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.

Advertisements




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.

FugitiveBlue

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.

80K_TSP_cover

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.

TheSecondCure

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.