"The suspense is terrible. I hope it'll last."
Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (as lifted from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)
The first third of any book is my favorite. It encompasses wonder and exploration and mystery all at once. Who are these people? Where is this place? What are the rules of this place? Particularly when it comes to the story of a mission (fantastical, scientific, or otherwise), the setup is my favorite part.
But that doesn't mean the story should cease and desist from following any rules of logic after the first third. Please do not do this to me. I want happy memories of the build-up to the asteroid impact/alien invasion/deadly epidemic/what-have-you. Please don't tarnish them by going completely off the rails in parts two and three.
Ocean of Storms by Christopher Mari and Jeremy K. Brown reminded me a lot of Armageddon. Yes, the movie with Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck. You know what? I LOVE that movie. It is so much fun. Is it cinematically rich and refined? Nope. Does it star Michael Clarke Duncan (miss him so much) AND Steve Buscemi? Yep. Sometimes you just need a fun movie and, while it's about the possible end of the world, which we all seemed really preoccupied with in the late 90s, this movie is rather delightful. It's also totally ridiculous and would never actually happen, but hey. Suspension of disbelief is a thing for a reason.
Much like in Armageddon, the team in Ocean of Storms isn't exactly pro astronaut material. It's a slapdash mission to get to the Moon, land in the Ocean of Storms, and figure out what the heck caused a GIANT FISSURE (using all caps because it is one heck of a fissure) to open up on the Moon's surface. Unfortunately, Ocean of Storms ends up being a lot less fun than its cinematic inspiration, mostly due to a lack of cohesive vision and tossing everything and the kitchen sink into the plot.
But let's back up a teensy bit. The world is going about its business when WHOOMP! There it is! An EMP. But not just any old electromagnetic pulse. This sucker was powerful enough to affect the entire planet. Generally, an EMP is generated from a nuclear explosion, so the two big honcho countries, America and China, rattle their sabers and worry that the other has detonated a nuclear bomb. To add to the tension, China is not playing nice about Taiwan. America wants to defend it; China wants to crush it. Good times.
Thankfully, there was an astute scientist on duty right before the EMP blew all electrical power on Earth, and he noticed that the Moon suddenly developed a giant canyon. And that the EMP originated from here. The Lady President (who is never named, which irks me. Everyone else gets a name except for Madam President? Hmm.) realizes that America needs to figure out who sent that signal. Thing is, the Ocean of Storms is the site of an Apollo landing, and one would think that the astronauts would have noticed signs of alien activity. And besides those Apollo crews, no one else has been up there. At least, not that we've noticed.
We (and by we I mean like every character in the book) conclude that this signal is alien in nature. As it currently stands, human science is incapable of creating an EMP of the magnitude that the earth just experienced. Plus, every radio frequency started receiving a set of longitude and latitude coordinates in binary right after the EMP. Occam's Razor says aliens.
Helloooo!!! I love books about aliens. I can roll with that. So everyone has to prep for a mission to the moon when humans haven't been there in decades. Now, I'm not entirely sure about when this book is supposed to be set. Now? Four years from now? Because there is only one person left, in Ocean of Storms, who worked on the Apollo missions. I mean, I know Buzz Aldrin is getting up there, but he's also feisty and is still writing books, so if this is supposed to be set today, then I'm not sure why they can't just call up someone respectable, like Buzz or any of the other seven mooonwalkers still alive. Plus, there are all the people who worked Mission Control during the Apollo missions. To be frank, my knowledge of the Apollo program mostly comes from a book called Moonshot and Apollo 13. According to the interwebs, Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) is still alive, as is Ken Mattingly, the guy who basically saved their butts and was played by the extremely attractive Gary Sinise.
But no. Ocean of Storms posits that there is only one Apollo dude left, and he is an eccentric investor named Cal Walker who runs a successful Fortune 500 company. The government grovels, and he grants them the benediction of his advice. But with, you know, sneaky phone calls to undisclosed recipients and suspicious motives and what amounts to a giant neon sign saying BAD GUY flashing over his head all the time.
Now that they have the scientific expertise to get people to the moon again, the government has to assemble a crew. They decide that archaeologists (not oil rig workers!) should be invited on the mission to excavate the fissure on the Moon. Thankfully, they can get Indiana Jones. Not really. His name is Donovan ... Walter Donovan.
Sorry. I had to. Actually his name is Alan Donovan (what a coinkidink), and he's a rogue who doesn't play by the rules. Of course not. He and his partner, Elias Zell, helm the Donovan Institute, an independent "archaeological" firm that does high-profile digs. Donovan's father was a scientist who prepped for a Moon mission but was scrubbed from the roster, developed a drinking problem, and ended up dusting crops in the Valley. Donovan the Younger is still mightily ticked off at NASA for ruining his father's career and life, so he's naturally a bit cantankerous when the government comes a-knocking to recruit him as their chief astronaut-archaeologist.
Of course he goes. I understand that this is all supposed to provide some sort of character drama and internal conflict, but it just reads as superfluous. Stick with the aliens.
Okay, so Donovan and Zell both go to astronaut camp, where they make some friends--and in Donovan's case, a very good lady friend--but then lose some friends when their rocket mysteriously explodes. At this point, things look pretty grim, so the U.S. partners with their enemy, the Chinese, to use the Chinese rockets to boost the American space module into orbit. The Chinese astronauts are very nice, but you know that at least one of them is a Redshirt. Because a) Asian and b) enemy and c) it's always the likable characters who get it. Ah, institutionalized racism. Good times.
The mission to the Ocean of Storms is basically Apollo 13 but kind of worse, because they have to land on the moon for the sake of humanity. And they do everything that every science fiction movie and novel ever has told us not to do. The perform an EVA after an explosion during a burn knocks out communications and navigation.
This is primo death time in a book. DO NOT DO THIS. Aw, dangit. My favorite character dies during the EVA. And they leave this person to float off into space forever. Nice. Basically your worst nightmare. So Space Titanic continues on to the Moon but the landing module's pilot got stuck out in space during the EVA with a shattered faceplate and had "ruptured lungs" but somehow made it back in to heroically pilot the LEM down, and then die. Everyone seems super surprised that he didn't regrow his breathing apparatus or something.
I honestly do not think that humans can be alive with "ruptured lungs" but hey, what do I know? I'm assuming this is different from a collapsed lung.
But oh, things get worse. The landing was not exactly cushy, and the ascent engines of the Copernicus are "smashed." What do they make this stuff out of, aluminum? So, they can't get off the Moon unless someone can ... build a new ascent engine. On the Moon. In the meantime, Zell, Donovan, and Soong (one of the Chinese astronauts), take a buggy ride over to the giant fissure and climb inside. Where they find a really big spaceship. And it's covered in friendly greetings written in all of Earth's languages. And also a door.
Inside the ship are humanoid corpses and a ship computer programmed to speak all known languages on Earth. There is a hologram man who gives a handy infodump that is basically: Hi, we're from the future, and we're here to stop you from cloning yourselves into perfection and then dying from a horrible disease. Also, they have wormholes.
After a very silly sequence where the astronauts think about wormholing (is that a verb?) the LEM back up to the orbiting spaceship, they just use the future ship's magic 3D printer to build a new engine and fly back home. Where no one wants to talk about the fact that it wasn't technically aliens, but human clone things from the future.
Determined to stop the human race from killing itself via too much bioengineering, Zell, Soong, and Donovan end up in Tanzania (I don't even know anymore, just roll with me here) where there is another spaceship. Except this one has been under the control of the corporation headed by Cal Walker, the cranky Apollo guy, who is obviously evil The good guys win in the end, but you knew that already.
Ocean of Storms pulls off the stunning feat of starting out fun and ending up with your brain in a knot trying to figure out what the heck you just read. It became very clear that there were two authors working on this project, because this is really two different stories: space travel and weird time travel stuff. And since the heroes end up changing the timeline in the end, would any of this happened in the first place if we are assuming that time is relatively linear? (i.e. you can go back to the past and change the future) If anything, I find the multiverse model to be more believable, in which case there was a shift when the President destroyed the alien vessel and shut down the bioengineering project, thus shunting humanity onto a different timeline. BUT NEVER MIND THAT LOGICAL SCIENCE-Y TYPE STUFF. Sheesh. I'm such a killjoy, I know.
This could have been saved by memorable characters, but they're the same stock faux-diverse team that populates every movie and every book. There's no chemistry between any of them, and the one that I did like reading about died early on. Thanks.
Skip Ocean of Storms and just watch Apollo 13 and Armageddon back to back. It will be a lot more fun.
I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.