Re: Recovering Apollo 8

I was just a kid in the 60s, but I remember the uncertainty of the Apollo program, from the terrible reality of Apollo 1, to wacky speculations that Apollo 11 would sink into the lunar dust. The movie “Apollo 13” captured wonderfully the constant fear that something might go wrong. When you look at what technology we had available, the amazing thing is that it worked at all. In “Recovering Apollo 8,” Kristine Kathryn Rusch explores a world where Apollo 8 didn’t come back from the dark side of the moon.

The story has incited some controversy, in part out of the fear that people will be confused, and in part out of discomfort of using living people, however public. But right from the beginning, the story tells you that the images it is about to paint are not memories, but false and wrong.

Richard remembered it wrong. He remembered it as if it were a painting, and he were observing it, instead of a living breathing memory that he had a part of.

The image was so vivid, in fact, that he had had it painted with the first of what would become obscene profits from his business, and placed the painting in his office—each version of his office, the latter ones growing so big that he had to find a special way to display the painting, a way to help it remain the center of his vision.

The false memory—and the painting—went like this: [color added]

The opening lines use repetition like an incantation about memory and painting, both being false. Also in the second paragraph, which is one long sentence, key words are repeated to help you the reader keep your place. Finally, this long, flowing sentence is followed by a short, snappy paragraph.

Beautifully written, the story is focuses on one lone character, Richard Johansenn. A successor to Delos D. Harriman in Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold The Moon,” Richard has been obsessed all his life with “rescuing” the astronauts. He essentially founds the industry and builds the technology necessary to establish a base on the Moon, regular trips into orbit, and the first steps to Mars. This suggests that the loss of the astronauts propels the whole world into space faster, as if we would have had to prove we could get back on that horse and ride it.

Government funding was there—it had always been there—for space travel. The latter part of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first were called the Epoch of Space Travel.

Richard liked to believe humankind would look back on it all, and call it the Beginning of Space Travel. He hated to think that satellites and a large, fully equipped space station in orbit, a small base on the Moon, and some commercial traffic would be all that there was to space travel.

Richard’s efforts seem about to peak when he joins the team that retrieves the capsule and he opens the door–and it’s empty. The astronauts’ effects are there, including the Genesis passage that in our world was read on Christmas Eve, but they are gone. In a very moving passage, Richard concludes that the astronauts chose to die among the stars.

This was the high point of the story, but it was only the end of part one of four, and worse yet, the point where my plausibility meter ran out. For the sake of the story, I could allow that one man would change the world. I could easily believe that he would find the capsule. But I could only just barely accept Richard’s presence when the capsule was recovered. Then after establishing in great detail just how unpredictable the orbital mechanics would be, he finds each body, one by one. When Richard goes out to fetch them–in person–it was just too far-fetched.

I think the story succeeds as much as it does precisely because it’s mostly told in summary. It’s a lot easier to tell about something incredible than to lay out the details necessary to show it convincingly. I also suspect that the SF audience wants to believe in Richard’s success, because we want to believe in the stars. If you want another example of how summary lets you tell a sweeping story of unlikely things, try reading Olaf Stapledon’s Last And First Men.

Moving, but flawed.

Tomorrow: More messing about with reality.