Genesis of Apollo, part 2

I’ve always liked the idea of quartets (or quintets) in which each subsequent book alters the reader’s perspective on the previous book(s). So why not make Adrift on the Sea of Rains the first in a quartet? And since the Apollo programme was so central to it, I’d call it… the Apollo Quartet. I even had something in my “ideas book” (actually a Google document) which I thought might make a suitable second instalment.

‘Wave Fronts’, as it was originally called, was near-future hard science fiction built around the mystery of an exoplanet colony’s disappearance. However, since ‘Wave Fronts’ was near-future and the real Apollo spacecraft now all sit in museums… Well, I could change the story so it was set in an alternate near-future in which the Apollo programme continued into the twenty-first century – much as I had the programme continuing into the 1980s in Adrift on the Sea of Rains, but…

Anyway, Adrift on the Sea of Rains had been launched and people were buying it. So it was time I started seriously thinking about ‘Wave Fronts’. It too would have a pair of narratives, one of which would be a consequence of the other. And there’d be a glossary, of course, though it would be mostly scientific, rather than an exploration of the story’s alternate history. The first narrative was relatively straightforward: a senior astronaut has been sent to a scientific station on an exoplanet to unravel the mystery of its disappearance. The consequences of that mystery would drive the second narrative, and would in turn present the solution of the mystery to the reader.

But several things bothered me about my plan. First, there was no real link to the Apollo programme, and I didn’t like the idea of extending Apollo into the first half of the twenty-first century. Also, I couldn’t think of a good reason why they’d send the protagonist to the exoplanet – or rather, why they’d chosen him for the mission. And, most troubling of all, I couldn’t think of a plot for the second narrative. I had the setting all worked out, and I had a possible ending, perhaps involving an alien race in the same situation as humanity – but I wanted to keep the handwavey stuff to a minimum. This was “literary hard sf”, after all.

Then reviews of Adrift on the Sea of Rains started to appear, and a comment in a review by Lavie Tidhar gave me an idea. I think it was something about the Bell, which I’d considered a minor element in Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Perhaps, I thought, I should feature something similar in this second novella, some piece of Forteana. But what was most suitable? I’d done Nazi occult science, so how about ufology? That could be the source of the Faster-Than-Light drive which has allowed Earth to settle exoplanets.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it didn’t really work. And there was still no link to the Apollo programme. So, if not UFOs, what about something like the Face on Mars? I could make my protagonist the first man to land on Mars. That might be why he was chosen to find the missing scientific station.

Then it occurred to me the Mars mission could be a narrative of its own, and was probably more interesting, in fact, than the one set one hundred years after the station’s disappearance. So I ditched the second narrative I had planned, and replaced it with one about the first manned mission to Mars. Which put that part of the story in an alternate past, and so pulled in a connection to the Apollo programme – because the mission would be undertaken using re-purposed Apollo spacecraft. And when I looked at how, in the original plan, the second narrative was a consequence of the first, I saw I could turn it on its head and have the exoplanet narrative a consequence of the Mars narrative.

Things were starting to come together.

A twentieth-century Mars mission meant the glossary pretty much wrote itself – instead of pure science, I could document the alternate Apollo programmes which led to Mars, much like I had done for Apollo flights 18 to 25 in Adrift on the Sea of Rains. This did unfortunately mean a lot more research than I’d anticipated, much more than I’d done for the first novella (although, happily, some of that earlier research could be carried across). The Apollo missions were thoroughly documented and there’s an astonishing amount of material available, a lot of it extremely technical. The same is not true for missions to Mars, because they never happened, so everything that has been written about them is purely speculative. There’s an impressive number of science fiction novels on the topic, of course, but none of them were anywhere near as technically-detailed as I needed for my novella…

And, well, ‘Wave Fronts’ now no longer fit as the title for Apollo Quartet book 2. I needed a new title. And since I’d recently “discovered” Malcolm Lowry, and a quick Google for poetic references to Apollo gave me Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Hymn of Apollo’, a line from that sounded appropriately Lowryesque and relevant to the plot. And so Apollo Quartet 2 became The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. The response on Twitter to the title was… mixed, but more seemed to like it than not.

Apollo Quartet 2 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was now plotted out – it only needed writing. The narratives would evolve as I worked on them – it’s the way I write, a sort of rolling draft that fills in the narrative between a known beginning and a planned end. Connections appear, themes become apparent, the focus shifts, the story changes…

Speaking of which, I was beginning to have second thoughts about my original premise. It went like this: FTL trapped light within the spacecraft’s “bubble”, and transporting these photons between the exoplanet and Earth faster-than-light broke causality. So when light from the moment the scientific station was founded actually reached Earth the proper way at lightspeed… the universe reset itself to fix the broken causality. But it seemed a bit… handwavey. Something I read somewhere mentioned quantum superposition, and that sounded like a good solution: the scientific station existed in a different quantum reality to Earth, and it was the collapse of the wave function which made the scientific station disappear, sort of like Schrödinger’s Cat.

But how to get this across to the reader? I could drop clues to the mystery’s solution into the glossary, but that probably wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to actually explain it in the narrative, I wanted the reader to work it out. I’d decided this second novella would be more aimed at a science fiction readership than the first one had been, so the idea of a puzzle with a solution only the reader, but none of the characters in the story, could solve seemed like an interesting approach. Which meant I now needed to tell what happens one hundred years later, just like in that narrative I’d discarded…

I’d first come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter, although I’m told Tolkien did it earlier in The Lord of The Rings. If I cut down my discarded narrative to a thousand or so words, I could then make it a coda. So with the clues in the story and glossary, and now the coda, everything should come together and, “whumpf”, the reader suddenly understands what happened to the missing scientific station. I called it the “B-52 Effect” after the cocktail, which does something similar when it hits the stomach.

The exoplanet narrative was the easiest of the two to write, since its plot had changed little from ‘Wave Fronts’ and because the hardware mentioned was pure invention (albeit inspired by real hardware, such as Skylab and the ISS). The Mars narrative required much more work. Once I’d found a mission profile I could use, I had to figure out how to plausibly adapt Apollo spacecraft for it, and then invent an entire space programme for test flights and to get the interplanetary spacecraft built in orbit. At one point, I decided I’d write the sections actually set on the Martian surface as stream of consciousness. But it didn’t work. Since I wasn’t using quote marks for dialogue, I needed some way of distinguishing radio conversation. I decided to present it in two columns. For the actual dialogue, I trawled through technical transcripts from Gemini and Apollo flights so it would sound technically plausible.

Finally, not only was the novella coming together, but it actually fit in perfectly with my overall plan for the Apollo Quartet. Of course, a lot of readers were expecting a direct sequel to Adrift on the Sea of Rains, explaining what happened to Peterson after he rammed Mir, and I was giving them a thematic sequel with a completely unrelated story in an entirely different alternate history—

The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself had a few more lessons to teach me, however. For a start, it’s a complete faff typing out a really long title; I should have chosen a shorter one. I’d also thought I could write two novellas a year, and so had expected to have the second book of the Apollo Quartet finished in 2012. But it took me longer than expected and I had to knock the launch date into January 2013. Which meant lots of people thought it had been published in 2012. Which may have affected its chances at award time – but, to be honest, I’d not promoted the book to the same extent I had Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I’d imagined that fans of the first would buy the second. But not all of them did – in fact, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself has currently sold less than half the number of copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains.

True, I’d not written either of the novellas to be “commercial” science fiction – someone described them as “art house hard sf”, which seems to fit – and the success of Adrift on the Sea of Rains had taken me completely by surprise. But it was a little disheartening seeing how little of that had carried over to the second book.

Perhaps things will pick up when all four books are available, perhaps there are people who are waiting for the entire quartet and will only buy it then.

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