Whippleshield Books, h/b, 67pp (signed and numbered), £6.99
Reviewed by Alex Bardy (@mangozoid)
It would be remiss of me not to mention that I am a fan of Ian Sales’ writing, so it was with some trepidation that I approached Great Ocean, the latest instalment in the author’s series of tales broadly based around the Apollo missions — would he finally let his readers down given that the first two were really very good indeed?
No, of course not… If we consider the first two as perhaps more ‘hard SF’-orientated then this one is firmly in the ‘alternate history’ bracket, nailing its colours firmly to the mast through extensive and quite brilliant research work by the looks of it. Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is actually two stories in one, telling as it does the tale of the so-called ‘Mercury 13’ — a selection of women who successfully completed the same astronaut training as their male counterparts — and Lt. Commander John Grover McIntyre on a completely different quest deep into the ocean. Both tales never even reach beyond 1970, but that doesn’t preclude them from being considered under the SF category.
Set against a backdrop in which the Korean War escalated out of control, this (very short) book is told in two separate threads. The ‘Up’ thread describes some of the trials, tribulations and the politics behind the female candidates as they jostle for position to see which one ends up making the first flight into space, while the ‘Down’ thread follows McIntyre on a deep sea dive to retrieve a valuable piece of film that has somehow escaped the US after being ejected from one of its spy satellites. Both threads ultimately lead to the same conclusion, told in little vignettes (called ‘Charm’ and ‘Strange’) but the trick is really in the telling, and here the author has done a marvellous job — this is a very quick read, if only because you really don’t want to put it down. This covers the bulk of the book, written in a style that genuinely makes you feel this could have all happened if history had just turned a different corner, and it’s herein that the strength of this work lies: it has a distinct literary edge that makes you think hard and fast about how the world carries on its merry way, and just how oblivious many of its inhabitants are to what’s usually going on beneath their very noses.
In previous instalments, Sales has gone to town with Appendices, a Glossary and such-like at the rear of the book to back up his extensive research, so it’s refreshing to find that this time round he details the facts and the history in a completely different voice, writing in effect two short non-fiction articles (titled ‘Bottom’ and ‘Top’ appropriately enough) that tell a far darker story of how things were done and why the real ‘Mercury 13’ women were criminally overlooked at the time.
Needless to say, I liked this, and it’s short enough to make it an easy decision (for me) to go back and read it a second time just to really savour the content; which I did, as soon as I’d finished it the first time… Very few books grab me like that, so it’s not difficult to recommend this one. And you really should check out the first two if you haven’t already, Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself — personally, I hope the fourth instalment has a much easier title, but just like this whole series, you simply don’t know what to expect next… 😉