I always love a chance to read and review something by Ian Sales. His ability to combine space exploration, alternate history and literary fiction into enthralling short stories is amazing.
For those who don’t know, Ian is the award-winning British author who wrote the Apollo Quartet (“Adrift on the Sea of Rains”, “The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself“, “Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above” and All That Outer Space Allows) and a collection of short fiction called Dreams of the Space Age. The book I am reviewing today (or short story really) is “Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum;” according to Ian, it came out of a joke he made that he was going to write a fifth book in his Apollo Quartet...but the idea was too good to waste it on cheap humor.
“Coda” is perhaps the most meta work of Ian’s that I have read. The first three parts cover someone’s recollections about their trip to the National Air and Space Museum where we learn through them about a tragic ending to Skylab 4 and how it impacted not only the Space Race, but science fiction as well. The next two parts deal with the inception and history behind The Poseidon Quartet, a collection of short alternate history works featuring a divergent timeline of deep sea exploration. We end with an excerpt from a script titled “Hellfire”, followed by a glossary and lists of references.
From my very brief description of “Coda” you can probably guess that the visitor and the author of The Poseidon Quartet is Ian…or at least alternate versions of himself inhabiting timelines not far removed from our own. The thing is you can’t consider yourself a true alternate historian unless you have imagined how your own life could be different. Regrets and wishful thinking are part of the human experience and fit perfectly with asking “what if”. Alternate historians, in my humble opinion, are impacted by it even more because we get a lot more creative…and perhaps go a lot darker. Alternate history, especially the English-language variety, is a pessimistic genre. Perhaps that’s why Ian imagined a tragic or burnt-out version of himself giving up on the Space Age when he wrote “Coda”…
Anywho, “Coda” continues to showcase Ian’s skill as a writer. His fiction was well-researched and I loved the fact he included his sources. You can’t always get away with that in fiction, but I am glad Ian works to keep it in. To be fair, though, it is a quick read, only coming in at 38 pages (and that includes the introduction written by Adam Roberts). It also doesn’t have “characters” and instead drops the traditional narrative story for a series of memoir-esque pieces. Not bad per se, but might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
That said, I liked it and I can recommend it not just to alternate historians, but anyone who ever wanted to go up there and explore the universe.