2 August 2015

Review: All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

All That Outer Space Allows
Ian Sales
Whippleshield Books, 2015

I'm grateful to the author for sending me a preview e-book copy of this.  I ordered the hardback from his website as soon as it was available - from which you'll not be surprised to hear that I really, really enjoyed it.

This is the fourth part of the Apollo quartet, which draws on the real US space programme to explore alternate realities and counterfactuals. The books have become increasing wide ranging. The first saw a group of astronauts in a prolonged Apollo programme stranded on the Moon, while the second reached out to Mars and beyond with the neatest and most logical solution to the Fermi paradox I've ever seem.  The third part returned to Earth and branched out to look as deep sea exploration, a comparable endeavour to landing humans on the Moon, but also at the 1960s US female astronaut programme, a little known part of the space effort that wasn't allowed to get far in the face of all that Right-Stuff 50s and 60s testosterone.

In a sense, the final book continues this theme. It focuses on Ginny, the wife of a (fictional) astronaut who Sales slots into a real mission, Apollo 15. It is a very clever book, grappling both with 60s gender expectations (Ginny is expected to do everything to be a perfect helpmeet to her husband: it's hinted that his chance of getting on a mission will be reduced if she doesn't) and also with the development and history of the SF community.  It is, therefore, very much a part of the current argument over diversity in SF and illustrates precisely how a book whose immediate preoccupation is not with spaceships, alien planets and derring-do can nevertheless reflect humanity's place and future in the universe.

I realise that saying a book is "clever" may be seen as damning it but I'm not doing that! It is well written and has a subtle, layered structure following Ginny's life as both astronaut's wife and SF writer.  Because in this version of the 1960s, science fiction is mainly written by, and read by, women (and consequently despised, plus ca change...) to the extent that male authors may need to adopt a female writing name.  So Ginny's cramped, controlled life contrasts with the leaps of her imagination and we seen her both plotting stories (some of which will have familiar echoes) and engaging in communication with the wider SF community.  We even have one of her stories. (In pre-Internet days, this is done by post of course).

At the same time there is some commentary on Ginny's writing via inserted material but this is from yet another reality, in which, as in our world, SF is assumed a largely male preserve.  I'd argue that despite the apparent absence of overt SF features, these layers - and there is also an authorial commentary which makes no bones about the fictional nature of the story, and even discusses the choices behind the plot (Ginny's husband was previously stationed in Germany, so she's unaware of certain things such as the Mercury female astronauts, for example).

There is a lot more than this to the book, indeed there is a remarkable amount in its 158 pages. It is in many respects a monument to the achievement of women as part of the science fiction community, and a rebuke to those who are pushing back against diversity in the genre today. But it's also beautifully written and closes off the arc of the Quartet stories in a truly satisfying way.

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