[REVIEW] “What if?” The Altered Space Series

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Book Review

The Altered Space Series by Gerard Brennan

Review by Scott Sacknoff
Published in Quest Volume: 28 #1 (2021)

The ancient Greeks told a story about the loom of fate where, by cutting a single string, all of history could change. In 2018, Quest published a special “What If?” issue (Vol 26:2) that asked a dozen professional historians to identify a key moment in the history of space and envision how events might have unraveled differently. Though brief, compared to the scope of human history, the space industry is filled with possible counterfactual scenarios.

For those who enjoy these types of stories, I have a treat for you. Author Gerald Brennan has written several titles based on what-if scenarios from the Golden Age of space exploration, the first three of which I am reviewing here. Quest rarely reviews fiction, but I believe that their attention to detail will be captivating to many of our readers. Working with a number of technical consultants who have contributed peer-reviewed articles to Quest in the past, along with input from astronauts such as Jim Lovell and Ed Mitchell, the books are written in hyper-realism, part autobiography from the astronaut’s point of view and part mission transcripts. While I am sure that astute Quest readers will find some points of contention, they read as actual autobiographies, perhaps the highest praise one can offer something that is counterfactual.

The first book in the series, Zero Phase, imagines an Apollo 13 mission that was delayed in order to allow Ken Mattingly to fly and begins as the lunar module is about to land on the lunar surface. In this book, problems caused by the cryo-stir of oxygen tank number 2 didn’t happen until Jim Lovell and Fred Haise were already on the Moon. The book is written from Jim Lovell’s perspective and is narrated in his first person. Here is an example of this:

Freddo keys his mic “Roger that, Houston. We are back on VOX.” The checklist. There’s an undeniable satisfaction to getting it all done. Still, it’s relentless. Freddo keys commands in the DSKY and writes a series of numbers on page 1-1. “047 is plus 37768, 053 is plus 00542.” We’ve moved on page 1-2 in the checklist. I call up Program 57 on the DSKY. Lunar surface align”[23].

Zero Phase is a short 82 pages including acknowledgments, but it is the perfect length. I found Jim Lovell’s discussions with his crewmates and with ground control on how to proceed with the mission or abort it, riveting. But you don’t need to trust my opinion. Two people who can better appreciate this book are cited in the promotional material. Jim Lovell commented, “it was a good read and kept me wondering how it was going to end” and Eric Jones of the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal said: “Wow!”

The second book, Public Loneliness imagines a Soviet circumlunar flight in October 1967, the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union. Written as Yuri Gagarin in a first-person narrative, the book intermixes his diary and flight details with his personal issues of being considered a national hero and the program’s “curious schizophrenia regarding publicity and accomplishments.”

My chronometer tells me is 5:45 pm in Moscow…but I’m 246,000 kilometers from Moscow, in a place where absolute time has little meaning, other than as a scheduling convenience. What really matters up here is relative time, mission elapsed time. Man/hours of oxygen consumed, time remaining until reaching the moon, and so forth. And it is at last time for the midcourse firing…

Pavel Popovich was manning the radio for a spell around lunchtime…“Tass says the English have picked up some transmissions from a Soviet craft headed for the moon. But they’re speculating that it’s another exercise. Taped transmissions from a mannequin.” I chuckle, “I’m not that boring, am I?”[58]

Noted Soviet space historian, Asif Siddiqi, called this book, “Really wonderfully written, evocative, and original in its approach to ‘humanize’ not only the space program but the Soviet side of the race.”

Like the first two books, Island of Clouds is written from a first-person perspective. But unlike the previous two, it tackles the challenge of a multi-person, long-duration mission telling a significantly longer and more complex story. Following the re-election of Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) in 1968, an Apollo Applications Program Venus flyby mission is launched in the early 1970s. [In reality, LBJ actually chose not to run in order to focus on the “issues of the presidency instead of personal partisan causes.”] Still, it is not a real leap to believe that after completing John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth, he would choose to put his own stamp on the space program by approving human missions to the near solar system planets.

Island of Clouds focuses on a mission undertaken by Alan Shepard, Buzz Aldrin, and Joe Kerwin to travel to our neighboring planet, perform an EVA, and journey home. Most space missions have always had a moment or two of tension when things do not go smoothly, and these become major elements driving the plot.

Told as a first-person narrative from Buzz Aldrin’s perspective, it mixes dialogue between the crew with his thoughts, motivations, and discussions of his personal demons regarding family life, issues with alcohol, etc. For example, after Deke Slayton informs him that he will not be the mission commander he is offered an EVA, the farthest ever taken from our home planet. Having his own “first” convinces him to join the mission. However, as the mission proceeds, the interplay between him and Alan Shepard, two astronauts with conflicting personalities, adds an element of tension and is a dramatic element to the story.

Working with a former NASA JSC flight dynamics expert to design an accurate flight trajectory, the story contains so many elements of realism to make you think that Buzz has personally written this book and documented this mission. While equally engrossing a story as the first two books, at 456 pages, I felt that this one started to drift. Toward the end, I began to see the astronauts as just random characters of a novel rather than the actual people I was familiar with. Still, the dialogue, mission detail, and the two major challenges they faced is well worth the read and you feel like you are onboard the spacecraft for the ride.

A fourth book, Infinite Blues envisions a militarized space race and focuses on an Air Force astronaut’s 40-day mission to spy on the Soviet Union from an MOL-type orbiting observation platform serviced by X-20s. It is a 726-page thriller that I look forward to reading when time permits. A fifth is planned but no details are as yet available.


About the Books

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Title: Zero Phase: Apollo 13 on the Moon (Altered Space Book 1)
Author: Gerard Brennan
Publisher: Tortoise Books
Year: 2017
ISBN: 978-0-99863250-6
Pages: 82

Title: Public Loneliness: Yuri Gagarin’s Circumlunar Flight (Altered Space Book 2)
Author: Gerard Brennan
Publisher: Tortoise Books
Year: 2017
ISBN: 978-0-99863251-3
Pages: 144

Title: Island of Clouds: The Great 1972 Venus Flyby (Altered Space Book 3)
Author: Gerard Brennan
Publisher: Tortoise Books
Year: 2017
ISBN: 978-0-98609229-9
Pages: 456


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  • Publication Year: 2021
  • Publisher: Quest
  • Copyright Status: Copyrighted
  • Copyright Holder: SPACE 3.0
  • Language: English
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