By Alexander Wallace
After the bold and daring adventures of American space exploration ended, science fiction lovers of all stripes have been disappointed. As the space race ramped up and landed men on the moon, some people thought that Wernher von Braun would be able to go to space personally. As we have seen, the world had to wake up from the dreams of the Golden Age of Science Fiction and confront the fact that the powers that be simply weren’t interested.
In many ways, Allen Steele’s novel The Tranquillity Alternative is a reckoning with that disappointment. It is set in a world where World War II saw a German space plane attack America and an American space plane retaliates (which formed the background for his novel V-S Day, which I have reviewed for this blog), leading to the creation of the United States Space Force (prescient now) which is later disbanded. In this world, space technology is far more advanced than our world even today in its alternate 1990s, with more countries participating. However, the political calculus in the United States has remained similar to our world, and as of the events of the novel the American space program is about to be shuttered entirely.
There’s a very real melancholy that pervades this book; the quotes on the cover about how good a thriller this is obscure just how contemplative it can be. Many of the characters are astronauts who are veterans of the space program who are deeply reflective on their careers and on the changing nature of space exploration. It is a book infused with a notion of American decline that has been ever-present at least since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and it does not seem to have borne fruit yet (at least to other countries; as Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have shown, space is being increasingly privatized). It is in some ways reflective of a deep sadness whose despair never quite came to pass.
The actual plot of the novel is a political thriller of sorts. This last American mission is launched to retrieve nuclear weapons put on the Moon as part of Cold War brinkmanship (note that in this world, nuclear weapons have never been used). As you might expect, things go wrong and nefarious entities get involved for their own purposes. This plot is done well, but I ended up wishing that Steele had done something more ambitious with this idea.
There is a persistent problem in the writing in this novel in that it goes into a level of technical detail that can become tiresome at points. I am certain that many of us who are more into the nitty-gritty details of space exploration and its attendant technology may gain much from Steele’s loving descriptions, but I found them to derail the narrative far too often to be able to enjoy them as much as I may have.
Overall, The Tranquillity Alternative is an enjoyable novel, albeit in my opinion not quite the thrill ride that V-S Day was. This a slower, more deliberative book that has more to say than the former, but does so in a manner that can be just a tad plodding. Even so, I consider it worth the read.