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.”

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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.





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.

ExitStrategy

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.)





Book review: The Thin Blue Line, by Christoffer Carlsson

9 10 2018

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer. He has won several awards since his crime-novel debut, The Invisible Man from Salem, in 2013. He’s best known for his four-volume ‘Leo Junker’ series, of which Invisible Man marks the start, and which concerns a highly-conflicted Stockholm detective who seems persistently unable to escape his and others’ mistakes. I’ve previously reviewed several of Carlsson’s novels.

TheThinBlueLine

The Thin Blue Line (Den Tunna Blå Linjen, 2017, translated by Michael Gallagher) sees Junker once again inveigled into one of his escaped-criminal friend John Grimberg’s intrigues. This time it’s a plea for Leo to unofficially reopen the investigation into the unsolved murder of Stockholm prostitute Angelica Reyes, a low-priority five-year-old cold case that’s a couple of months away from being passed on to a team specialising in such cases. There’s no ostensible reason why Grim should want the case investigated by Leo in particular, but Leo feels compelled… and as he and colleague Gabriel Birck dig deeper into the records of the original investigation, which are meticulous but with unexplained gaps, it becomes clear that something important, something deadly, has been concealed. But the time available for Leo’s and Gabriel’s investigation is short, and much of it hinges on the need to talk to people who do not wish to come forward…

Carlsson’s Leo Junker novels combine immediacy, neo-noirish intrigue, and a measured pace that seems consistently unhurried while never flagging. In Junker, Birck, Grimberg, and Leo’s partner Sam he has crafted a memorable central quartet of characters who, across four books—and there is reason to believe this to be the last in the series—play off each other to extraordinary effect. The background, too, is particularly well crafted, with considerable credible detail.

In my review of the first in the Leo Junker series (The Invisible Man from Salem), I suggested that Carlsson may have affectionately Tuckerised fellow Swedish crime novelist (and fellow criminology specialist) Leif G W Persson as a background character in the novel. I suspect Carlsson has done something analogous in this book also—his pair of ‘lazy beat cops’ Larsson and Leifby, who just happen to be patrolling out-of-area at a crucial point in the story, appear intentionally reminiscent of the similarly-alliterative and similarly unprepossessing team of out-of-area beat cops, Kristiansson and Kvant, who appear in certain of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ novels, such as The Laughing Policeman. If this is indeed intentional, it leads me to wonder what other examples of homage might occur in books two and three of Carlsson’s series… but it would be remiss of me to imply that the books require a deep familiarity with Swedish crime fiction for full enjoyment, because I don’t believe that to be the case. They are their own thing, and Junker is a surprisingly sympathetic if deeply-conflicted protagonist.