Ian Sales – Adrift on the Sea of Rains – Review

December 5th, 2012 by

As a shibboleth of middlebrow criticism, ‘show don’t tell’ takes some beating. From undergraduate creative writing courses to the book review pages of the Daily Telegraph, this over-used dictum seeks to enforce upon writers the virtue of weaving exposition into their story, rather than slapping it on with a trowel, like cheap cement.

This poses a problem for those genres, such as mystery fiction or spy thrillers, which rely on information for much of their plot: who did what, why and where, or how and with which implement, are questions which power stories written in these modes. In particular, science fiction has traditionally been seen as the ugly home of the ‘infodump’, a vein of fiction so in love with data – with ‘technobabble’ – that the prose of its most famous authors has been maligned as lacking in finesse.

Like most rules the concept of ‘show don’t tell’ is more honoured in the breach than the observance. However, the observance of this rule is key to the appeal of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Ian Sales’s long short story – or very short novella – published by the tiny independent press, Whippleshield Books, Sales founded.  Adrift on the Sea of Rains is set in an alternative universe in which the Cold War took a much hotter turn, and NASA became a subsidiary of the US military (“turning ploughshares into swords”), the story’s lead character is Vance Peterson, the commander of the US moonbase. This “moonbase” is miles away from the impossibly idealised cliché of 1950s pulp sci fi; all artificial gravity and sexy jumpsuits. Sales’s science fiction is of the “hard” variety – fiercely focused on the physics of the possible – and to this end his characters hulk around in unwieldy suits, worrying when the vacuum-packed food supply will run out. When the characters lose radio contact with Earth, then, the reader knows as well as they do that it isn’t little green men who are responsible but, in all likelihood, nuclear war. Alternative worlds are a venerable tradition in science fiction, and Sales’s Cold War is queasily plausible, seemingly resting in no small part upon Soviet success in Afghanistan. The politics of this other reality, however, are less important to him than “the Nazi weird science” which, in the way of information-led fictions, drives events.

The American moonbase has been assigned ‘the Bell’, a fictional piece of technology – known to critics of sf as a ‘McGuffin’ – which was ‘liberated’ by GIs from Germany at the end of the Second World War. Consisting of “two beryllium peroxide cylinders […] in a bath of a violet mercury-like substance known as ‘Xerum-525’”, the Bell fires radioactive thorium particles at high voltage into a vortex generated by the spinning cylinders. Sales’s extrapolative physics suggests that this process would render it possible for one alternative reality to punch through to another – and we join the crew of the moonbase gazing at their irradiated Earth, waiting for it to change back to the blue-and-green orb they once knew.

Sales’s singular achievement is to make all this not just interesting but gripping: he routinely tells rather than shows – “Peterson unlatches the straps holding [the PLSS] to his back, and then unzips the A7LB’s pressure garment from the left hip around the back and up to the right shoulder” – and yet this detail contributes rather than detracts from the claustrophobia, the sickening inevitability, of his tale. When the Bell finally works its magic, Sales’s characters conduct an Apollo 13 like brainstorming session, feverishly calculating how to launch one of their number out of the moon’s gravity well and towards a revived earth:

“It won’t work if you can’t get into orbit, Alden insists. He slides his two pages of algebra across the table to Bartlett. You check my numbers, he says. There is no suggestion in this tone that the calculations might contain a mistake. Alden wants Bartlett to check his figures to see for himself the truth of Alden’s solution.”

There’s something James Ellroy like in the telegraphic style in all this, and Ellroy, like Sales, relies on “infodumps”, most notably in his hard-boiled American Tabloid trilogy. ‘Adrift on the Sea of Rains’ sits easily in this terse company, a confident piece of short science fiction which shows and tells other writers how not just to “infodump” with abandon – but entertain.

About this Author Dan Hartland is a writer and musician, with particular interests in literary and science fiction, and folk and Americana. His reviews and criticism have appeared at Strange Horizons, and in the journals Vector and Foundation. He has written for the Camden Crawl, and posts regularly at his own blog, thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com. He can be found on Twitter as @danhartland.