It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


The Apollo Quartet that never was

The Apollo Quartet is hard sf, but it’s also alternate history. And the books of the quartet themselves have their own alternate history too. They say a plan never survives contact with the enemy and, in pretty much the same way, a synopsis never survives unscathed once you actually get into writing a novel, novella or story.

I can’t remember at what point in the writing of Adrift on the Sea of Rains I decided it would be the first of the quartet… but once I’d made the decision I obviously needed to come up with three more stories. I had one sitting in my “ideas book” (actually, it’s just a Google doc) that I thought would be suitable. It was only when I started writing the second book of the quartet that I realised it didn’t quite fit. So I kept one narrative thread, left the other as implied, added a new narrative about the mission to Mars, set the story decades earlier… and changed the title to The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself.

The original Apollo Quartet 3 and 4 bear no resemblance to the ones that have been/will be published. The original synopsis for Apollo Quartet 3 just simply didn’t fit in with how the quartet was shaping up. And I’d decided I really wanted to write about the Mercury 13 and the bathyscaphe Trieste. So I did.

With the Mercury 13 as the subject of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, another theme was rising to the forefront of the four novellas… and so I needed a new story for the final book. I’d already “borrowed” the title of my favourite film, but the link to Sirk’s masterpiece was too thin. That wasn’t going to work. But with a little sleight of hand, I had myself a new plot which provided a suitable end to the quartet, and then the title – with a little tweaking – would suit it perfectly. Instead of an Avro engineer, my protagonist would be an astronaut’s wife. And rather than just a fan of science fiction, she’d be a writer…

So here, for your delight and delectation, are the original synopses for Apollo Quartets 2 to 4, which I recently discovered in a Google doc created back in September 2011.

2. Wave Fronts The Earth has a single interstellar colony – administered by NASA, ESA and JASA – on SuperEarth2 at Gleise 581, twenty light years from Earth, and which has been in existence for twenty years. By now radio waves from the colony should have reached Earth, but there has been nothing. So Shepard has been sent to find out what’s happened. He travels to Gleise 581 by bubble-ship, and when he arrives at SuperEarth2, he discovers that the colony has completely vanished. Using one of the bubble-ship’s re-entry capsules, he lands on the surface and treks across the land to the settlement’s location. But it is as if it had never existed. And now he stuck there as there is no way for him to get into orbit. A second narrative depicts the dismantling of a colony and its preparations to leave its world before the light front reaches Earth. The colonists move onto another planetary system… where they meet an alien race, engaged in the same method of colonisation as themselves.

3. The Shores of Earth Earth is now home only to the empress of the Healing Empire, her family and staff, who all live in a vast palace. The rest of humanity lives off-Earth, scattered throughout the Solar System. The protagonist travels to Earth and lands in capsule which can reconfigure itself into lifting-body/glider. He is immediately arrested by the empress’s personal guard, and subsequently interrogated by a captain of the guard. The protagonist has come to report the arrival of a vessel from an interstellar colony populated centuries before by a generation ship, but its arrival is too soon – there’s not been enough time to get to the exoplanet, and then build the necessary infrastructure to send the ship back. Perhaps the visiting ship is alien? Except no evidence of aliens has ever been found…

4. All That The Stars Allow It is the late 1950s, and a British electronics engineer is offered a job in Houston with NASA, which entails moving from his current job in Canada where he works for Avro. (A lot of Mission Control was designed and built by British engineers, many of which had previously worked for Avro in Canada.) He packs up and drives south, anticipating the future of manned spaceflight given what he knows of NASA’s plans. The engineer is an avid reader of science fiction, and the second narrative is the text of a story of the period of an engineer in a future in which humanity has colonised the Solar System.

Perhaps one day these stories may appear, no doubt in somewhat changed form. But when all’s said and done, I think the Apollo Quartet as it now exists is a much better piece of work than it would have been had I used the above plots.

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In which I gaze into a crystal ball

… although I’ve no idea why because it still hasn’t given me a winning number for the lottery. But now that the Hugo nomination period is closed, and everyone who was going to nominate has done so, what can we expect to see when the shortlists are announced over the Easter weekend?

There’s been quite an interesting discussion over the last month or so among (mostly) British fans, prompted by the fact the Worldcon is in London this year. We plan to attend, so for the first time (for many of us, anyway) we’ve made a serious effort to nominate works for the Hugo Award. And one point that has come out of this discussion, and the various draft ballots posted on blogs, etc, is quite how stupid many of the Hugo categories are. I mean, seriously, what bunch of idiots thought up “semiprozine”? What type of bulbhead defines dramatic presentations long form and short form with such specific language that long form is open to both tentpole summer blockbuster movies and the entire 26-episode season of a television series? As for the novelette… I accept that the term once had historical significance, but it’s now an anachronism and needs to be summarily dispatched. And let’s not talk about awards going to people rather than works… Or the fan categories…

Whatever. I saw a whole bunch of varied draft ballots covering a widespread of fiction and non-fiction in each of the categories. And the really sad thing is… I think the eventual shortlists will be full of the same old shit. The novel shortlist will be Gaiman and McGuire and Corey… and the novellas will be all Valente and Swirsky and Chiang… and the short stories will be all Liu. Though Leckie might well make it onto the novel shortlist, and Samatar to the short story shortlist.

In other words, it’s going to be fascinating seeing how much of an impact hosting the Worldcon in the UK will have, how much of a blip in the old guard’s voting us vocal online Brit-based (and other non-US-based) fans will have on the final shortlists. Having said that, in 2005 the Worldcon was in Glasgow and the Hugo best novel shortlist was entirely British – and only two of the books were published in the US during the preceding year. (The other fiction categories, however, were overwhelmingly American.) But that was nine years ago, and the online sf community is so much bigger and more vocal now. And more balkanised too.

Which may well be part of the problem. I’ve only seen draft ballots from those within my circle of friends and acquaintances, so I’ve no real idea of what the wider Hugo voting public has been nominating. The fan categories will be a good indicator of this. Do the old farts and their paper fanzines outnumber those from the online community? Will the fan categories join the twenty-first century or remain stuck back in the 1950s? Will a blog make it onto the best fanzine shortlist?

Like I said, I’m not holding my breath. The Hugo Awards, for all their claim they’re “world awards”, are resolutely American, with rules designed to maximise the visibility of works to US voters. The Worldcon, despite its name, is a US con. Even for Loncon 3, there are more US members than UK – although, to be fair, more UK-based members will be attending; but more US-based members have bought supporting memberships. Don’t forget, however, that members of last year’s Worldcon, which was in San Antonio, Texas, also get to nominate in this year’s Hugo Awards. As does anyone who’s bought membership for next year’s Worldcon in Spokane, Washington…

So that conversation we’ve been having online about the Hugos over the past couple of months? I suspect we might as well have not had it for all the good it will do. But I sincerely hope to be pleasantly surprised.