Book review: The Killer’s Art, by Mari Jungstedt

19 03 2018

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist and crime fiction author, best known for her series of Gotland-based police procedurals featuring Inspector Anton Knutas (with most titles in the series available in English translation). I’ve previously reviewed the first three books in the series.


(Before the review proper, I should just reassure readers that the book’s title is not spoilerish: there is no character called Art in this volume.)

The Killer’s Art (Den döende dandyn, 2006, translated by Tiina Nunnally) opens with the early-morning discovery of a naked corpse, which has been hanged from a tall medieval gate in the city walls of Visby. It’s quickly established that (a) the deceased is Egon Wallin, well-known (and apparently universally liked) local art dealer and gallery owner, and (b) Wallin didn’t hang himself. So who did? Inspector Knutas and his team commence an investigation in which no motive suggests itself as plausible, though as they dig deeper into Wallin’s personal and professional lives, several secrets and deceptions are revealed …

As always in Jungstedt’s work, the worldbuilding is very good, with the setting of Gotland ably described alongside the blend of genuine and invented art history that backdrops the novel. The characterisation, also, is effective: one of the strengths of the series is its nuanced depiction of the developing professional relationship between Knutas and his longtime colleague Karin Jacobsson, as well as the rather fraught personal relationship between recurring characters Emma Wingarve and TV reporter Johan Berg. (My sole grievance with regard to characterisation is in the portrayal of regular supporting character Inspector Martin Kihlgård, who’s described as being so food-obsessed that he’s eating something in every scene he appears in: while I appreciate that caricaturish ‘tells’ can provide a shorthand for depicting a less-complex character, it nonetheless seems somewhat cheap and unconvincing in an otherwise well-constructed story.) I think, though, that the danger of a series like this—which now, as I understand it, runs to eleven books—is that ultimately it can strain credulity that an island (a large one, admittedly) with a population of slightly less than sixty thousand can play host to such a sequence of complicated and rather outlandish violent crime sprees. While each book is impressive in isolation—Jungstedt’s writing may not quite have the visceral clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson’s, nor the psychological brutality of Karin Alvtegen’s, but she writes well and excels at the depiction of complicated interpersonal relationships—I do find myself wondering if, perhaps, the whole isn’t somewhat less than the sum of its parts. But at this stage there are another seven books to go before I reach that point, so it’s maybe premature to speculate just yet.


‘Wide Brown Land’ print proof sighted …

18 03 2018

Oh, look! The printed proofs of my Titan-themed short story collection Wide Brown Land have now turned up:


I’m biased, of course, but I’m really pleased with how Shauna O’Meara’s cover art has come out. I also like how well the cover meshes with Lewis Morley’s (Ditmar-shortlisted) artwork on its smaller cousin, last year’s novella release Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body:


(That’s an artificial backdrop, though with heat, high wind, dust and distant bushfire smoke, the Canberra skies seem to be unusually titanian this afternoon, so perhaps I hardly needed the backdrop.)

I should be able to provide links for purchase, etc., a bit closer to the release date of 2nd April, so, in the time-honoured tradition of self-promoting as much as I think I can get away with, there’ll be another update or two between now and then.

Book review: Titan Unveiled, by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton

14 03 2018

Ralph Lorenz is a British-born planetary scientist now working in the USA, with active involvement in several interplanetary missions including the Cassini / Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons. Jacqueline Mitton is a science writer and science consultant who has written or co-written numerous nonfiction books for both adults and children, often with an astronomical focus. Titan Unveiled (2008) is the second of their jointly-authored books on Titan and the Cassini / Huygens mission; the earlier work, Lifting Titan’s Veil (2002) was written (and published) before the mission’s arrival at Saturn.


It’s the nature of newly-uncovered fields of study, or those to which useful access has only recently been acquired, that any book on such a subject will already be at least slightly obsolete by the time of its publication, and Titan Unveiled (Saturn’s Mysterious Moon Explored), published a decade ago now, is certainly not immune to this failing. (Nor, indeed, does it claim to be, with the text having been completed in 2006, approximately midway through the mission’s planned four-year duration and before the contemplation of much of the additional flybys and observations that would be made in the nine extra years the mission’s controllers were able to wring out of Cassini before its demise, last year, in Saturn’s cold and crushing embrace.) The most obvious now-more-well-characterised grey areas within the book are in the maps of Titan, which are still not what one would call ‘high resolution’ but feature many more well-resolved tracts than was the case a decade ago, notable especially in the book’s decidedly sketchy reference to the numerous large lakes and seas (of some blend of methane and ethane) that dominate Titan’s north polar region: these reservoirs, substantially the largest known bodies of surface liquid on Titan, were tentatively discovered only as the book was going to press.

So, one shouldn’t expect Titan Unveiled to be the final word on Titan. But with that proviso, it’s an entertaining and carefully informative work which focusses as much on the task of getting an elephant-sized spacecraft (and the howdah-sized probe to be jettisoned from it) to a large planet a billion miles away, and then have its movements so tightly choreographed as to know exactly where it is at every point in the next several years, as it does on the planetary knowledge gained from Titan and the other moons in Saturn’s retinue. There are useful and intriguing examples of on-the-fly problemsolving—a large and complicated mission of this type never goes entirely to plan—and numerous personal anecdotes giving a scientist’s-eye view of the planning and execution of a mission of this type. This vicarious immersion into the world of observational space science is one of the book’s strengths.

If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that the figures and illustrations come across less well than the text. This is partly a matter of production values—the uncoated paper used for the bulk of the book displays black-and-white diagrams well enough, but greyscale photographs reproduced on the page (and often, intrinsically, not of particularly high contrast to begin with) have a tendency to appear murky and indistinct—and partly of captioning, with the eight-page colour insert (displaying several of the B&W images of the main text in admirably clear colour) completely uncaptioned, and therefore requiring the reader to recollect whereabouts in the book to refer for the analogous (captioned) B&W figure.

Images aside, it’s an interesting document. Lorenz and Mitton communicate often-complex scientific concepts with clarity, and with sufficient explanation and background to ensure that a scientifically-literate generalist reader is not left behind in the complexity. (A good memory for acronyms is an advantage, with devices such as HASI, DISR and VIMS repeatedly referenced; if you’re allergic to acronyms, then spaceflight probably isn’t for you.) It’s an effective and detailed introduction—though necessarily incomplete, as noted—to Titan’s still-somewhat-mysterious terrain, structure, and composition.


Book review: Polaris, by Jack McDevitt

12 03 2018

Clearly, I’m on a bit of a McDevitt reading jag at the moment, with this the third of his titles I’ve reviewed in the past week …


Polaris is the second in McDevitt’s long-running ‘Alex Benedict’ series (which I always think of as the ‘Chase Kolpath’ series since she’s really the central—and more interesting—character), but because of reading haphazardousness it’s the last one I’ve got to. None of which matters greatly, because the Benedict & Kolpath books are each largely self-contained. As with the others in the series, Polaris is a locked-room mystery / SF piece, doggedly investigated by Alex and Chase. The mystery here concerns the inexplicable disappearance, sixty years earlier, of six VIPs and a seasoned pilot—i.e., the entire complement of passengers and crew—from the vessel Polaris, shortly after completion of a sightseeing jaunt at the scene of a stellar catastrophe. The vessel is recovered, intact, complete with functional lander and all its suits, but no personnel. Alex decides there has to be a rational explanation for this latter-day Mary Celeste, and he and Chase set out to unearth it. But it seems as though others do not wish the puzzle to be solved … and are willing to kill to preserve the Polaris‘s secret.

This is a dependably intriguing series, with high-stakes problem-solving and impressively big-picture SF worldbuilding. McDevitt’s sense of plotting and pacing is exceptional, the characterisation is solid and the SF content is robust. The one element of his fiction that may rub readers wrong is its distinctly ‘whitebread’ feel: McDevitt’s seems a somewhat parochial future with not a lot of population diversity. In this respect, and in others, the books often feel like a callback to Golden Age SF, and Polaris is no exception. If you’re looking for something cutting-edge, confronting, or challenging, Polaris probably won’t satisfy; but nobody else I’ve read does space-based SF/mystery quite as well as this.


Book review: The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard

10 03 2018

Aliette de Bodard is an American-born French science fiction and fantasy writer, of Vietnamese heritage, writing in English. Her work, which is variously informed by Aztec, Asian, and European cultural backgrounds, has won several awards including the Nebula, Locus, and BSFA awards. I’ve previously reviewed her novella On A Red Station, Drifting here.


The Tea Master and the Detective, another novella, is set in the same ‘Xuya’ universe (I think) as On A Red Station, Drifting, a spacefaring future dominated by Vietnamese heritage and mores. It concerns the hiring of troubled and impecunious shipmind The Shadow’s Child by the brusque and markedly arrogant consulting detective Long Chau, who wishes to acquire a corpse from the ‘deep spaces’ by which the shipmind is haunted following a horrific incident of years past. Long Chau’s interest in the corpse is ostensibly as a subject of research—she claims she wishes to understand the effect of deep spaces on human remains—but it transpires that the detective’s motives may be particular, rather than general. Affronted, traumatised by the necessity of revisiting deep spaces, but dependent on the detective’s coin, The Shadow’s Child does some digging of her own: since Long Chau apparently knows every shameful secret of the shipmind’s past, it seems unfair that the shipmind should know nothing of the detective’s. The relationship between them develops as something of, it seems, mutual mistrust and interdependence. The ship needs money; the detective needs transport and a steady supply of specialised, mind-altering infusions, a commodity which The Shadow’s Child has some skill in concocting. The mystery of the retrieved corpse’s demise emerges slowly, alongside the deeper mystery of Long Chau’s scandalous past, to culminate in a sequence that’s quietly satisfying and strongly resonant, and leaves the reader with the hope that we might encounter these characters again, in circumstances similarly challenging.


Keeping the lie plausible

9 03 2018

All fiction writing, on one level, is concerned with making the lie plausible. (On another level, for the most part, it’s concerned with making the lie interesting, but that’s another matter.) But the art of lying takes many different forms across the different genres, and each genre has its own set of requirements for what constitutes a believable untruth.

Much of what I write, when I’m not in thrall to my inclinations towards humour, falls into the category of hard SF. Now, ask ten people what hard SF is and six of them will say they’ve never heard of the term, while the other four will argue vehemently about its boundaries and principal characteristics. Which, obviously, is as it should be. But I think it’s fair to say that what distinguishes hard SF from other forms of science fiction is its greater attention to, and attempted adherence to, the laws of nature. (This, I hope, is uncontroversial. The contentiousness generally concerns whether hard SF’s focus is limited only to a subset of those laws—most often, those that fit within the confines of physics and chemistry, at a stretch also including biology—or whether a broader range is appropriate, extending out to psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Personally, I take a broad view for definition purposes, though my own hard SF writing most usually concerns itself with the physical and natural sciences.)

Even within the limits of hard SF—whatever they might be—there are different limitations and different dangers for particular styles of story, depending on what is known at the time of writing versus what is known at the time of reading.

If your story’s setting is Earth, twenty million years into the future, or some vaguely-terrestrial planet orbiting a broadly Sun-like star eight thousand parsecs towards the Galaxy’s centre, then you have a considerable degree of what I’ll call ‘safe lassitude’ in your fiction: so long as you adhere to the known laws of physics, chemistry, biology and whatever else your story depends on (tempered respectively, perhaps, with sensible speculation on the far-future biospheric, climatologic, and tectonic evolution of the Earth, or on the implications of higher heavy-element abundances towards the Galactic centre for your setting’s planetology and biology), there’s not a lot of danger of your story suddenly becoming in breach of new knowledge.

If, in contrast, you set your story on Sedna, or on one of the planets of Gliese 581 or TRAPPIST-1, your safe lassitude is distinctly smaller. These are objects about which comparatively little is currently known, implying considerable scope for intriguing speculation, but at the cost—or the risk—of near-future astronomical observations which might be expected to yield new knowledge of your chosen system, some of which will almost inevitably falsify elements of your story. (Suddenly, that planet you insisted was face-locked, a feature which allowed you to extrapolate an entire alien biology adapted to such conditions, doesn’t look so face-locked anymore.) This is a clear occupational hazard, perhaps best typified by Larry Niven’s early story ‘The Coldest Place’ set on face-locked Mercury, a planetary detail universally accepted as correct at the time of the story’s writing, but proven wrong before its publication … and think, too, of how few of the mid-twentieth-century stories set on Mars, or the Moon, or (especially) Venus, still hold the form of plausibility. Their artistry as fiction may well be more-or-less uncorrupted, but their status as hard SF is, inevitably, tarnished.


The image above is Chesley Bonestell’s classic artwork Saturn as seen from Titan, painted in the 1940s shortly after Gerard Kuiper’s discovery that Titan possessed a methane-containing atmosphere (hence the sky’s non-black coloration in Bonestell’s painting). It’s a wonderful (and justly celebrated) image, but there are several details that would now be regarded as unrealistic: the white ‘snow’ (which in actuality would be coated with orange-brown tholins), the apparent rocky obtrusions (almost certainly tholin-crusted ice on Titan as we would understand it today), the relatively clear blue sky (which should be shrouded with nearly-opaque orange-brown haze, particularly close to the horizon). One comparatively subtle error in detail (and this is something you’ll see time and time again in renditions of Titan’s landscape, often to a more exaggerated degree than in Bonestell’s painting) is that we’re given a partial view of the upper face of Saturn’s rings. The rings are thin, Titan and the rings orbit within the same plane (within a very small rounding error), and Titan’s radius (2576 km) is only around 0.2% of its distance from Saturn (1 222 000 km), ensuring that whenever Saturn is visible from Titan—and it won’t always be, with that atmospheric haze—those rings will appear as a razor-sharp line across Saturn’s equator, and will never be seen in an oblique view such as this. Such are the perils of depicting extraterrestrial landscapes.

I focus quite a lot, in my fiction, on Titan. I’ve set eleven completed short stories and one novella there, and I have more than that again in false starts and work awaiting completion. We currently know much more about some characteristics of Titan—its detailed atmospheric composition and structure, its topography, its mean surface temperature etc—than we did, seventy years ago, about Mars or Venus, and this provides some useful constraints on the types of stories that can be set there. On the other hand, there is a staggering amount we do not yet know. Much of Titan’s surface has only been radar-mapped at very low resolution, so there are likely to be significant surface features of which we’re currently ignorant. The detailed composition of its surface material, sampled (briefly) in one location by the short-lived Huygens probe, is not well established; the depths, and in some cases the boundaries, of its hydrocarbon lakes remain somewhat uncertain; the composition of its long belts of hydrocarbon sand dunes is ill-defined. Such details are unlikely to be well nailed down within the next decade, but may well be exhaustively addressed within the next two (contingent on outer-planet mission funding and the like), meaning that my Titan stories very probably have an intrinsic shelf life. Does this concern me? I can’t honestly say. I think it’s true to say I’d rather my Titan stories were accurate rather than fanciful, but I also know that there is something about Titan and its current status as an imperfectly-characterised world that I find intriguing in a fashion not offered by other settings. Maybe it’s that slow-burning falsifiability, meshing with my training as a research scientist: for, just as I have the opportunity to get wrong things about Titan that are not yet known, I also have the opportunity to get some of them right. I suppose we shall see.


Book review: Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt

8 03 2018

Jack McDevitt is a Nebula Award winning American science fiction writer whose books I’ve reviewed frequently (most recently Odyssey, just a few days ago). I seldom read two books by the same author in quick succession, but McDevitt’s writing at its best can be so compulsive that it’s sometimes difficult to abstain …


Cauldron is book 6 in McDevitt’s ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series and is, for the moment, the latest word on the interstellar pilot’s adventures. (Book 7, Starhawk, is a Hutch prequel, while book 8, The Long Sunset, launches in a few months’ time.) The series is rather more uneven in quality than McDevitt’s other main novel sequence (the Alex Benedict / Chase Kolpath books): while The Engines of God, Deepsix, and Chindi in particular are excellent works of widescreen sense-of-wonder SF adventure, Omega and Odyssey are more patchy and, in places at least, are significantly disappointing. (McDevitt has a tendency to reach for the exotic and the mysterious, but not always to deliver.) Consequently, I approached Cauldron with some trepidation … and came away, for the most part, impressed. The book, which overall deals with the preparation for a thirty thousand light-year mission by Hutch and colleagues, is bookended by two excruciatingly-tense deep-space encounters, the first of which is one of McDevitt’s finest ever running-out-of-time-here sequences, as researchers scramble to plunder a staggeringly old space colony in the last minutes before its obliteration by an approaching Omega Cloud, and the second of which introduces an intriguingly alien (and ominous) intelligence. Much of the space between these set-pieces is taken up with the efforts, by physics wunderkind Jon Silvestri and his backers in the Prometheus Foundation, to develop a starship drive so much faster than the existing hyperdrive technology that the vaunted mission to the Galactic core region (to seek out the Omega Clouds’ birthplace) becomes feasible, at a time when humanity has virtually stopped reaching for the stars: too expensive, no startling discoveries. The R&D tribulations are handled well, the mission itinerary less so. The new drive technology has the limitation that ships cannot stay transdimensional indefinitely, they must emerge into ‘normal space’ every seven thousand light years or so, which means the Galactic core mission requires three respites while the drives are recharged. (To this reader, the 7000 LY barrier imposed on the drives felt like a ‘limit of convenience’, allowing McDevitt to intercalate a few picaresque episodes which really do not add significantly to the story.) Target stellar regions are identified, the crew spend an increasingly cabin-feverish month in the blankness of transdimensional space while a mindbogglingly large distance is traversed, stellar systems are explored. My quibble is that McDevitt shows a disappointing tendency to make his technologically-advanced alien races far too humanoid, far too easily comprehensible, and this again shows itself Cauldron‘s ‘stopover’ sequences. The second of them works well enough, the third is largely glossed over in the race to the climactic confrontation, but the first ‘stopover’ episode is distinctly disappointing, with an unimaginative alien race that, appearances aside, could easily pass as suburban American. McDevitt’s vistas can be breathtaking, and that’s shown to as good effect in Cauldron as in any of his other work, but his alien-race-characterisation palette is at times disappointly drab, and this tendency mars a chunk of Cauldron. Not the whole book—there’s too much invention and tension elsewhere for a couple of weak chapters to deliver a truly crippling blow—but the story does lose its mojo for awhile. Happily, though, it gets it back.

For the most part, Cauldron is hot stuff.