Sunday, 1 April 2018

Wide Brown Land by Simon Petrie

Wide Brown Land by Simon Petrie is a collection of stories set on Titan. I've previously read and reviewed Matters Relating to the Identification of the Body, which is a novella set in (and on) the same world, and a few short stories, such as those appearing in Difficult Second Album, "CREVjack" and "Fixing a Hole" (which also appear in Wide Brown Land). Most of the stories in Wide Brown Land are reprints from various venues, but four —‘Erebor’, ‘Goldilock’, ‘Phlashback’, and ‘Placenta’ — are published for the first time in this collection.

Light levels are low. It’s killingly cold. These conditions are, it transpires, connected.

The icy landscape around you—hillocks, boulders, ravines, foregrounding a hazy, rumpled horizon beneath an opaque, lowering sky—wears a patina that shades from sepia to umber, puddled with drifts of dark sand. The atmosphere, though thick, would permit only a parody of respiration: there is no succour in it. Were it not for the insulating, carefully-regulated containment of your suit, you would be dead within minutes, frozen solid within an hour.

Welcome to Titan.

Wide Brown Land is a collection of hard science fiction short stories set in the settlements and badlands of Saturn's haze-shrouded moon, Titan, where the landscape is as formidable a foe as the most determined adversary.

The stories in this collection, while having a very consistent setting, have a variety of different themes and premises. There are stories of survival, peer pressure and criminal activity. Some of the characters are trying to get by, or to make the best of a bad situation, or to solve their problems before time runs out. My favourites — which shouldn't surprise anyone — were those stories where the characters had to solve some sort of technical problem, possibly with life-or-death stakes. The final story in the collection "Placenta" was a most memorable example of one of these.

As well as more sciencey stories (for lack of a better word), there were also several tense and action-based stories. Some of these involved "pharmhands", mostly as antagonists. After several stories with pharmhands as a more nebulous threat, I was very interested to learn more about who they actually were in "Phlashback". Another very tense, but not strictly action-packed, story was "Hatchway". It was a memorable story about the very real dangers of teenage peer pressure when living in a hostile environment.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read with a good variety of stories in a meticulously realised setting. They're hard science fiction but most of the stories are character-driven to varying degrees. As usual, comments on each individual story are included below. I highly recommend this collection to fans of science fiction, especially those intrigued by human life on Titan, the most-hydrocarbon-soaked of Saturn's moons.

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“Storm in a T-Suit” was an interesting story. A storm on Titan, a rescue mission, a tragic backstory and a crazy theory, all made for a thoughtful and engaging read.

“Hatchway” is a story about peer pressure as well as the pressure of Titan’s atmosphere, with chilling elements for both the protagonist and the reader.

“Broadwing” is about a crash landing and a long wait for rescue. It felt like a scene-setting piece to give us a good feel for Titan and a bit of background on flight and the landscape.

“Emptying Roesler” is about an inspector, a man in an abandoned building (yes, on Titan) and illegal activities. I feel like we’re only getting hints of what the “pharmhands” are really up to (in this story and in “Hatchway”) and I want to know more. Also, this story ended abruptly, albeit in a logical place. I would not have minded finding out what happened next to the characters.

“CREVjack”previously read. I came back to reread it after I started “Goldilock”, however, since that story felt like a sequel and I couldn’t remember the specifics of this earlier one. The ending remains emotionally difficult to read.

“Lakeside” revisits the protagonist of “Broadwing”, an adult now and dealing with different life issues. After spotting something strange from his plane, he has a bit of a run in with some criminals.

“Erebor” seems to be about it the protagonist of Matters Arising... a look at her earlier life and a mildly unlucky climbing expedition.

“Goldilock” is a direct sequel to “CREVjack”, picking up moments after that story left off. It continues in a similarly tense and action-packed vein with another very dramatic ending.

“Fixing a Hole”  — previously read.

“Phlashback” is a third story in the “CREVjack” and “Goldilock” sequence, this time picking up shortly after the previous story left off and shifting point of view characters (again). Finally we get to learn more about pharmhands and their place in the scheme of things on Titan. Another tense story.

“Placenta” is about a pregnant woman who suddenly finds herself in a life- and baby-threatening situation and must do a bit of sciencey problem-solving to survive. It also gives us a snapshot of an abandoned part of Titan, which strongly reminded me of an Abandoned Photography blog I’ve followed.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, Peggy Bright Books
Series: Sort of? Contains linked short stories. Other stories and novellas are set in the same world (eg Matters Relating to the Identification of the Body)
Format read: very early ARC
Source: the author

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