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.
Titan is not an easy place to live. The human colonists have become used to all the things you have to do to stay alive, so used to them that unless something goes terribly wrong they have time to think about the things all humans think about - family, friends, lovers, money, hobbies.
But things do go wrong in these eleven linked stories, often disastrously wrong. Sometimes people work out how to fix them, sometimes they end up dead. But there are no space cadets in these stories, no mad scientists, no lunatics trying to take over the universe, just ordinary people trying to live a normal life in a place that isn’t normal. This is hard science fiction written by a scientist who knows his stuff. If we ever do go to Titan, it will very likely be much like this. The world building is first-class.
All but four of these stories have appeared before, but it’s good to see them gathered under one cover, making it easier to follow the links between them. This is the same universe as Matters Arising From The Identification Of The Body, Simon Petrie’s hard SF whodunnit which I have reviewed here, and one of the stories is about Guerline Scarfe, the heroine of Matters Arising.
Throughout the stories there are references to people known as pharmhands, who are usually shown as the baddies, but we don’t find out anything much about them till late in the book.
Let’s take a look at the individual stories:
Storm In a T-Suit: A father looks for his daughter, who has been involved in an accident. She was out there in the first place because of a crazy scientific theory a friend had. She survived, he didn’t. The theory was an exciting one, if true, but the story is about other things.
Hatchway: a coming-of-age story about a dare among kids - but with that poisoned atmosphere out there, consequences could be dire! Especially since one teen has reasons for hatred...
Broadwing: Mum, Dad and their young son Ake are flying home from a family visit to another arcology when something goes wrong. After some argument, Dad goes for help. That happens all the time on Earth, right? Car breaks down, no help nearby... But this is Titan!
Emptying Roesler: a sweet, sad tale of an almost-abandoned arcology and an old man who refuses to leave in case his daughter returns. I can’t tell you more without spoilers.
CREVjack: The pharmhands appear and people are killed on both sides in a fight over resources. That ending had me saying, “Ouch!” No spoilers here.sorry! Read it. Some of the characters appear again in other stories.
Lakeside: We meet again Ake, the boy from Broadwing, now a young man, reluctantly on his way to see a woman he resents for breaking up his parents’ marriage, when he comes across some dead bodies - and suddenly has worse problems than family issues. He uses his technological skills to try to save himself from his pursuers.
Erebor: A young Guerline Scarfe, not yet solving forensic mysteries, is on a hike with her brother and friends when one of them needs rescuing after a cliff fall. This is a lot less simple than it would be on Earth...
Goldilock: A direct sequel to CREVjack, happening immediately after. Teresa Maria and her nephew Cory are trying to make their way to safety, but find that it isn’t only the landscape that’s after them.
Fixing a Hole: One of my favourites in the book. A professor and his young assistant are being flown to their location while doing some testing of submersible equipment. Unfortunately for them, their pilot is Junko, Ake’s mother, who seems to be something of a jinx. Not her fault, but both times we see her, something goes wrong with the vessel she is flying! A panel breaks and Portia, the assistant, has to get out to fix it, since a rescue vessel would take way too long. I really enjoyed the use of technology to solve the problem, and I was fond of Portia, who just knows who is going to be sent outside into major danger to do the job, but does it anyway.
Phlashback: An immediate sequel to Goldilock, when we finally get some idea of who and what the pharmhands are. Cory and Teresa have to decide whether or not to trust Cory’s former girlfriend, Arum, who might have betrayed them. Again, a trip across Titan’s scary landscape.
Placenta: another favourite of mine, in which a pregnant woman out on her own is faced with a crisis in her rented T-suit and needs to work out how to save herself and her future baby before the carbon dioxide builds up enough to kill them. This was a sweet story with a simple, yet impressive scientific solution.
I liked the title. If you aren’t Australian you may not be aware of where it comes from. Two lines of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem My Country go: “Her beauty and her terror/The wide brown land for me.” And terrifying as Titan is, the inhabitants can’t help seeing beauty in it as well.
Brown is also the colour of the stunning cover by Shauna O’Meara.
Here’s a link to the whole poem if you’re interested.
If you’d like to buy a copy of Wide Brown Land, it is currently available on Amazon for Kindle, where you will also find his other books in ebook format, or iBooks for ePub. If you prefer a print copy, try Booktopia or Book Depository, or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can buy them from him by PayPal at that address. Print copies from the author are $20 including postage in Australia(ask him about overseas postage).