Book Review: Island of Clouds

“Island of Clouds” by Gerald BrennanThis is the third book, and the first full-length novel, in the author’s “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Each stand-alone story explores a space mission which did not take place, but could have, given the technology and political circumstances at the time. The first, Zero Phase, asks what might have happened had Apollo 13’s service module oxygen tank waited to explode until after the lunar module had landed on the Moon. The present book describes a manned Venus fly-by mission performed in 1972 using modified Apollo hardware launched by a single Saturn V.

“But, wait…”, you exclaim, ”that’s crazy!” Why would you put a crew of three at risk for a mission lasting a full year for just a few minutes of close-range fly-by of a planet whose surface is completely obscured by thick clouds? Far from Earth, any failure of their life support systems, spacecraft systems, a medical emergency, or any number of other mishaps could kill them; they’d be racking up a radiation dose from cosmic rays and solar particle emissions every day in the mission; and the inexorable laws of orbital mechanics would provide them no option to come home early if something went wrong.

Well, crazy it may have been, but in the mid-1960s, precisely such a mission was the subject of serious study by NASA and its contractors as a part of the Apollo Applications Program planned to follow the Apollo lunar landings. Here is a detailed study of a manned Venus flyby [PDF] by NASA contractor Bellcomm, Inc. from February 1967. In addition to observing Venus during the brief fly-by, the astronauts would deploy multiple robotic probes which would explore the atmosphere and surface of Venus and relay their findings either via the manned spacecraft or directly to Earth.

It was still crazy. For a tiny fraction of the cost of a Saturn V, Apollo spacecraft, and all the modifications and new development to support such a long-term mission, and at no risk to humans, an armada of robotic probes could have been launched on smaller, far less expensive rockets such as Delta, Atlas, and Titan, which would have returned all of the science proposed for the manned fly-by and more. But in the mid-sixties, with NASA’s budget reaching 4% of all federal spending, a level by that metric eight times higher than in recent years, NASA was “feeling its oats” and planning as if the good times were just going to roll on forever.

In this novel, they did. After his re-election in 1968, where Richard Nixon and George Wallace split the opposition vote, and the triumphant Moon landing by Ed White and Buzz Aldrin, President Johnson opts to keep the momentum of Apollo going and uses his legendary skills in getting what he wants from Congress to secure the funds for a Venus fly-by in 1972. Deke Slayton chooses his best friend, just back from the Moon, Alan Shepard, to command the mission, with the second man on the Moon Buzz Aldrin and astronaut-medical doctor Joe Kerwin filling out the crew. Aldrin is sorely disappointed at not being given command, but accepts the assignment for the adventure and opportunity to get back into the game after the post flight let-down of returning from the Moon to a desk job.

The mission in the novel is largely based upon the NASA plans from the 1960s with a few modifications to simplify the story (for example, the plan to re-fit the empty third stage of the Saturn V booster as living quarters for the journey, as was also considered in planning for Skylab, is replaced here by a newly-developed habitation module launched by the Saturn V in place of the lunar module). There are lots of other little departures from the timeline in our reality, many just to remind the reader that this is a parallel universe.

After the mission gets underway, a number of challenges confront the crew: the mission hardware, space environment, one other, and the folks back on Earth. The growing communication delay as the distance increases from Earth poses difficulties no manned spaceflight crew have had to deal with before. And then, one of those things that can happen in space (and could have occurred on any of the Apollo lunar missions) happens, and the crew is confronted by existential problems on multiple fronts, must make difficult and unpleasant decisions, and draw on their own resources and ingenuity and courage to survive.

This is a completely plausible story which, had a few things gone the other way, could have happened in the 1970s. The story is narrated by Buzz Aldrin, which kind of lets you know at least he got back from the mission. The characters are believable, consistent with what we know of their counterparts in our reality, and behave as you’d expect from such consummate professionals under stress. I have to say, however, as somebody who has occasionally committed science fiction, that I would be uncomfortable writing a story in which characters based upon and bearing the names of those of people in the real world, two of whom are alive at this writing, have their characters and personal lives bared to the extent they are in this fiction. In the first book in the series, Zero Phase, Apollo 13 commander James Lovell, whose fictional incarnation narrates the story, read and endorsed the manuscript before publication. I was hoping to find a similar note in this novel, but it wasn’t there. These are public figures, and there’s nothing unethical or improper about having figures based upon them in an alternative history narrative behaving as the author wishes, and the story works very well. I’m just saying I wouldn’t have done it that way without clearing it with the individuals involved.

The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Brennan, Gerald. Island of Clouds. Chicago: Tortoise Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9860922-9-9.

5+

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

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