Genesis of Apollo, part 1

It was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. I’d been running a blog, A Space About Books About Space, on which I reviewed books about space exploration since December 2007, and I decided to celebrate the anniversary by reviewing some books specifically about the mission – a biography of Neil Armstrong, First Man by James Hansen (2005); the autobiographies of the other two crew-members, Return to Earth by Edwin E ‘Buzz’ Aldrin Jr (1973) and Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins (1974); and the book of the mission co-written by all three, First on the Moon (1970). I also thought it might be interesting to write a science fiction short story set during the Apollo programme. I came up with an idea for one about an invented Apollo mission to the far side of the Moon, and I titled it ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ after the mission’s landing-site, Mare Desiderii.

(Interestingly, the mare’s name was given to it by the USSR, which named it for the original name of their Luna 1 probe, Мечты, “dream”. Later, the mare was discovered to comprise a smaller mare, Mare Ingenii, and several craters, so the designation Mare Desiderii is no longer used.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to finish my story in time for the Apollo 11 anniversary. A few months later, the writing group I was in wanted to do something for that year’s city literary festival and hit on the idea of each member writing a flash fiction piece. I went back to ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ and realised I could chop it down to 1,000 words and it would work really well at that length. So I rewrote it. And then I posted the story on A Space About Books About Space in October 2009.

I’d enjoyed writing ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, particularly the way I’d stitched its events into the real history of the twentieth century – all the astronauts named in the story, for example, were real Apollo astronauts. I wanted to do something similar, also based around the Apollo programme, but at a much longer length. I don’t recall if the title, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, or the location, Apollo 15’s landing-site at Mare Imbrium, came first. One thing I did know, however, was that I wanted a Cormac McCarthy-esque style of prose, with a strong focus on the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar landscape. There’d also be flashback sequences in a longer, more discursive style, likely inspired by a recent read of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001). And I had the ending clear in my head.

By December of 2009, I’d decided that Adrift on the Sea of Rains was actually the first of a quartet of novellas. An idea for a standalone science fiction novella, titled ‘Wave Fronts’, had been sitting in my “ideas book” for over a year, and I could use that for the second novella. (In the event, I never did use that title, although I did keep the central premise.) The third and fourth books of the now-titled “Apollo Quartet” I’d think about once I had the first one done.

Throughout 2010, I worked on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, researching, and then writing and rewriting. But I stalled about three-quarters of the way through, when I realised I wanted a lot more technical detail in the scene where the astronauts decide on how to send one of their number to Low Earth Orbit. Despite that, my novella was definitely coming together.

I remember mentioning the story to a number of people at the Eastercon in Birmingham that year. The response was positive, and one or two seemed very interested in what I described. I was sort of hoping some small press editors might ask to see it once it was finished, but none did.

In early 2011, I agreed to edit an anthology of hard science fiction, Rocket Science, for Mutation Press. Adrift on the Sea of Rains sat in a bottom-drawer, waiting for me to wrangle that one scene into shape. After the Rocket Science submissions window ended in mid-October, I returned to that scene and finally got it how I wanted it. I finished off the novella, and sent it to some beta readers. They liked it – but the final section, they told me, felt too abrupt. So I completely rewrote it.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains was finally completed just before Christmas 2011. I sent it off to Jim Steel for editing. In mid-January, I sent him an updated draft. He came back with his notes shortly afterwards. I made the requested changes.

I’d realised before Christmas that I had something which, to be honest, I didn’t think any magazines or small presses would take seriously. Two pages of abbreviations! A twelve-page glossary! And I had no intention of “streamlining” the information in the glossary into the narrative. That wasn’t why I’d written it. I had Adrift on the Sea of Rains exactly the way I wanted it, and I had no intention of changing its structure, no matter how “uncommercial” that structure might be.

There was also the upcoming launch for Rocket Science at the 2012 Eastercon in London. If I could get my novella ready for then, I could launch it – appropriately enough – on the back of the anthology. Certainly no existing small press could turn the book around so fast – in fact, several had told me they were backed up for at least two years…

So that was why I created Whippleshield Books and chose to publish Adrift on the Sea of Rains myself.

February and March were mildly panic-stricken as I put the final books together – paperback and signed limited hardback editions. I’d played around with a few cover designs, mostly using photographs taken on the Apollo missions. One evening, I was watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), a great film, when one of the characters picked up a paperback book. As soon as I saw the book, I knew that was what I wanted: a cover that harkened back to those old Penguin paperbacks of the 1960s.

I put together Adrift on the Sea of Rains’s cover one weekend, then emailed PDFs of the finished book to people for back-cover quotes. That was a little scary. I knew what I’d written was the sort of very technical, detail-heavy and literary science fiction that I wanted to read – Jed Mercurio’s excellent novel Ascent (2007), which was not actually published as science fiction, had been a touchstone work for me throughout the writing; as had astronaut Thomas P Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture (2002). But would others see it the same way? I mean, my novella had that huge glossary. Only bad space operas and fat fantasy novels had glossaries.

The first response was from Adam Roberts, and he was very complimentary – he described it as “a Cold War alt-historical gem”. This was going to work. More comments came back, and they too were positive. Everyone I sent it to was quoted on the back-cover.

That was it. I had gone and published myself. Properly, in hardback and paperback, with an ISBN and cover quotes and everything.

Now I just had to hope that people bought Adrift on the Sea of Rains and liked it…

They did. Reviews ranged from positive to very positive. I was taken by surprise when Adrift on the Sea of Rains was nominated for the BSFA Award in early 2013, and even more stunned when it actually won the award.

Now all I had to do was start work on the next novella of the Apollo Quartet…

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