About Tove Jansson and the writing of letters

16 04 2020

(This is a book review — of Letters from Tove, edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson and translated by Sarah Death — but, as sometimes happens with my Jansson-related reviews, it has quite a bit of digression as well. If you’re not in the mood for the digression, just scroll quickly past the text between the two cover images, which are respectively those of the UK (Sort Of Books) and US (University of Minnesota Press) editions…)

LettersFromTove_SortOfBooks

I first encountered Moomin at age 11, picking a book off the shelf at my school library. It was a mistake: I was looking for science fiction. The cover illustration, in concert with the ‘Moom’ part of the title, suggested to my mind that perhaps these were creatures who lived on the Moon; in which case I was interested. But the illustration was whimsical, which wasn’t exactly what I’d been looking for. Ah, well, my eleven-year-old mind thought, perhaps it’ll be funny if it’s not serious. I liked humorous books too.

As it turned out, it wasn’t SF, and it wasn’t significantly humorous. And Moomins didn’t live on the Moon, but in Finland.

It seemed slightly too young a book, heavily illustrated and all that. But something about it resonated, and Moominland Midwinter became my portal into the world of the Moomins. Four weeks later, I’d made my way, in a somewhat disordered fashion, through all eight of the classic Moomin books (by which I mean the sequence from Comet in Moominland to Moominland in November) for the first time. I’ve repeated the journey several times since.

Even back then, I was intrigued not just by the Moomins, but by their creator. (What sort of name was ‘Tove’, anyway? Were her parents Lewis Carroll aficionados?) The back flaps of the library books’ dust jacket covers stated that ‘[Tove Jansson] and her mother and brother are the only inhabitants of a small island in the Gulf of Finland, an hour’s rowing from the next island’, which was at best a half-truth even then. (Not about the rowing, I mean, but about the cohabitation.) But children’s authors in that era were not allowed to be lesbian, or bisexual, or of any stripe other than straightforwardly and undemonstratively heterosexual, if the matter were even ever broached in public. Which, of course, it wasn’t.

For at least the decade after finding that book on the shelf, I searched, largely in vain, for more information about Jansson, and for more of her work. From the other side of the world, back then, there wasn’t much visible. I reread the Moomin books (of which, by now, I had my own Puffin paperback editions). I scoured bookshops, both new and secondhand. Sometimes this bore fruit: I found a time-worn copy of Sun at Midnight (Oswell Blakeston), a travel book detailing a Finnish summer holiday (during, I think, 1956 or 1957) which features a four-page visit to Tove Jansson on her island. (It’s a fascinating record of the encounter, as much for what is left unstated as is conveyed, and it captures Jansson’s mien — her friendliness, her sense of social obligation, but also an underlying standoffishness — quite expertly.) I also found a heavily-discounted copy of Marcus Crouch’s The Nesbit Tradition: The Children’s Novel 1945—1970, which includes a fair two-page exploration of the tone and scope of the Moomin books (alongside a scandalous characterisation of Little My as ‘appalling’, which says more to my mind about Crouch than it does about Little My). And I found The Summer Book, of which in the early eighties there were still copies of the Penguin edition available in one or two Christchurch bookstores. This led me to the realisation that Jansson wrote for adults as well as for children. By this point, the only two other books of Jansson’s adult fiction to have been translated into English — Sculptor’s Daughter and Sun City — were already out of print, but there were copies available in the Canterbury Public Library, which I borrowed. And photocopied. (I don’t still have those photocopies; they have presumably fed a few generations of silverfish. Meanwhile, secondhand prices for the never-reprinted Sun City, which I suspect probably qualifies as Jansson’s least convincing novel, have skyrocketed; my advice to the curious is that that particular book is not worth several hundred dollars for a secondhand copy, even for the sublime incongruity of seeing Tove Jansson name-drop Seattle acid-punk band The Electric Prunes… which itself is an incident I really think needs to be explored further.)

The perceptive among you — which, hopefully, is both of you — will notice that this is quite a long way into my review, and still no review. I’m getting there. Sometimes, like Snufkin’s attitude to tune-finding, these things need to be walked around to. Awaited. Preluded.

The Who’s Who entry for Tove Jansson, in the early eighties, let slip that there were other books — Moomin picture books and novels for adults — which remained untranslated into English. In 1981, I decided to learn Swedish, so I could read the untranslated books. But for this plan to work, obviously I’d need to find a way to buy the books, which weren’t available in NZ. I wrote, first, to the embassy (actually the wrong embassy to start with, because I’d assumed the Swedish-language books would be published in Sweden), and was directed, after next writing to the correct embassy, to the publisher (actually the wrong publisher to start with, because the Finnish Embassy’s information was out of date). But the former publisher directed me to Schildts, her then-current publisher, so I contacted them about purchasing copies of the books. That shipment of 14 books — the six books of her adult fiction then available, the four large-format colour Moomin picturebooks, and my four favourites among the Moomin novels I’d already read several times — was probably the most exciting delivery I ever received, even if I never did actually get around to properly learning Swedish. (I did make an effort, and I have a smattering even now; but I stopped far short of fluency or even reliable comprehension.) Jansson is dead now, and the books are of course almost all readily available in English translation, as so often happens when famous foreign-language authors pass away; but I still regret that I didn’t master the language back then.

I also wrote a letter, back then, to Tove Jansson. And received a reply from her. Which I then somehow lost. I won’t overburden this already preamble-heavy book review with the details of that sequence: you can choose to read it in this earlier post instead, and I hope you will.

LettersFromTove_UMinnPress

Tove Jansson was an assiduous correspondent. She wrote many thousands of letters to the many thousands of fans who wrote to her over the years. She also wrote detailed and incisive letters to friends, lovers, and family members, updating them on a multitude of events in her life, and on her musings on life and her own difficult-to-settle identity. It’s a selection of these latter, often deeply personal, letters which have been collected in Letters from Tove, edited by Jansson’s biographer Boel Westin and longtime publishing contact Helen Svensson. (And if my own personal Jansson-related backstory is allowed to intrude one final, final time into what, by now, should really be asserting itself as a book review rather than a memoir, it was only on picking up my copy of Letters from Tove prior to commencing this review that I realised the name ‘Helen Svensson’ was one I’d encountered before… because, although I’ve shamefully misplaced my letter from Jansson herself, I still have a typewritten letter, on blue Holger Schildts letterhead paper and dated 19 October 1982, in which Helen Svensson provides me with prices for the titles of Jansson’s Swedish-language books. Lyssnerskan (The Listener) and Sommarboken (The Summer Book) were, she informed me, unfortunately sold out… but when I received my shipment of Swedish-language Jansson books, those two were included nonetheless, even though I’m fairly sure the money order I’d sent Schildts didn’t cover them.)

Letters from Tove is divided into nine sections, organised first by correspondent and then in chronological order for that correspondent. Some sets of letters encompass decades, and therefore the stretches of time and events covered have a tendency to overlap; to read the book in sequence is to follow a somewhat erratic trail through, broadly, the middle half-century of Tove Jansson’s life. It’s a busy life, cosmopolitan, didactic, sometimes sharing deeply personal information. What one gains from shoulder-surfing Tove Jansson’s letters in such depth — and it is a long book, far longer than any of the novels she wrote — is something that is in some respects less satisfying than either a fictional account or a true biography, for it lacks the artistry and pacing of one and the completeness and detail of the other. We don’t get to read, either, her correspondents’ replies to her, which makes the reading experience additionally unbalanced. And yet there’s also a strong sense in which this collection of messages to family and friends (and sometimes more than friends) is more informative about Tove Jansson, about the person she was and the experiences she faced, than any biography could ever be. This is Jansson, after all, outlining her own thoughts in her own words. Her talent as a writer and a highly observant student of human nature shines through repeatedly.

Jansson is frequently very revealing of herself in her correspondence, particularly in the long section of letters to her US-emigrated friend Eva Konikoff. The Konikoff letters explore from several angles Jansson’s worries at Finland’s ‘winter war’ with Russia in which her brother Per Olov [’Peo’] was a combatant (and on which she found herself bitterly opposed to her father Viktor [’Faffan’], whose outspoken patriotic hawkishness and racism contrasted sharply with her own fundamentally pacifist convictions). Later letters to Konikoff deal at length with Jansson’s explorations of sexual identity, her unexpected love affair with theatre director Vivica Bandler, her long romance with (and ultimately lapsed engagement to) left-leaning politican and philosophically-minded author Atos Wirtanen, her progression through a series of relationships with other men and women and, ultimately, her decades-long partnership with graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä [‘Tooti’]. These latter figures also feature as correspondents in their own right, addressed in their own sections of the book; the letters to Tooti are also highly informative and engaging, and free of the sometimes-cloying lovesickness that clogs the first few letters to Vivica Bandler. Elsewhere, the letters explore the tension between Tove’s mother Signe Hammarsten Jansson [’Ham’] and Tooti while the three of them, in the decade after Faffan’s death, are often the sole inhabitants of the Jansson family’s small island Bredskär (and, later, of Klovharun, the island Tove and Tooti lease for themselves). There are tidbits on as-yet-untranslated stories and newspaper articles, commissions she undertook for French radio and television, and incidents which inform both the Moomin stories and her other fiction. It still hurts to learn that there were two chapters culled from Finn Family Moomintroll so as to reduce it to a more ‘acceptable’ length for publication, though it doesn’t seem to have concerned the author greatly: alongside evident pride in the Moomin stories’ capacity to reach both a child and an adult audience, there’s also an open ambivalence at the cultural phenomenon of Moominish popularity, and a very definite sense of relief at the conclusion, in 1959, of her seven-year contract to produce the daily Moomin cartoon strip. The people around her are also delineated in considerable detail, particularly her own family members (parents and younger brother Lars [’Lasse’] somewhat more than Peo) and longtime lovers.

As one might expect, the tone of each series of letters is somewhat distinct: Jansson expresses herself differently to her parents than to her friends, and otherwise again to current or former lovers. But there is nonetheless, incrementally, a life (or more accurately, a several-decades-long segment of a life) that emerges consistently from these letters, a career in which ambition primarily as an artist morphs gradually into success primarily as a writer, with the milestones in this traversal interspersed with personal observations, random minutiae, and an aggregated process of self-discovery.

The letters are candid yet discreet in their phrasing and presentation. They are at times wonderfully chaotic: there are shopping lists interspersed with observations on love, death, and art; there is gossip alongside the deft portrayal of minor and background characters. (The background characterisation is itself quietly fascinating. I found myself wondering, for example, whether Jansson’s colourful and scientifically-minded maternal uncles might collectively have been the inspiration for the character of Hodgkins in The Exploits of Moominpappa; and there are many other ways in which the letters add intriguing colour and depth to the Moomins’ backstory.)

Occasionally, the letters resonate oddly with contemporary life in a world which finds itself in ongoing crisis. Jansson’s background canvassing of the prelude to World War Two (she was holidaying in Italy in June 1939), in a sequence of letters to her mother, might well seem unsettlingly familiar to those who wish to recall the foreshadowing of the past few months. There are similarly eerie undercurrents in Jansson’s wartime letters to her friend Eva Konikoff, with their focus on the sudden slow-grind horror of war and the haphazard mortality which accompanies it. Against such concerns, there are more hopeful strands as well: the enduring friendships forged, the relationships, the interstitial ‘ghost’ (gay) scene which Jansson somewhat wryly finds herself a member of. There’s a strong ‘life goes on’ flavour to the letters, and that, I think, is a strength of this book. I’m not sure that, having read it, I’ll ever reread it in its entirety; but I am certain I’ll browse through it again, searching from time to time for a half-remembered phrase, observation, or anecdote. There’s a useful index.

It’s not a novel, nor an autobiography. These are letters that were each written for their moment in time, and all of them private and personally-focussed; there should be no expectation that they remain in any sense current, or even illuminative to others than their intended correspondents. There isn’t always sufficient scene-setting to make sense of what’s on the page. Nonetheless, the book’s editors (perhaps ‘curators’ would be the more appropriate term) have done well to organise and to provide context and explanatory annotations. And Jansson’s voice is, often enough, wonderfully vivid. There are some gorgeous moments. I think it’s fair to say that Letters from Tove has given me a better understanding of a writer, illustrator, artist and cartoonist whose work I only ever found out about through a sort of happy accident.

Jansson is deservedly celebrated as the woman who gave to the world Moominvalley and its intriguing inhabitants, but she was always more than that. Letters from Tove isn’t the place I’d recommend for readers to discover her — go to the Moomin series, or to The Summer Book or Sculptor’s Daughter for that — but it is, most definitely, a place to find her.





Book review: The Heat, by Sean O’Leary

8 09 2019

Jake works nights as a security guard / receptionist at a budget Darwin motel. The job suits him: he has an aptitude for smelling out potential trouble, and he has no qualms about enforcing expectations of reasonable behaviour whenever guests under the influence of alcohol or something stronger look to make trouble. But Jake’s problem is that he seldom knows when to back off, and it’s this characteristic that gets him into strife.

The Heat

The strife around which The Heat, Melbourne author Sean O’Leary’s noirish Darwin / Bangkok novella of intrigue and natural justice, revolves begins with the murder of Jake’s friend, the Thai prostitute Angel. Jake’s certain that he knows who’s responsible for Angel’s demise; but the Darwin police aren’t overly interested in the woman’s death and certainly aren’t interested in Jake’s theories on that death, see him only as an unreliable witness with behavioural issues and a police record of his own. But Jake’s not the sort to take defeat lying down, and he’s determined, for the sake of her young daughter being raised by her grandmother in Bangkok, that something positive is going to come out of Angel’s death.

I edited O’Leary’s second collection of stories, Walking (now sadly out of print), in 2016. O’Leary’s writing is taut, visceral, and vivid, as at home within the framework of a literary short story as in an exploration of noirish criminality, and his evocation of place and personality is excellent. The Heat simmers throughout, and its characters amply earn their keep in a story that feels substantially larger than the novella within which it’s confined. If you get the chance to read it, don’t turn down The Heat.





Poem, untitled, sciencey

28 02 2019

It occurs to me I haven’t posted anything in a month or so. So here’s a poem:

*

Had Daedalus truly flown

before the Montgolfiers, before the Wrights, before Earhart

he would have found that the realm of human flight – the troposphere –

cools with increasing altitude. He would have known

it was not melt that doomed ambitious Icarus

but wax embrittlement.





Another snippet of Reappraisal

6 02 2019

I posted, a month or so back, the first chapter of my second Guerline Scarfe SF-murder-mystery-set-on-Titan, A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death. The story is now technically complete but still requiring a fair bit of work, which will happen over the coming months. Those of you who’ve read Chapter One may have noticed that it makes no mention of Guerline Scarfe herself. To rectify that, and to set the scene that little bit more, here’s part of Chapter Two:

*

Scarfe brooded over what Hinewai had asked of her. It wasn’t feasible, of course; nor was it exactly ethical; nor, in all likelihood, did it offer any hope of effectiveness. But that wasn’t enough to dissuade her from mulling it over, as fruitlessly as an early-morning insomniac.

She was standing in the rain room, with Nikita, but she wasn’t properly there. She told herself that she should be investing the time in properly engaging with her son, finding a way to interact with his eight-year-old—no, nine now—his nine-year-old enthusiasms, rather than picking over Hinewai’s information. But Guerline Scarfe had never liked being lied to, and she knew, now, she couldn’t let this sit until she’d worked out exactly why Hinewai had been lying.

It wasn’t real rain, of course. Neither Titan rain nor true Earth rain, just tame liquid water that fell, traipsed almost, from a myriad small apertures in the rain room’s camo’d ceiling, while the wraparound virtscreens, the textovers, the olfactors and the hidden ductfans all sought to convey, to bolster, a sequence of illusions. Seattle, drizzle. Hokitika, steady downpour. Preston, spring shower. New Dhaka, monsoon. None of it authentic, no chance. She tried, and failed, to imagine what it must really be like to experience rain at seven times the gravity, in thinner air. It must come down like bullets. It must hurt.

And the crazy thing is that half the people in here have opted for protective clothing, waterproof outers, to protect them from the very conditions they’ve paid significant credit to experience. What’s the point in that? She’d chosen rubber boots, herself, because wet moccasins weren’t any kind of fun, but as for the rest of it, she was expecting to get soaked, because that was what the rain room was about. She had a set of spare clothes in the locker. Why would you do any differently? What could you possibly get from the rain room in a plastic jacket?

Nikita had insisted on bare feet. Bare feet and shorts. He sploshed, now, with youthful belligerence in the puddles, sending thin jets of cold water at anyone who happened to be standing close enough. Guerline stifled the impulse to apologise on his behalf: his actions weren’t really misbehaviour. If people weren’t prepared to get wet, they shouldn’t be in the rain room.

It’s funny, she thought, what gets people’s interest, creates a fad. Three weeks ago the franchise that ran Trafton’s weather rooms was foreshadowing the facility’s closure, because there wasn’t sufficient patronage for viability. Then the rain had come, outside, real Titan rain that had lasted for almost two standard days, had drenched the terrain around Trafton with puddles and channels and pooling, transient lakes of liquid methane. There’d been a welter of sightseeing, to the extent that the hab’s authorities had had to introduce a ballot system so as not to overtax the available airlocks. Everyone, it seemed, freshly reminded that they dwelt on a world with a genuine and dynamic meteorology, had wanted to experience the rain; and for some who were thwarted by the ballot, or who were impatient, or who just wanted another bite of the ration bar, the weather rooms in the Sub-B amusement precinct offered a suddenly-appealing surrogate. At its peak, she’d heard, they’d been turning people away from the rain room, just as they had from the airlocks leading outside, because there wasn’t space.

This session, it didn’t look as if there were more than a couple of dozen people, mostly children and wet-faced parents like herself.

A determined trickle of water found its way down past the cuff of her left boot. She tried to remember: had she included socks in her change of clothes?

Early in the downpour, Nikita had joined a small group of children about his own age who were playing an impromptu game of chase, shrieking and laughing as they ran and manoeuvred around the grownups and other non-participants. He’s good at running, Guerline thought, a little enviously. He’s at the cat age, where he doesn’t worry about whatever anyone else thinks, content just to be himself. Though even as the thought occurred to her, she knew it wasn’t true, not entirely. Kids are just better at concealing their insecurities, sometimes, or forgetting them. Bravado can count for a lot, when you’re young.

And the times you feel closest to him are those when he doesn’t even notice you’re there. Like now. She stole a guilty glance at the chrono on the wall. Calculated the time needed to get changed; get a meal; walk home; ensure he was packed; then drop him off at Sunder’s. At Sunder’s and Pirra’s, she corrected herself. Striving, without complete success, to rise above the dull bitterness, the reflex-action resentment. It was a positive, after all, that Nikita got along so well with his father’s new partner; but it didn’t always feel like a positive.

I promised Sunder that I wouldn’t actively compete with him for Nikita’s affection, his regard, she thought. But I never said I’d extend that courtesy to my replacement.

She blanked the thought away, fought to stay in the moment. She was the one, here, after all, with Nikita. She’d been the one he’d begged about the rain room. Enjoy what you’ve got. Be grateful.

Pirra was presumably grateful, herself, to have one stepchild—Nikita—with whom she was on good terms. Because that isn’t, apparently, true with Hinewai. It had been something Sunder had said, remarking on the disparity in Pirra’s interactions with Nikita and with Hinewai, which had resurfaced in her memory while Hinewai had been discussing her concerns about her father. They’ve never got along, Pirra and Hinewai, Sunder had told Guerline, weeks ago now. They’re like the wrong poles of two magnets, she says it’s always been that way. It’s such a relief Nikita gets on so well with her.

Guerline hadn’t invested too much thought in the comment, at the time, beyond pure maternal resentment at the suggestion that she wasn’t, perhaps, irreplaceable, as well as wondering if her ex-husband even recognised the implicit irony in his commenting to her about the fundamental incompatibility of two entirely different people. Taking the broader view, Pirra’s relationship with her stepdaughter was, after all, none of Guerline’s concern, provided it didn’t in some manner rub off adversely on Nikita’s interactions with Pirra. On a purely social level, that was where it sat, and that was where it ended. But on a professional level …

And at that point she had to remind herself, yet again, that she didn’t really have a professional level anymore.





Chapter One

30 12 2018

Exactly a month back, I posted an interim progress report on A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death, the second of my Guerline Scarfe SF murder mysteries set on Titan. (The first, for those uninitiated in such things, is Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body.)

 

A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death is nearing completion, and so as to provide a taste of it, here’s chapter one of the story:

*

The ride from Turtle had been sufficiently challenging, for both her and the skid-bike, that Prabha’s servo’d wrists ached by the time she pulled to a halt outside the installation.

The W&E Afekan Command Centre was a thirty-metre-diameter prefab geodome, heavily stained and almost completely devoid of windows. It was crouched on the broad, weathered eastern rim of the crater. In wan full sun, as now, the track leading up the crater wall was wide enough that the ascent didn’t intimidate so much as tire, but she wouldn’t have liked to negotiate it during the week of night. The access road hewn into the ice-rock of the crater’s outer wall had been marred and rutted by the repeated passage of heavy tracked vehicles—as generally happened, she supposed, with mining operations—and the road’s inner shoulder, where the surface was generally smoother and thus more accommodating to the skid-bike, was frequently choked by drifts of umber-coloured, coarse-grained hydrocarbon sand.

Looking westward, the tholin-stained, intermittently sand-choked crater wall sloped down unhurriedly, in a haphazard, age-eroded jumble towards Afekan’s dark floor, a couple of hundred metres below. Prabha thought she could just espy a couple of lighter, blocky, artificial obtrusions in the intermediate distance. It wasn’t apparent whether they were vehicles or buildings. There were other obtrusions, larger, less regular—weathered hillocks and ridges, she presumed, daubed in the false shade of their tholined crusting—scattered elsewhere across the crater floor. Distance, or the staining on her helmet’s visor—or possibly a conspiracy of the two—robbed her of any hint of the crater’s far wall, more than a hundred kilometres away.

In the absence of any apparent visitor parking, she pushed the skid-bike across to the geodome’s western perimeter, voice-locked it, and went in search of an airlock.

*

The air stank. She should probably have expected that.

“Khalil, can you please get me those—Oh.” The woman who emerged through the front office hatchway was big, not so much tall as solid, her shortsleeved tunic displaying the most heavily muscled arms Prabha had ever seen. Broad face, green eyes beneath thick brows, soot-black shoulder-length hair. Orca tattoo on her right arm. Voice higher-pitched than seemed in keeping with her build, her bearing.

Prabha stepped forward, awkwardly holding her daypack—its handle still carrying some residue of Titan-chill—in her left hand while she extended the other to shake. “Agent Prabha Braun, Turtle pol,” she said. “You’d reported some kind of problem?”

What followed, Prabha felt, was less a handshake than an exercise in digitally-mediated constriction. “Ulla Frick,” the older woman explained, releasing the pressure. “Supervisor. Are the others still outside?”

“Others?” asked Prabha. “I don’t—”

“Is it just you?” asked Frick. “No offence, but …”

“Just what kind of problem had you reported?”

Frick’s eyes narrowed, and she gave a small quick exhalation before breathing in, more deeply and slowly. “You’d better come through to the lab.”

“Right.” Prabha followed Frick through a hatchway to the right of the office, and along a short corridor. “My suit’s still in the airlock. Is that likely to pose a difficulty?”

“I doubt anyone’s going to steal it,” Frick replied, not bothering to turn around. “If that’s what you mean.”

“Fine. And is there anywhere around here I can get it freshened?”

Ulla Frick’s answering laugh was, Prabha thought, more symptomatic of derision than of mirth.

*

The hatchway they stopped at bore on its door the inexpertly-stencilled label ‘GEOCHEM’, as well as several scuffs and scratches of sufficient prominence for Prabha to harbour doubts as to its continued utility as an emergency pressure barrier. Frick gave the briefest of courtesy knocks before pushing her palm against the admit panel.

Prabha wasn’t sure what she had been expecting from the laboratory—probably something like the stereotypical scene in sims she’d partaken of—but this wasn’t it. A couple of large, and by no means new-looking, black cabinets dominated one side of the room. A hip-high workbench, on which were sprawled flimsies, reagent canisters, and a pile of emergency masks, stretched the length of the opposite side. Pipes, ducts, and cables ran up the far wall and across the ceiling. Above all this—overlaid upon it, suffusing it, helping somehow to define it—was the sharp sweet stink of Titan ice.

A small man, in vividly varicoloured clothes that seemed too tight to contain him effectively, stood hunched over some blockish-looking instrument at the far end of the workbench, worrying it with an oligotool. He did not look up as they entered.

“You seen Khalil anywhere?” Frick asked.

Now he did glance up, double-took at the sight of Prabha. Elfin features, stubble, a scar on his left cheek that ran almost up to his eye. Big meaty hands. “Thought he’d been to see you earlier.”

“He didn’t find me,” said Frick.

“And this is …?”

“Agent Braun, from Turtle pol.” Frick turned briefly to Prabha, as though to confirm these particulars, before turning back to the figure at the workbench. “She’s here in response to the … incident.” With this, the supervisor turned and walked out of the room.

Well, thought Prabha, wondering what happened next. The lab’s heating kicked in with an aggressive whirr.

“How much has Ulla told you about this?” the lab worker asked her after a few awkward seconds.

“Not much,” replied Prabha, raising her voice so as to remain audible over the heat-pump’s turbines. “Suppose you just tell me everything you think is relevant, in your own words? And I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name …”

“Bo Culbertson. Geochemistry.” He placed the oligotool on the bench and moved toward her, hand outstretched.

What is it with these people and death-grip handshakes? she wondered. “Look, to be perfectly frank, I haven’t been briefed on this at all. Whatever information may have been transmitted to Turtle pol about this incident hasn’t been relayed to me. So I’d be grateful if you can tell me why pol attention was sent for.”

“It’s probably best if I show you,” he said, pausing the climate control before crossing to the farther cabinet. Opened, its black door (emblazoned, she now saw, with a contrasting decal that declared ‘Frozen Oceanography Practised Here’) almost completely blocked the gap between cabinets and bench. The cabinet door also quite eclipsed Culbertson, of whom the only trace, for the moment, was a sequence of shuffling and scampering sounds as he searched for something among the cabinet’s shelves. “Ah.” He placed an object on the bench, closed up the cabinet—the heat pump rumbled into action again—and then he gingerly carried his find over to Prabha. Resting in the slight concavity of a disposable plastic sample tile was a rough chunk of something—some mineral, she guessed—about two centimetres across, a light greyish-brown, and with a crumbled texture to much of its surface. He prodded it gently with the oligotool, revealing darker brown shading on its underside. “We pulled this out of the masticator runoff, down on the crater floor. There was a fair bit more of it, too, as well as the other stuff you’d expect.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t … what is it exactly, that you’re showing me?”

His eyes flicked from her, to the sample, back to her again. “It’s bone,” he said. “Human bone.”





A reappraisal

30 11 2018

Last year, alongside the release of Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body, my Guerline Scarfe SF / murder mystery novella, I somewhat rashly promised, within the confines of said book and alongside a first-chapter teaser, that a sequel would be appearing this year. That, alas, won’t be happening.

Matters_Arising_cover_small

In essence, I realised quite far into the writing of said sequel (which somewhat ironically has always been called A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death) that the new SF / murder mystery I’d outlined didn’t really cut it: it didn’t resonate the way I’d hoped it would. So I scrapped it, stripped the story back to basics, and have had it sitting up on blocks for the past year or so while I sought to find the keys to its salvage. On this front there has been, recently, significant progress.

A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death is currently over 16,000 words, up from just 6,000 a week ago. There’s far to go, yet; it’s not yet half written, even in first draft. But I’m pleased at what is coalescing. The first-chapter teaser is still canonical, and should remain so. And steam is up.





Book review: Fugitive Blue, by Claire Thomas

15 11 2018

Claire Thomas is an Australian author and academic with short story publications in journals including Meanjin and Overland. Her first (and, thus far, sole) novel, Fugitive Blue, won the 2009 Dobbie Award for women writers and was longlisted in that year’s Miles Franklin Award.

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Fugitive Blue is the story of a young art conservator’s doomed romantic relationship, told in backdrop against her foregrounded obsession with restoring and researching a fifteenth-century painted poplar panel (a pair of angels in flight, embedded in an expansive sky of then-priceless ultramarine pigmentation) by an unheralded female artist, Caterina, whose name is boldly scribed upon the panel’s back. Intercut with the conservator’s efforts and observations, the narrative also furnishes lengthy interludes from the artwork’s long life, from renaissance Venice through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, as seen through the eyes of various protagonists. It’s a quietly intense story, filled with patience and precision and the conservator’s need to undo the damage of centuries of quiet existence.

I generally feel somewhat cheated when, as here, what initially presents itself as the dominant narrative instead reveals itself to be a framing story for other episodes (and, yes, I’m not unaware of the double meaning of the term ‘framing story’ in a novel on art conservation). I forgive this tendency in Fugitive Blue because the structure works here: in part because it is entirely natural for the conservator, attempting to arrange the best possible outcome for the warping panel’s time-tarnished image, to seek to unravel its past, and in part because this arrangement provides precisely the precarious balance between immediacy and the weight of dead time that is required to tell this particular story well. The historical episodes—in Venice (on two occasions, separated by centuries); in Paris; and in a migrant camp in Albury-Wodonga—are depicted in an unhurried and immersive style, with plenty of time taken to bring their various characters to full life. There are also some impressive details hiding in plain sight as the slow-release tragedy at the novel’s heart plays out. Recommended.





Updatery, updated

18 10 2018

A couple of weeks back, I backgrounded recent and upcoming happenings in my orbit. It seems both apposite and timely to provide a short update on this…

First, as foreshadowed in the previous notice, I’ll be signing and selling books at BookFace in Gungahlin, from 1 to 2 pm this Saturday (20th Oct). Or more reliably, I should say I’ll be seated at a signing table during that time; whether there’s any signing or selling is in the hands of the customers. If you’re in a position to drop by during the appointed hour, whether to chat, to peruse, or to purchase, you’d be most welcome.

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One of the books I’ll have at the signing is 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess (as recently reviewed by the ever-perspicacious Tsana Dolichva: the grab from her reading of the collection is ‘there’s much to enjoy here’, but I’d encourage you, as always, to check out the full review). 80K TSP (one of the disadvantages, of course, of giving a book a long title is that it’s a long title) is also featured among many other low-priced Australian specfic offerings in Ashley Capes’ imminent Oztober promotion, which runs from the 19th to the 21st of October (hence, I’m guessing, the promotion’s name). There’s enough specfic on offer to constitute the perfect ebook TBR pile, so give Oztober a look, here. (Link may not yet be active; if not, I’ll edit for activity as it comes onstream.)





Book review: The Second Cure, by Margaret Morgan

15 10 2018

Margaret Morgan is an Australian writer and screenwriter with a background in criminal law and training in plant science, genetics, and parasitology. She has furnished scripts for Australian TV shows as Water Rats and GP and her short fiction has appeared in outlets such as Meanjin and Going Down Swinging. The Second Cure is her first novel.

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The Second Cure postulates a world in which cats are dying out, by virtue of a new strain of Toxoplasma gondii (the unicellular parasite with a life cycle that takes it alternately through the metabolisms of the cat and the rat) that’s sufficiently distinct, in its genotype and its parasisology, to be considered a new species. Charlotte (‘Charlie’) Zinn, a microbiologist whose expertise in parasitology and symbiosis has suddenly become sexy—or at least topical—with the new species’ emergence, dubs the new parasite T. pestis. It spreads rapidly, through contact with infected cats and by ‘exchange of bodily fluids’, to become endemic in a large and growing proportion of the human population. The parasite at first appears to be harmless, but it soon becomes apparent that its assumed inertness is merely an indication of a significant incubation period. Symptoms of infection are highly varied—the parasite affects brain chemistry, with results that appear to depend at least in part on the preexisting structure of the infected brain—but often include one of several forms of synaesthesia, the ‘blending of senses’ that allows some people to hear colours, etc. Charlie’s partner, musician-artist Richard, is one such; but since this new characteristic succeeds in interweaving his two consuming interests of music and art, he sees it not as an affliction, but as a gift. This attitude takes off, and a growing population of ‘thetes’ revel in their new capabilities.

Not everyone is so enamoured of this change in a fraction of the infected population. Jack Effenberg, newly-elected populist premier of Queensland, and his charismatic televangelistic power-behind-the-throne wife Marion, are determined to stamp out what they see as a sinful shift in human nature: if not globally, then over at least whatever geographical area they can wield control. Richard’s sister Brigid, a reporter, is equally determined to ensure the Effenbergs’ divisive and opportunistic right-wing policies are exposed to significant critical attention, an attitude hardly shared with the rest of the Queensland press pack. And Charlie, her colleague Juliette, and her scientist-entrepreneur husband Shadrack Zinn are all committed, in their various ways, to combatting the insidious new disease with all of the tools at their disposal. Of course, with so many different active agendas, something has to give…

It’s almost impossible to fault this book. Morgan’s biomedicine-inspired extrapolation is enthralling, her characterisation is muscular and moving; she plays dramatic tension like an instrument. And onto a contemporary Australian setting she throws a varicoloured patchwork of social commentary, political commentary, geopolitical speculation and gradual technological advancement that feels tangible, in some ways almost inevitable. Above all, it’s character-driven hard science fiction that’s perfectly accessible, yet doesn’t compromise, anywhere, on the science. I’m deeply impressed.





Book review: Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

12 10 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer who until recently was best known as the author of the ‘Raksura’ and ‘Ile-Rien’ fantasy series; Wells has also written tie-in novels for the Star Wars and Stargate franchises. Within the past year or so, she has received increasing attention and acclaim for a new sequence of thoughtful and propulsive SF novellas, collectively termed ‘The Murderbot Diaries’, which detail the exploits of a somewhat-misanthropic combat cyborg (a ‘SecUnit’) that has slipped the yoke of its human-controlled programming and is now trying to find its own place in the hostile and confusing realm of human society. I’ve previously reviewed the three earlier novellas in the ‘Murderbot’ sequence.

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Exit Strategy is the fourth title in the series, and follows a form that will be familiar to readers of the three earlier novellas: (1) Murderbot breathes sigh of simulated relief at conclusion of preceding events, looks to plan escape so as to minimise detection. (2) Murderbot is distracted in its preferred task of ingesting media shows by self-perceived need to safeguard stupid humans from their own intended reckless actions. (3) Murderbot carefully plans best-practice approach for averting harmful consequences to identified group of stupid humans. (4) Murderbot puts plan into effect. (5) Shit gets real: best laid plans, etc., etc. (6) Bad things happen.

This time around, the ‘stupid human’ most directly in need of safeguarding is Dr Mensah, who is technically Murderbot’s ‘owner’, and for whom the technically-rogue Murderbot therefore feels conflicting emotions… which is to say, emotion of any sort. Mensah has been kidnapped by evil corporate empire GrayCris, an entity with which Murderbot has had several previous dealings, none of them good. With the human it most cares about at the mercy of a ruthless, almost-lawless corporation, how will Murderbot rectify the situation?

Wells’ Murderbot novellas always build patiently to an explosive finale, and Exit Strategy is no exception. This perhaps makes it sound formulaic; not an inaccurate assessment, perhaps, but an incomplete one. There’s a slowly-developing awareness accreted across all four novellas that the SecUnit, repeatedly forced by circumstances to mimic a human being (so as not to appear in public as a dangerous, and therefore eminently targetable, item of killing machinery), is gradually becoming more adept in this role, a process which Wells uses to subtly tease out useful insights into the nature and limitations of humanity itself, as seen by an entity that’s still technically outside that walled city. Somewhat surprisingly for such an ostensibly-unemotive protagonist, the principal sparseness of the writing shows up not in the characterisation, which is fairly vivid (as expressed through body language, observable reactions, and SecUnit speculation), but in the scene-setting which, because it’s portrayed almost entirely without metaphor, can come across as pallid, functional, and sketchy, like a wireframe rather than a fully-rendered scene. Action sequences, however, are expertly-defined and propulsive. Murderbot is at its best seeking to survive against seemingly-overpowering opponents.

And, like some cross between Marvin the Paranoid Android and Terminator, Murderbot as a character is deliciously self-deprecating, curmudgeonly, and flippant at times. It’s a memorable nonhuman creation, by turns refreshingly philosophical and highly entertaining. By seeking to reunite the rogue SecUnit with Dr Mensah, Exit Strategy brings the multi-novella story arc to a memorable and effective conclusion. (There are, nonetheless, some indications that Murderbot is to return in a subsequent novel, which will be interesting.)