The Eye with which the Universe beholds itself by Ian Sales

Warning: this review contains a spoiler. Don’t read on if that would cause you a problem.

Just when you think that the old tropes of science fiction are worn out and there is nothing new to say on the subject, something comes along and shakes all that. Ian Sales has achieved this, though it was very far from his objective in writing ‘The Eye with which the Universe beholds itself’.

“The Eye…” is the second in Sales’ ‘Apollo Quartet’, which aims to produce high-concept science fiction about or involving space flight, based on real technology (mostly); in particular, the technology that took Americans to the Moon in 1969. That might be thought to be a recipe for a particular sort of gritty, almost social realist sort of sf whose focus is restricted to the shortest trip it is possible to make in space. But whilst the ‘social realist’ label certainly applies both to this book and its predecessor, ‘Adrift on the Sea of Rains’, the scope of this book is much wider than that. We are looking at nothing less than interstellar, faster-than-light travel based on Apollo technology.

Of course, there’s a bit of a ‘deus ex machina’ involved, as there was in the previous book. And whilst it’s a fairly fantastic one, it’s none the less plausible for all that. And the implications of the technology are truly worrying. The news in the spaceflight community today (2013) is partly about schemes promoting one-way missions to Mars, and that has sparked quite a bit of debate. But what if every journey you made, or ever could make, was one way?

The idea has a lot of implications, including a possible answer to the Fermi Paradox; and I’m not 100% convinced that Sales has worked through the practical implications, though I’m not a quantum physicist, and I’m sure he has done his research properly. But in the end, that’s not the only thing that the book is about. There’s also a study of the impact of fame and notoriety on astronauts and their families; not a new theme, but one worth returning to.

The structure of the book holds a little surprise, in the form of what I can only call a false ending. Music gives us the example of many works with such traps for the unwary (Tchaikovsky was one who liked fooling listeners that way), and indeed, the true ending of the book is labelled by Sales as a ‘Coda’, exactly the right term for it!

This book is a bit like a depth charge; it takes a while to sink in before the consequences and implications of its story break out on the reader. I shall be thinking about this story for some time to come.

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