Review: The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales

aq2_released_coverWhile everyone is covering the Hugos, I’m taking my own path and following the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, which will be awarded at this year’s Worldcon. In my effort to post a review of each work nominated this year on the Alternate History Weekly Update, author Ian Sales was gracious enough to send me a copy of his short-form Sidewise nominated work “Adrift on the Sea of Stars“. I devoured it last weekend and thus I was equally happy to post a review of the second story in the Apollo Quartet, “The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself” here on Amazing Stories.

An alternate history tale of space, in this timeline the Soviets were the first to land a man on the Moon, inspiring the Americans to push for Mars. Not only do we get there we even do one better several years later: faster-than-light travel and a scientific outpost on an exoplanet orbiting Gliese 876. At the start of the story we find ourselves in the year 2000, however, something is wrong. Scientists hoping to observe the colony now that light from the event has reached Earth can’t see anything. Did the colony do a full Roanoke on us?

Enter Brigadier Colonel Bradley Elliott, USAF, to investigate. Elliott was the first, and only, man to land on Mars. Unbeknownst to the rest of humanity, it was what he discovered there alone on the Martian surface that allows America to cheat the speed of light. As he journeys to the distant frontier of space he reflects on his life, his career, his time on Mars and his failed marriage in a poignant portrayal of how one man’s drive can leave those he loves behind in his wake.

“The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself” embodies Sales unique style of hard SF and literary fiction. You do not always see this kind of prose in mainstream SF, but it is something this reviewer wishes he could read more often. It is a bleak tale, so people looking for escapism might be put off by this deeply personal tale, but those who appreciate it when authors don’t simply throw out science should definitely check out this work. More important, he really captures just how unglamorous space travel can be. From the lack privacy to the horrible smells from months without a bath.

If I had one issue, and it is relatively minor, it was how the ending was presented. Not to spoil everything since it is hard to talk about the plot of a novella without spoilers, but the mystery behind the missing colony is not explained until the epilogue that comes after the glossary and timeline of this universe’s alternate Space Race. I can understand why he did it since it was necessary to describe quantum theory to the reader for them to truly appreciate what happened. Nevertheless, when I finished reading the main body of the work I was surprised and dismayed that this was the ending and if I did not read on I might have never discovered what really happened to those men and women on Gliese 876.

“The Eye with Which the Universe Beholds Itself” is a great sequel to “Adrift on the Sea of Stars” and leaves me curious about what point of divergence from the Apollo program Ian has in store for the next story. Hopefully I will get some hints when I interview Ian in the near future.

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