Genesis of Apollo, part 3

When I first came up with the idea of the Apollo Quartet, the third book had the working title The Shores of Earth and was set some 150 years in the future. Since I was determined to use glossaries in interesting ways in each of the four novellas, I planned to have two in the book, each of which would force the reader to re-interpret the actual story. But it was all a bit vague, and setting the story so far in the future stretched the link to the Apollo programme beyond credulity. So I ditched it. And that left me stuck for a story for the third book of my quartet.

Some months before, I’d stumbled across an online article about a recently-declassified mission to retrieve a spy satellite’s film bucket from the floor of the Pacific Ocean using the bathyscaphe Trieste II. I’ve been interested in the Trieste for a couple of years, so I’d made note of the article as a possible idea for a story. But it was not until I mentioned the article to Gavin Smith, author of Veteran, War in Heaven and The Age of Scorpio, that I realised I could use it in the Apollo Quartet. But I needed something else because, of course, the Trieste is not a spacecraft…

At some point, I’d come across mention of Jerrie Cobb and the Mercury 13. I’d initially thought it was while researching women aviators, particularly those of the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II, for a short story. That story was ‘Dancing the Skies’ and it was published by exagerratedPress in The Monster Book for Girls in 2011. But I recently found an old file dated 2008 which contained notes for a novel partly based on Cobb’s career, a sort of alternate history with three alternate timelines – in one, the protagonist becomes NASA’s first female astronaut in the early 1960s; in another, the nearest she can get is working as an air hostess; and in the third, she’s a pilot for an airline. (I’d used a similar structure back in 2010, but from the point of view of an airline passenger, in ‘Travelling by Air’, which appeared in the first issue of Alt Hist magazine.)

It occurred to me it might be an interesting exercise to imagine a world in which the Mercury 13 became the US’s first astronauts. The plot would be simple enough, pretty much a history of the space programme, hitting some of the more notable spaceflights – first American in space, first orbit by an American, perhaps the first rendezvous in orbit by Gemini, the first Apollo mission… But given that I needed to expand the Korean War to explain why NASA selected the Mercury 13, I didn’t think going to the Moon would be politically likely in this alternate history. Since I had a spy satellite in the Trieste narrative, why not have the female astronauts service those satellites?

So there was my second narrative thread for Apollo Quartet 3. A quick google for a poem about the god Apollo found me a suitable title in a Homeric hymn, and so the book became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above.

I’d designed the structures of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself very deliberately, and I planned to do the same for this third book. The two narratives I planned to write were not, on the face of it, even remotely related. As I’d labelled the sections in The Eye With Which The Universe Behold Itself using the year each narrative takes place, I ought to do something similar in this novella – and since one narrative was about space and the other about the bottom of the ocean, “up” and “down” immediately suggested themselves. And that made me think about quarks… Perhaps I could use the different flavours of quarks as section headings?

And from quarks, it wasn’t much of a jump to quantum mechanics, and then to the many-worlds interpretation. I thought about presenting several different endings for the reader to choose from, but I still didn’t have a link between the two stories. Each took place in entirely separate alternate realities – well, at least one did, but the other could be set in our world. (Having said that, look up the Convair B-60, mentioned in the section titled ‘Strange’.) I did consider not actually linking the narratives, just presenting them as two separate and unrelated stories… But that felt like a cheat. Then one Friday night, as I was walking to the pub to meet up with friends, I realised I could use an implied link between the two narratives.

What I’d do is have one narrative influence the other – “action at a distance”, another link to quantum mechanics. And to show the fragile nature of existence, I’d give the story three different endings. These would take the place of a glossary.

The one thing that was still missing by this point was, for lack of a better term, the Forteana. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I had the Bell, a Nazi Wunderwaffe; in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, I’d used the Face on Mars – but I didn’t have anything for this story. However, if I moved the Trieste narrative from the Pacific, which is where the real operation took place, to the Atlantic, that not only meant I could use the Puerto Rico Trench as a suitably deep location to require the Trieste, but it also put the action just inside the Bermuda Triangle.

But the more I wrote of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, the more I realised I only needed one ending. Instead, I would replace those other two endings with the real world, essays on the inspirations for the two narratives. Initially, I formatted them as appendices, but then I decided I’d not bother but make them part of the story. The abrupt switch from fiction to fact would briefly confuse readers but it would also give both the real world and the alternate worlds more impact.

So, no glossary. And not much in the way of abbreviations either – unlike the previous two novellas. But that didn’t matter, even if my original plan had actually centred around the glossaries. Also, this installment would be pure alternate history, with very little in the way of actual science fiction content. But I actually liked that. I’d written Adrift on the Sea of Rains to appeal to sf readers of literary fiction, but I’d also written The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to appeal directly to a more science-fictional reader. Doing something different in this novella appealed to me.

Writing Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above proved more difficult than I’d expected because I had to stay true to the real people I was writing about. Fortunately, they were well documented – especially Jerrie Cobb, who was the main protagonist of one of the narratives. She’d written two books, one specifically about her medical testing as the first of the Mercury 13, and I managed to find copies of both on eBay. There were also several books written about the Mercury 13 as a group; and I already had several astronaut biographies I could mine for details on actual space flights.

The Trieste narrative was less of an issue as I had that article about the mission to retrieve a spy satellite film bucket from the floor of the Pacific. But I did have to do some more research about the bathyscaphe, particularly about how the US Navy made use of it—which included tracking down photographs online posted by people who had served aboard USS White Sands, Trieste II’s support ship. However, in order to get that narrative started as quickly as possible, I decided to parachute in a viewpoint character. The added benefit of this was that the actual crew of the Trieste II were not very well documented, but by using an invented person that was not an issue. And bringing him up to speed also brought the reader to speed.

So I rejigged American history in order to make an all-female astronaut programme feasible. I needed Jackie Cochran to play an important role, and have political influence, so I needed Eisenhower as president when the programme started as Cochran was good friends with him. This delayed Kennedy’s presidency, which meant he couldn’t have been assassinated in 1963, and also removed the political will to get to the Moon by the end of the sixties. The latter, at least, worked in my favour.

I took care during the writing of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above not to mischaracterise the real people I was writing about. Happily, there were enough anecdotes documented so I could use some of them as characterisation—Jerrie Cobb struggling to change from overalls to dress and stockings while approaching Oklahoma City on her record-breaking flight, for example. By relying on such recorded events, I felt I could stay true to the people I was fictionalising. Even then, I had to use some artistic licence – Cobb reveals in her autobiography that she is very religious, and I used that to colour her responses to being in space.

The third book of the Apollo Quartet was, to my mind, the riskiest of the three novellas. I had very little idea how people would respond—it was pure alternate history, the connection between the two narratives was only implied… But the response proved mostly positive. In fact, some people even went on record to say they felt it was the best of the Apollo Quartet so far…

Which does very much increase the pressure on me for book four, All That Outer Space Allows

One response to “Genesis of Apollo, part 3

  1. Pingback: Apollo Quartet 3: Then will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above – Ykaly·

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