Recovering Apollo 8 — Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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“Diving into the Wreck” (Asimov’s, 12/05)

Short Stories
“Recovering Apollo 8” (Asimov’s, 2/07)
“The Taste of Miracles” (Analog, 1-2/07)
“The Strangeness of the Day”  (Battle Magic, DAW 1998)
“Substitutions” (Places To Be, People To Kill, DAW 2007)
“G-Men” (Sideways in Crime, Solaris 2008)
“The End of the World” (Alien Crimes, SF Book Club 2007)
“June Sixteenth at Anna’s” (Asimov’s, 4/03)
“Craters” (Future Weapons of War, Baen Books 2007)

Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer, who has also written in, and won or been nominated for awards in both romance and mystery. She writes under many names (such as Kristine Grayson, Kathryn Wesley and Kris Nelscott), not only with her own solo fiction, but also (with her husband Dean Wesley Smith) as Sandy Schofield. She’s well known for her fantasy fiction with her Black Queen and other series. I won’t review all the stories, because they’re all reprints, but I will hit a few that I really, really liked.

This collection is helmed by “Recovering Apollo 8,” a Sidewise Award winner for Best Alternate History and a Hugo Award finalist, and features some of the best of Kris’s recent science fiction, proving that she can write good, readable SF with the same facility that she handles other genres.

“Recovering Apollo 8” is set in a future where Apollo 8 missed the burn that would return it from its trip around the moon into Earth orbit, instead heading off into the reaches of space. This is told from the perspective of a man who was just a child when the capsule was lost, but is now a wealthy, powerful spacefarer. Richard Johanssen is galvanized by the live TV broadcasts of 1968 detailing the capsule’s journey into space, and somehow in his 8-year-old mind decides that the three astronauts are not dead but either in suspended animation or somehow miraculously preserved and awaiting rescue.

Forty years later, Richard is a billionaire, having made his fortune from personal computers and space-related items; he had astronaut training in the 1970s but never actually went into space, being too involved in running his various companies. But one night in 2007 a telescope shows Earth what can only be the missing capsule, on its way back, and Richard decides that he must recover the Apollo 8 capsule and put the missing astronauts to rest. (He has long since given up the idea that Lovell, Borman and Anders are still alive, but wants to recover their bodies.)

Unlike in our timeline, where the Challenger disaster killed the civilian space program and nearly put paid to American space exploration, the Apollo 8 catastrophe galvanized theirs, giving Richard the chance to finally fulfill his dream of “rescuing” the missing astronauts; he finds the missing capsule, but it is empty, the astronauts having left a last message to “all who live on the good Earth”—so Richard’s quest goes on.

Like all of Kris’s stories, this is well researched and vivid with relevant detail, but it’s the human connection in her writing that makes this work. As in the next story we touch on, “G-Men,” the untold story of the death of J. Edgar Hoover. We all know that Hoover, besides being nearly psychotic in his pursuit of the unlawful (giving himself the right to determine what’s lawful and what isn’t), was also a secret cross-dresser. But that secret was not much of a secret to those who worked in the home office in Washington, D.C. What happened to Hoover was, in their world, nearly fodder for sensational exposés, but in our world, he died in his bed (a legend in his own mind, as they say). So what happens when, after JFK’s assassination, Hoover is killed while Bobby Kennedy is still the Attorney General of the United States?

As nearly everyone knows, Hoover kept massive secret files on anyone and everyone he considered an “enemy”—and probably left secret instructions with his secretary that these be destroyed on his death before anyone else could see them—but what if Kennedy and LBJ got there before the secretary? An interesting puzzle, that might have shaped an entirely different future from what we live in.

The events of 9/11 affected a great number of people besides those who actually died and their families—as well as making the word “terrorist” almost a daily catchphrase for many Americans, it also prepared the way for the Department of Homeland Security and the loss of some of those freedoms that Americans used to take for granted—and it also meant that the West (the US, Canada, the UK, etc.) could no longer feel secure even behind national borders. But it is that date marks the end of an era that Kris addresses in the story “June Sixteenth at Anna’s”—presupposing that technology continues to advance at its present rate, and that we will eventually get the ability to look into the past. Time travel will be a reality.

Not only will we be able to look into the past, we will be able to travel there and record and recreate the experience in a virtual way (similar to the Star Trek holodeck)—with sights, sounds, smells—everything that goes to make up any given point in the past—and to sell those as experiences for anyone with the money and equipment. Given that ability, why do so many people choose to experience not the Crucifixion, or the Kennedy assassination or any other major event, but a gathering of people at a salon reception?

Why is June sixteenth so appealing to the average past watcher, and why have so many versions with so much commentary come out? Again, the human factor, as in all Kris’s stories, comes into play. For the narrator, it’s a chance to see his wife again—not that she died on September 11, for she lived to see many holorecordings of June sixteenth—but he seeks to figure out her fascination with the date, and the people, and the conversations. (It’s in part because, given what happened in September, that date is thought (in 2070) to be the high-water mark of that particular age. And Anna’s, in New York, was the ne plus ultra of conversational salons.)

A nice take on a science fiction staple, and one that might resonate with the reader as well, given our fascination with past events and, especially, September 11, 2001, though that date is never mentioned in the story.

“Craters,” it appears, takes place in a future where we will all be chipped at birth—sooner or later, the governments who seek to control our lives (rather than the other way around) will want 24/7 access to where we are, who we are seeing and what we do. A nice little RFID chip implanted under the skin will, when coupled with GPS technology, mean that we can no longer slip away from surveillance.

Most people are aware that the ranks of suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere are filled with not just religious zealots, but are mostly drawn from the uneducated, the young, the easily persuaded. But what if, thanks to “the chip,” consent is no longer an issue? What if the very young become living bombs through no wish or fault of their own? Again, part of the horror of Rusch’s writing is the fact that for her protagonist, a reporter, the victims (whether they be young “living bombs” or the people blown up by them) no longer matter—the story is everything. But the real horror here is that given today’s trends, this story may be more of a true prediction than most science fiction ever ends up being.

The collection ends with a novella about salvaging a 5000-year-old spaceship. Well, salvaging is not exactly the word, as in the protagonist’s mind, she is only exploring it, in “Diving into the Wreck.” The people who do this kind of exploration call themselves divers, as in deep-sea explorers, and think of themselves that way.

The crew of the Nobody’s Business almost defines the word “motley”—it comprises the narrator (“Boss”—we never learn her name); her subordinate Karl, a burly guy who has been diving for years; a father-son team (Junior and Jypé) and two women (Turtle and Squishy) who have been together for years but whose relationship becomes severely strained by the discovery of this wreck. Although our narrator is in it just for the exploration, the same can’t be said for her crew, who are in it for the loot—besides the usual salvage rights, there may be saleable artifacts from this ship, which was found in an area of space it can’t possibly have navigated to on its own over the last five thousand years.

The ship is a lost “Dignity Vessel” from Earth’s far past—and none are thought to have survived to this time, let alone this far away from Earth’s orbit. And something else—there may be some lost “stealth technology” aboard, the discovery of which could conceivably make them all richer than Croesus. But the technology is dangerous, so much so that research on it has been publicly banned—and it may be still active after all this time.

If I have any quibbles at all about this story, it’s that technology doesn’t seem to be much advanced in five thousand years—the divers are worried about tearing their suits on sharp edges, and their probes don’t seem to be much better than anything we have today. I’m sure Rusch can have some justification for it (for example, maybe a lot was destroyed in wars, like the stealth technology mentioned above)—but traveling in space to the extent cited here would, it seems to me, demand a lot higher technology than we have today. And this doesn’t seem to be the case.

But I liked the story very much, and the way the narrator’s motivations collide with those of her crew—and the fact that she changes during the story, as do her crew.

And I did like all the stories in this book, even if I don’t specifically mention them. If you read and enjoy real science fiction,  you probably will too.

Recovering Apollo 8 and Other Stories by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Golden Gryphon Press, May 2010
hardcover, 316 pp., $24.95