What is the difference between a short story, a novella and a novel? In the case of Ian Sale’s The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself it doesn’t actually matter, because it’s a story and that is the only consideration. What Sales manages to achieve in a 48 page story (with additions – more of which later) is more than some people achieve in a 300 page book.
The book opens with a list of technical abbreviations, some of which I wasn’t familiar with, and to be honest, this initially raised my suspicions. Was this to be something that was too hard to read? Would I constantly have to refer back to it in order to work out what the narrative was all about? My fears, fortunately, were unfounded. The Eye… is the second story in the Apollo Quartet. Essentially, these are stories concerning some classic elements of NASA’s Apollo program, which was an early American mission to people humans in space and ultimately, on the moon. Sales speculates on how the program would have panned out if a few things had gone a little different. In this, story number two, the Russian’s made it to the moon first, but NASA found its way to Mars. The story features Elliot who is a Brigadier Colonel for USAF. He has been sent to an exoplanet in a distant system to investigate what appears to be a missing human colony. And this is 1999. Which means things are very different from our reality. Because in 1979, Elliot was the first man on Mars. [Spoiler alert ahead]. Elliot found something on Mars which almost cost him everything, but led to scientists discovering faster-than-light travel.
Sales has said he deliberately set out to write it as a ‘puzzle narrative’. The story covers various timelines – going back and forth between them – as the plot develops, giving the reader tantalizing glimpses of the mystery. In such a short piece of prose, Elliot is a fully rounded character with an intriguing back-story and motivations which are believable. Which results in a wallop of impact when the story concludes. The writing is very technical, but Sales’ prose is clever enough so you soon get used to it and can see beyond it. There’s a lot of jargon – both scientific and military – and references to real events and people. Dialogue feels realistic, indicating Sales has probably read (and listened to) some NASA and military conversations (indeed, the book comes with a bibliography).
As the story concludes, the puzzle doesn’t feel like it’s solved. We are left with the aforementioned wallop of Elliot’s situation. Which left me harrumphing a little. Then there is a glossary of which starts of listing the real Apollo missions. It soon, however, becomes clear that it also contains fictional elements. It is part of the story, which needs to be read. Because despite everything else (its length, its narrative structure, the appendices), this is first and foremost, a story. All the elements come together to complete the tale. And that includes the Coda, which is the final piece in the puzzle, allowing the reader to see the picture. My only concern would be that people who have little or no understanding of complex theoretical physics may struggle with the concepts and feel a little cold by it all. But I could be wrong. For me, Sales has created a true and complex story in just a few pages, with his clever additions. It started cold but soon became an entertaining and interesting voyage. The Eye… feels like classic science fiction where ideas are explored. Which in modern times, is a rare but welcome thing.