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The Tranquillity Alternative by Allen Steele

Cover art by Bob Eggleton

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When I was young I read a lot of classic science fiction from the 1950's and early 1960's. Stories of futures in which the exploration of space was a steady upward progress from the first tentative voyages to long-term scientific outposts that were expanded into settlements in which permanent populations were established. There was just an assumption that our movement into space would pretty much follow the patterns of the Age of Exploration, and we'd keep moving outward and upward until we'd filled the Solar System much as we'd filled the Earth.

However, even as I was reading those stories, the actual space program was beginning to stall and lose its way. The lunar missions ended in 1972, supposedly so that we could concentrate our efforts on the development of the Space Shuttle and the era of cheap, easy access to space it was supposed to give us. However, the promise never was fulfilled, and by the time the space station was finally built that was supposed to be one of the principal purposes of the Space Shuttle, the orbiters were reaching the end of their operational life and there was nothing in the works to replace them. Although goals of returning to the Moon and visiting Mars were proposed, nobody was willing to commit to a budget big enough to ensure that they couldn't be canceled as soon as the next crisis hit -- and it did, mothballing the planned systems for those missions. The grand vision of space travel as humanity's future had been destroyed, not by any grand act of suppression by a space-hating and freedom-hating tyrant, but by the endless petty bickering of short-sighted politicians.

As a result of the growing discontent of a whole generation of science fiction readers, there's been a lot of speculation about what went wrong with the future we were promised. Was there an alternate America where things could've gone differently, such that we would've kept that bright vision in our minds and our hearts and would have maintained that upward drive? Some have speculated that the space treaties which banned the militarization of space and the claiming of territory on celestial bodies by terrestrial nations was at fault. By destroying the primary incentives to make such major expenditures, the reasoning goes, these treaties ensured that nations and private concerns would soon see space as being not worth the effort and expense of those grand undertaking, and would subsequently scale back their efforts to more modest programs focusing primarily on short-term earthbound benefits such as weather and communications satellites.

The Tranquillity Alternative is set in the world of two of Allen Steele's early alternate history stories, "Goddard's People" and "John Harper Wilson." In it, space travel developed earlier, as an outgrowth of hypersonic bomber technology. Instead of being just one of Hitler's grandiose notions that never went anywhere, the Amerika Bomber is actually built and sent on a mission to make a decapitation strike against the national command authority in Washington DC (the assumption being that with the President and other top leaders dead, the United States will be unable to retaliate effectively -- showing the inability of a top-down tyranny to understand the grass-roots mentality of American society). However, American intelligence had uncovered evidence of the plan, and as a result American forces were ready with a suborbital interceptor of its own.

From there, space travel developed much more quickly and was explicitly military from the beginning, using giant rockets and spacecraft rather than the much smaller ones with which we are familiar. For instance, the first orbital flight took place in 1956 and carried a six-man crew (including a mechanic, an engineer and a flight surgeon) on twelve orbits. This backstory is told bit by bit through a series of interstitial documents that are presented between the chapters that take place in the story's present, an alternate version of 1995, the year in which The Tranquillity Alternative was originally published.

And for all those splendid early giants would seem to promise a foothold in space so strong that it could never be uprooted short of a monstrous catastrophe, it turns out that it just means that the unravelling comes all that much earlier. In fact, Allen Steele's vision of an America giving up the high ground feels all too prophetic of what would in fact be happening fifteen years later, of an America no longer willing to spend the necessary money to maintain its space infrastructure, and thus willingly handing over its leadership role to other nations -- in the case of the fictional alternate history Germany, which in 1995 did look to be on the way up, with the European debt crisis not yet even a dark cloud on the horizon.

However, all is not well, as we discover in the very first chapter. In Satellite Beach, one of the small coastal towns not far from Cape Canaveral, a computer geek by the name of Dooley is staying in one of the many beachfront motels. He's important enough that he's been assigned a security guard -- but not sufficiently important to be given one that's actually competent. The rent-a-cop sees it as an easy job, but even if he had been alert, he might well not have been able to successfully resist the secret agents who arrive while he is distracted by a pizza delivery. They're so ruthless that they casually kill the poor kid to ensure his silence, never mind that he was just a minimum-wage worker who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. They have no respect for human life, and the only thing that matters to them is results.

The results they want is information, which they extract from Dooley through a combination of hallucinogenic drugs and reward-punishment conditioning. All the time they act so as to keep alive his hope that if he cooperates, he may actually survive, when in fact they have no intention of leaving him alive to compromise their mission. To them he's nothing but a tool, to be disposed of when his usefulness is exhausted.

Thus we the readers know from the very beginning that something very dangerous is afoot as we meet the actual protagonists of the story, including the elder statesman of the astronaut corps, Parnell, and the closeted lesbian astronaut Cris Ryer. They're to be the crew of the last mission to Tranquillity Base, where at the height of the Cold War the United States placed six nuclear-tipped missiles as the ultimate deterrent to a Soviet sneak attack. The idea was that if the Soviets were to try to strike a knockout blow to America's terrestrial assets, the lunar missiles would still be there to strike back. If the Soviets tried a counterforce attack on the missiles on both the Moon and on Earth, they'd have to launch the attack on the lunar missiles three days before the ones on the terrestrial missiles, thus tipping their hand.

Before the moonbase can be handed over to the Germans to become a toxic waste dump, those missiles must be decommissioned. To ensure that they can never fall into enemy hands, and to show that America has renounced the militarization of space after it was discovered that the Department of Defense seriously discussed using the lunar nukes as a first-strike weapon during their timeline's version of Operation Desert Storm to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein, the missiles will be retargeted so they will fly into the Sun and be destroyed forever. It's going to be quite the publicity stunt, carefully choreographed so that the President presses a ceremonial button in the Oval Office at the exact same time as the moon mission crew work the actual launch controls on the console in the lunar bunker, and all the world will watch the missiles lift off and head Solward.

Except it becomes increasingly clear that the impostor Dooley is on a mission to interfere with the official mission in one way or another. However, things aren't going quite as smoothly as planned. As long as it's just a visible lack of skill in handling himself in space, the suspicions of the rest of the crew are too insubstantial to be noticed. But then someone who knew the real Dooley notices major discrepancies in his behavior online on Le Matrix, a surprisingly accurate anticipation of MMOLRPG's, and brings it to the attention of the proper authorities. But by that time our intrepid astronauts are already on the Moon and heading to the missile bunker, so it's no longer possible to neutralize him easily and quickly. No, there will be a deadly confrontation with him and his mysterious allies among the crew, with catastrophe in the offing if anyone makes a misstep.

Anybody who grew up reading a lot of classic hard science fiction and 1950's nonfiction about what was then seen as the future of space travel will enjoy the visions of a future that might have been, of the Wheel in space and the giant moonships, of the old base that served as the scientific front for the real military mission in its hidden bunker. There's even a reference to the Manned Orbital Laboratory or MOL, an early space station plan that would have used a Gemini spacecraft and a Titan third stage rather than the Apollo command module and Saturn V third stage that were actually used in Skylab. Instead of feeling encrusted in Zeerust the way so many of those classic science fiction novels and early space articles now read, Steele's treatment manages to leave us with a profound sense not only of nostalgia, but of sadness for the passing of an era of heroes, the loss of a world we could've had if only we'd been willing to spend the money instead of continually quibbling over cost and insisting NASA do its work on an ever-fraying shoestring and assume that when things broke and people got killed, it had to be the result of the inherent dangers of space travel rather than the unwillingness to make a proper investment in the equipment.

One of the most interesting techniques Steele uses in creating a sense of a lived-in future that might have been is the continual casual dropping of cultural references ever so slightly askew from the familiar ones of our own world. Had he invented a completely unique collection of brand names, of television shows, of popular music bands and artists, it would have created a sense of a world completely unlike our own. But when we read about Elvis Presley as a washed-up old musician trying to eke out a little more life in a dying career by touring with U2, or the original Star Trek as a realistic technothriller series set on the actual Wheel space station and All in the Family as a satirical comedy about a family of opinionated incompetents homesteading on the high frontier and never quite killing themselves only because it would be a genre violation for them to actually suffer the gruesome deaths they would've encountered, we know we're in a world that took a left turn away from our own only a little while ago.

On the whole, I really think The Tranquillity Alternative is a novel that deserves to be better known and more widely read than it has been. It should appeal to both fans of hard science fiction (especially the classic kind like the early Heinlein, when American society and especially the American science fiction community were still full of optimism about the future of space travel) and fans of alternate history. Unfortunately, it's quite possible that instead of bringing together both audiences, it instead ended up dividing its audience, with the hard sf fans not liking the alternate-history elements and the alternate-history fans being put off by all the technical detail about the various spacecraft and habitats.

Review posted November 30, 2011.

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