell” type of SF. They can both tell rather than show. One of many examples from this book: “Peterson put one hand on his stick and the other to the throttle, and stared so hard at the TV screen his vision blurred until he was looking at an impressionist landscape of clouds lit by a pointillist sun.”
This is the kind of story that makes me believes SF won’t turn into a continuous utterly- anachronistic-Miles-Vorkosigan-Adventure or into a mercenaries-that-save-young-monarchs-and-solve-riddles-at-strange-foreign milieus. I don’t want to live in a world where this malady exists in SF…
SF = Speculative Fiction