The best scenes are the ones that promise the impossible and deliver.
Be it books, films, comics, whatever, it’s a rare treat when something is built up beyond all reasonable expectations and then doesn’t turn out to be a great, sucking heap of disappointment. But let’s face it, it doesn’t happen very often. This places creators in a tough position: the more you promise, the more you have to deliver. Or to put it another way, the higher you jump the more likely you are to end up flat on your face.
As the fourth book in Ian Sales’s well-regarded Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows was already promising a fair bit.
For those of you who haven’t come across the Quartet, it’s a series of loosely connected novellas (except that All That Outer Space Allows is a novel, because this isn’t a series that values consistency especially highly) which all have in common a connection to the Apollo space program—whether it be our real one or alternative narratives based on histories diverging in subtle or not so subtle ways. Yet within those broad constraints, Sales has set himself—and his readership—any number of challenges, be it hiding vital plot information in appendixes or designing every book to be in some way disconcertingly different to its predecessor, or simply by telling smart, challenging stories without descending to what Sales himself would no doubt describe as “word salad.”
Here at the end of the series, this adds up to the following: in a universe awfully similar to but not quite our own, science fiction is a genre written for and by women, and Ginny Eckhardt—wife of astronaut Walden Eckhardt—lives out her vicarious fantasies of a reality that her gender denies her by secretly indulging a love of both reading and writing sci-fi, while at the same time playing the role of astronaut’s wife to such increasing perfection that even she isn’t certain where reality ends and fiction begins.
Only, things aren’t quite as straightforward as that. Because at certain junctures, Sales briefly abandons his narrative in favor of fourth wall-breaking interruptions direct to the reader. These intrusions somewhat fulfill the role that appendixes served in earlier works, but go much deeper, as fact and make-believe slip and slide against each other in increasingly convoluted ways. They’re particularly puzzling because they seem like they should disrupt the narrative and yet only enforce it; the voice of the author proves not quite as persuasive as Ginny’s own presence. And they’re not the only disruptions. The text is also littered with what might best be called artefacts, items of often-falsified evidence that serve to substantiate its fiction. And one of these, towards the midway point, is a self-contained short story: “The Spaceships Men Don’t See,” by Ginny Eckhardt.
By this point, having kicked a sizable hole in the fourth wall and hopelessly entangled the real and the fictitious, Sales has dug himself into a nigh-impossible corner, or perhaps any number of nigh-impossible corners. The title of that short is, of course, a nod towards Alice Sheldon’s novelette The Women Men Don’t See, with all the connotations that go with that fact. And we’ve been introduced to this particular story before, having seen the creative process and her influences through Ginny’s own eyes. But “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” is also a commentary on the themes of All That Outer Space Allows and on Ginny’s life and circumstances, including aspects of it that Ginny herself is, inevitably, oblivious to. And—an odd but crucial point—we have no idea if Ginny is actually any good as a writer. Have we been reading the story of a would-have-been-superstar or a mediocre wannabe who’s gained a little insight from her close proximity to the real space program?
So much there to deal with, and so much scope for the whole business to crumble in upon itself. A short story sitting slap bang in the middle of a novel, bearing crushing weight from both sides. In short, a promise of the impossible.
The point being, “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” is a terrifically good short story.
But it’s also a tremendous pastiche of golden age science fiction, and of fifties American culture in general.
All of which is an achievement, but it’s not the achievement, the one that shoves the whole thing from “great” to “just showing off”…
“The Spaceships Men Don’t See” isn’t an Ian Sales short story but a Ginny Eckhardt short story.
It really is. I’ve read Ian Sales short stories; I know them when I see them. And if I had to testify as to who wrote this one, Sales or Eckhardt, I’d throw my vote unhesitatingly behind the latter, all evidence to the contrary be damned.
The Apollo Quartet is an extraordinary bit of science fiction writing—extraordinary, perhaps, precisely because it refuses so constantly and so vigorously to be ordinary. But, you know what, I’m not going to try and persuade you to read four books, because life’s short, right? It’s absolutely okay to start at book four. I’d struggle to pick a favorite—I’m almost equally enamoured with book three, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above—but there’s no doubt that All That Outer Space Allows is wonderful work. And so much of the reason for that is Ginny Eckhardt, my favorite protagonist of 2015, because—thanks in large part to a short story titled “The Spaceships Men Don’t See”—I know that she’s out there somewhere, putting out the kind of fiction that most of us can only dream of.
David Tallerman is the author of Patchwerk, a science fiction novella from Tor.com Publishing, as well as the Tales of Easie Damasco fantasy trilogy, the graphic novel Endangered Weapon B and around a hundred short stories, comic and film scripts.