Saying that, Ian Sales’ story is not, strictly speaking, short at all. I’m not sure about its exact word count—it’s either a novelette or a full-fledged novella—but whatever its length, and aside the pros and cons of including it in this particular category, what 'Adrift on the Sea of Rains' is... is extraordinary.
Brace yourself, however, because this tour de force begins bleakly. Which is not to say it ends happily either!
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.
In the grey gunpowder dust, he stands in the pose so familiar from televised missions. He leans forward to counterbalance the weight of the PLSS on his back; the A7LB’s inflated bladder pushes his arms out from his sides. And he stares up at that grey-white marble fixed mockingly above the horizon. He listens to the whirr of the pumps, his own breath an amniotic susurrus within the confines of his helmet. This noises reassure him—sound itself he finds comforting in this magnificent desolation.
If he turns about—blurring bootprints which might otherwise last for millennia—he sees the blanket-like folds of mountains, all painted with scalpel-edged shadows. Over there, to his right, the scattered descent stages of LM Trucks and Augmented LMs fill the mare; and one, just one, still with its ascent stage. Another, he knows, is nearly twenty years old, a piece of abandoned history; but he does not know which one.
No prizes for guessing where Peterson and the eight other survivors Ian Sales soon introduces us to were when the world ended.
But as a wise man mooted many years ago, the moon is a harsh mistress, and it’s all the crew of Falcon Base can do to wake up each day without a home to go to.
It’s been twenty-four months since Earth stopped responding to messages from Peterson and his fellow Americans. Twenty-four months since the world’s beautiful blue gave way to a dismal, gritty grey. Since the conflict between the United States and the Soviets culminated in a planet not going but gone, leaving only this sliver of life behind.
They all have their own ways of dealing with the situation. Deep inside each of them, hope has been eroded away to a tiny nub, as useless as an appendix. Peterson loses himself in the lunar landscape. McKay locks himself in his room and listens to mournful country music, as if their misery renders his own smaller and more manageable. Scott has put away his personality, consigned it to some corner of his mind where it cannot be battered and bruised by their slow descent into despair. Curtis reads, working his way obsessively through every manual and technical document in the base. Kendall has his torsion field generator, the Bell, whose arcane workings he claims to understand more with each passing week.
It is this last device that our wretched moon-men have hung the weather-beaten wreck of their expectations on. With the Bell, they may very well be able to turn back time. But all the potential points of divergence they program into the thing seem to lead to the same inevitable end, and even if they are able to find a replacement present—which, with precious resources diminishing by the day, seems increasingly unlikely—what then?
Excepting said tech and an alt-history element, Ian Sales seems comprehensively committed to accuracy in all things relating to the several subjects addressed in 'Adrift on the Sea of Rains,' as evidenced by its independently lengthy appendixes. But though the level and texture of Sales’ procedural detail is remarkable, it does not detract from the narrative’s forward progress, nor the arc of our central character, who snaps out of his trance just in time to crash a spectacular last act.
The supporting cast, on the other hand, hardly figure in to the fiction. But given that “despair has made strangers of them”—“Their paths cross only at meal-times—and even then, the nine of them might as well be in separate rooms”—this is wholly appropriate; in fact, this pervasive sense of solitude, even (or especially) when Robertson is in the company of others, adds to the effectiveness of an already sorrowful story.
So too does the author’s use of the present tense imbue each moment with the dreadful emptiness Peterson himself feels—and this is but one of the compositional tricks Ian Sales has up his sleeve. Indeed, 'Adrift of the Sea of Rains' is but one of the four proposed volumes of The Apollo Quartet, the second of which is already upon us. Let me stress, though, that both parts of the whole stand alone; their only real relation beyond the obvious is that they’re both brilliant.
I dare say you too will despair as you read through 'Adrift on the Sea of Rains,' and though this might not sound particularly pleasant, believe you me: this nominee is required reading for anyone with the remotest interest in science fiction.
As it its successor. But we’ll leave 'The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself' for another time, perhaps...