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.”

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 …

‘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.

Seventh episode in a continuing series

4 05 2016

Yes, it’s May the Fourth. But no, that title isn’t a Star Wars reference.

You may have felt this site to be a little moominheavy of recent weeks. To counteract that, and to presage something which I hope should be relatively soon ensuing, I’ve posted another story on my ‘Online Fiction’ listing here.

Some background: I’ve so far written nine stories set on human-colonised Titan, starting with ‘Storm in a T-Suit’, which appeared in Aurealis 44 in 2010. Seven of these stories—and they vary in style, and don’t often share characters, though they are all definitely pinned to the same timeline—have so far seen publication; the ninth (a murder-mystery novella, as it happens) is still undergoing final polishing in the authorial toolshed.* The seventh of these stories,** and substantially the shortest to have seen publication, is ‘CREVjack’, which is the story I posted here today.

I don’t generally take my SF into mil-SF territory; ‘CREVjack’ is probably the closest I’ve come to skirting that particular sub-genre, and even then I’d argue that its intent is somewhat otherwise. It’s also—and here’s where that presagery comes in—the direct precursor to my eighth Titan story, ‘The Goldilocks Hack’, soon to appear, I’m given to understand, in the fiction section of Cosmos Online.

And as for the calendar stuff: May with you the Fourth be, as that little green guy might have said.


* No, I don’t actually have an authorial toolshed. That’s authorial licence. (No, I don’t actually have an authorial licence either.)

** Yes, that makes it, technically, seven of nine. No, that isn’t a Trek reference. Or maybe it is, but an entirely gratuitous one.