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.

On bringing new toys into the sandpit

5 06 2018

When I started writing Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body, I hesitated over the setting. It was a story, after all, that didn’t have to be set on Titan (although in having made the decision to set it there, certain significant aspects of the story were influenced by that setting)—it would have worked as well, in essence, on Mars, or the Moon, or elsewhere. But Titan was, for me, a readymade setting—I’d written eight stories previously, by that point, which were all set on my version of a near(ish) future colonised Titan—and that obviously simplified aspects of the novella’s worldbuilding. But it complicated things as well, or at least drove me to consider that the writing of it might complicate things for me.


Matters Arising is SF, but it’s also a procedural crime story, something that my other Titan stories to date (i.e., those collected in Wide Brown Land) are not. So I was concerned about sending mixed messages, of crossing the streams in some way. I needed to decide whether it was reasonable to ‘contaminate’ my pre-existing world of Titan (and insofar as I have a brand as a writer of serious SF, it’s reasonable to say that Titan is that brand) with a crime story. Obviously, I decided it was reasonable, but it could have gone either way.

I’m not the first person who has made this decision. The set of ‘SF writers who have decided to incorporate crime fiction in their pre-existing fictional universes’ has quite a healthy population. Alastair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space’ universe includes several pure-SF novels, but it also includes the ‘Prefect Dreyfus’ novels Aurora Rising (formerly The Prefect) and Elysium Fire, which are as much detective story as hard SF. Similarly, Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ already encompassed several novels and numerous short stories by the time he introduced tough-guy PI Gil Hamilton in a noirish set of stories exploring corpsicle crime. Lois McMaster Bujold’s excellent Vorkosigan series has as often incorporated aspects of the detective novel as it has every other genre variant that Bujold has folded into the mix, from mil-SF space opera to comedy-of-manners romance. Asimov, too, did it, if in a somewhat after-the-fact fashion: in Foundation and Earth, he reveals that his classic SF/crime novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun are a part of the same timeline as his ‘Foundation’ series. I’m sure there are a good many other examples also.

Why should this be? Why start a SF series or sequence, and then add crime fiction to it down the track? I suspect it has something to do with synergy: there are certain features in common to SF (especially, I would say, hard SF) and the procedural. One is an imperative to operate within rules that are not, for the most part, of your own devising: the laws of physics, say, and the characteristics of human nature. In a SF novel, the technology must make sense, even if we wouldn’t know how to operate it ourselves, in just the same way as a murder must be seen to make sense (to the killer, at least) and to have been executed in a manner that is plausible. Another is that SF is as much a literature of exploration and discovery as it is of introspection, and this is true also of the procedural crime novel: if the crime must be understood on a motivational basis, it must also be uncovered, deduced. These are things, I suppose, that are true also of other genres, but there seems to be a certain kind of symbiosis possible between SF and crime that does not exist, for example, between, say, fantasy and crime (where I would think the writer would need to establish very early on the rules surrounding the setting’s ‘unreality’ so as to be playing fair with the reader) or romance and crime (which can definitely be merged successfully, though the shared focus on the often-concealed motivations of individuals has the potential to complicate rather than streamline the mixture). It obviously helps, too, I think, that whereas (on the most simplistic level) SF is a genre defined by its setting, crime is a genre defined by its plot, so the two can mesh in ways that reinforce each other constructively, something that doesn’t necessarily occur (to my tastes, at least, though your mileage may vary) when one combines two setting-defined genres such as SF and fantasy. A SF setting can usefully suggest certain novel flavours of crime (such as the ‘organlegging’ of Niven’s Gil Hamilton stories); crime can also usefully allow the SF writer to explore their setting in a novel way. For example, a common feature of almost all my stories in Wide Brown Land is that they are largely set out in the environment, with characters in T-suits or in vehicles of one form or another; it wasn’t until I wrote Matters Arising that I usefully found a way in which to explore the settlements, arcologies and habitats in which most people spend most of their time, without having such exploration drag down the story.

I still have further plans for Titan, both as a setting for a couple more planned procedural crime pieces, and for more straightforward SF extrapolation. The two styles won’t necessarily click for the same readers, but that’s OK: different people are drawn to different things, and that’s how it should be.

What other SF sequences are out there, that sometimes (but not always) add the procedural crime style to the mix? There must be some I’ve missed …

Book review: Elysium Fire, by Alastair Reynolds

4 02 2018

Alastair Reynolds is a British SF writer and former ESA space scientist, who has won BSFA, Locus, and Sidewise Awards for his work, as well as nominations for several other awards. He specialises in hard SF and is most widely known for his ‘Revelation Space’ novel sequence, though he has also written novels set in the Doctor Who universe as well as a space-opera riff on Treasure Island. I’ve previously reviewed several novels and standalone novellas by Reynolds.


Elysium Fire, Reynolds’ most recent release, is a direct sequel to his SF/mystery novel The Prefect (itself recently retconned as Aurora Rising, though still listed in Reynolds’ bibliography in this latest book under its own name). Like its predecessor, Elysium Fire is set within the ‘glitter band’ of large (and largely autonomous) habitats in orbit around the planet of Yellowstone, with a distributed population of some hundred million citizens who are effectively self-governing through implant-polled acts of participatory democracy. It’s a system which, thanks to the implants, is generally both effective and unobtrusive, but occasional flaws in hardware, software, or human behaviour require the attention of the Glitter Band’s approximation to government, Panoply, an organisation dedicated to ensuring that problems between citizens or between habitats are quenched before they can cascade out of control. Panoply’s agents are its Prefects: effectively, police with substantial discretionary powers and the ability to call on reserves of devastatingly powerful weaponry. Prefect Tom Dreyfus (note that the draft cover depicted above misspells his name; it’s correctly spelled on my paperback copy) is one of the principal viewpoint characters in Elysium Fire, as was the case in the earlier book, alongside his erstwhile deputies Sparver Bancal (a hyperpig, with human-level intelligence constrained within a relatively short-lived porcine frame) and Thalia Ng, now themselves promoted to full Prefect status. The problem with which they must contend, this time around, is Wildfire, a cascade of ostensibly-spontaneous implant thermal regulation failures which is, in effect, cooking the brains of its victims. With no information as to the cause or the origin of the steadily-worsening Wildfire outbreak, which seems to strike at random across the entire Glitter Band, the forces of Panoply are stretched merely striving to contain the problem, let alone to solve it. Yet if they don’t solve it, the Glitter Band may be only months away from total social collapse …

It’s been around a decade since I read The Prefect, so my recollection of the earlier book is rather rusty. Happily, while Elysium Fire clearly depends in some respects on its predecessor, it’s constructed with sufficient care that it functions well enough as a self-contained standalone. (I’d nonetheless still recommend reading the earlier book first, if only because the second book does of necessity include some spoilers for the earlier work.) It’s a solid and rather densely-framed mystery with impeccable SF worldbuilding, as would be expected of Reynolds. Also as would be expected, the characterisation is interesting, detailed, and reasonably varied, although I did think a little too much was made at times of the dedication of the principal characters. Reynolds is also very good with tension, action, and misdirection, all of which feature in large measure here.

I’m firming on the opinion that the Dreyfus novels are Reynolds’ closest approach to the Culture sequence of Iain M Banks, which means, I think, that I hope we see more of them.