A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that Ian Sales' novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains won the Short Fiction award at the 2012 British Science Fiction Association Awards. I mentioned that I didn't particularly love it, though I did find it very well written. And of course Ian Sales stumbled onto my post (and my old review), but he just seemed happy that I cared enough to write a review and even offered to send me a review copy of the next novella in the series (called the Apollo Quartet). I declined, opting to simply buy the book, as I know that every sale counts for self-published authors, and this time around, I found that I enjoyed the story much more.
The Apollo Quartet stories are basically alternate history speculations centering around the Apollo program, with some bigger SF tropes added in for flavor. Adrift on the Sea of Rains featured the brilliant premise of a large moon base witnessing the nuclear destruction of Earth. While I wasn't ultimately satisfied with the story, that premise (which I've only really given half of) is fantastic. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself takes its time getting to the driving forces behind the story, but I ultimately found it a much more rewarding read.
The story follows Brigadier Colonel Bradley Elliott, USAF, as he is sent to investigate the possible disappearance of a human colony on an exoplanet. Twenty years earlier, Elliott was the first man to land on Mars. Something happened during that first trip to Mars that lead the higher ups to bring Elliott out of retirement and send him to investigate the exoplanet, but I won't ruin that excitement, and indeed, I may have already said too much.
I found the entire story much more enjoyable this time around. Elliott makes for a good protagonist, and there's much less angst here than there was in the previous story. Sales certainly knows his stuff, both from a technology standpoint and from a prose style standpoint. Even when he takes a scientific leap, such as the faster-than-light travel system used to travel to the exoplanet (which is 15 light years away), he seems to be able to ground it enough that it doesn't feel like a ridiculous affectation. I still find Sales lack of quotation marks around dialog to be a bit distracting, but it was also less notable here because there is less dialog (that, or I was just more engaged with the story and didn't notice as much).
I did get a little worried at one point when it seemed like the story had ended and a short little glossary came up, but when you get to the end of the glossary, there's an epilogue that contains the real kicker that was a real eye opener. That structure is a bit strange, but then, the glossary contains a lot of interesting info on the alternate history here (for instance, that's where we learn the details about how the Soviets landed on the moon first, thus inspiring the US to go to Mars), and the kicker in the conclusion does take on an added resonance when you've read some of the entries in the glossary. So where Adrift on the Sea of Rains started with a brilliant premise and trailed off (for me, at least), The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself takes a little time to get going, but ends with more satisfaction. I'd certainly recommend The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself if this sounds at all interesting to you (it's not closely tied to Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so no worries starting with the second installment either). Next up in the reading queue, the BSFA Novel award winner, Jack Glass (which has been in the queue for a while, but only recently became available in the US).