A two-man mission to Venus fails and is aborted; when it returns, the Captain is missing and the other astronaut, Harry M. Evans, is unable to explain what has happened. Or, conversely, he has too many explications; his journal of the expedition—compiled in the mental institution to which NASA has embarrassedly committed him—offers contradictory stories: he murdered the Captain, mad Venusian invaders murdered the Captain, the Captain vanished, no one was murdered and the Captain has returned in Evans’ guise…as the explanations pyramid and as the supervising psychiatrist’s increasingly desperate efforts to get a straight story fail, it becomes apparent that Evans’s madness and his inability to explain what happened are expressions of humanity’s incompetence at the enormity of space exploration.
The novel, published by Random House as its inaugural work in a proposed new science fiction program, was controversial and became even more so when it won the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel. Many felt that the award, regardless of the novel’s accomplishment, was an insult to Campbell (1910-1971), the great editor of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine whose name had always been synonymous with the wonder and complexity of space exploration. Campbell, some argued, would never have published a novel given an award in his name; others responded that Campbell had always honored controversy and the expansion of familiar means of thought, a category into which Beyond Apollo certainly fell.