Book Review of “Pyre and Ice”

pyre

Cover art for the book “Pyre and Ice”

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Pyre and Ice is a science fiction novelette written by Josh Griffing. I first became aware of it when Josh mentioned the book on Facebook.

Turns out Josh and I have both written superversive tales, and we each have a short story published in the Tuscany Bay Books Planetary Anthology Sol (this is all stuff I didn’t include in my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads).

I had no idea what to expect of “Pyre” except that it was set on Saturn’s moon Titan and at least two of the characters spoke in difficult-to-decipher Scottish accents. As a comparison, the character Alex in the Expanse series is supposed to speak with a heavy Texas drawl, but the text in the book doesn’t lean heavily on that for the purpose of readability.

The main protagonists are McGregor and Stobbins, two technicians on a terraforming mission to Titan. The operation seems to be run by the military but allows for civilian contractors including in the supply chain (and thereby hangs a tale).

Due to an accident beyond anyone’s (supposed) control, McGregor’s environmental suit fails while on Titan’s surface. Stobbins is able to save his life by getting him inside their rover, but McGregor loses a leg due to exposure to extreme cold. Stobbins is held accountable for the incident, including damaging the rover, by Babbitt, the military commander of the base according to regulations, but there’s something more sinister going on.

While there’s plenty of action in the book, it often seems unfocused and for a time, I wasn’t sure what the goal was of the story. There were also a lot of technical inconsistencies and just plain head scratchers, but I’ll get to that (some of it, anyway).

The story is pretty straightforward once you get into it. The primary supplier of parts and equipment to the base, and to pretty much all spacefaring exploration, is corrupt, selling sub-standard parts that consistently break. Babbitt used to have a relationship with that supplier and now as head of the base, is covering his arse by blaming all of the accidents on human error.

Stobbins is relegated to inventory detail after the accident, which is how he discovers the inferior parts. Oddly enough, he seems to be the only one in the entire solar system to do so.

Now some head scratchers.

The bases on Titan are mining ice in order to “terraform” the moon, mainly by changing its atmosphere from methane to oxygen/nitrogen. But what good does that do if the surface temperature of Titan is -179 degrees C? You might as well use the atmosphere for your bases or create a vast, underground network you can keep warm.

(As an aside, there’s a scene in the story where the characters play a game of billiards. I wonder how that works out on a moon with only 14% of Earth’s gravity? Come to think of it, the story never addresses the issue of microgravity)

Also, in this process, the atmosphere becomes highly flammable and just then, a resupply ship comes, rockets all ablaze to land, threatening to ignite everything. Did no one see this coming? Also, the spaceship is fitted with faulty parts by the same corrupt supplier and is literally falling apart on its approach to the moon. Space travel being very dangerous, spacecraft are rigorously inspected. No one picked this up before launch?

One of the projects on Titan is to develop a faster-than-light communications system. They successfully send a message to Mars (which is the only place with a specialized receiver for FTL radio) that takes a mere three minutes transit time. However, there’s no explanation for why this was being developed on Titan, how it works (besides “handwavium”), and it didn’t figure all that much into the resolution of the story, so why even have it?

Use of communication didn’t seem very consistent in the story. When McGregor was injured, Stobbins couldn’t call for help without rigging a tall antenna and wearing down his rover’s power supply. Titan, being a dangerous place, you’d think they’d have satellite communications or even cell towers set up for emergencies. The same with Titan not being able to warn off the approaching spaceship while it was still a fair distance away.

Characters, such as the chaplain, seemed to appear only when needed as if they had been in cold storage before that. Also, since the author killed a whole bunch of people on a spaceship, doing character development on one or two might have helped the reader feel a greater sense of loss.

Ultimately “Pyre” suffered from being too short and lack of plot or character development. It brought up more questions than it answered. Yes, the bad guy was ultimately apprehended, but for all this to have happened would have required a systemic, multi-planet conspiracy and arresting one guy wouldn’t bust up that ring.

“Pyre and Ice” has the words “Wayward Sun” attached to it, so it’s possible this represents a larger book or a series that would fill in its many gaps (I took a lot of notes while reading, but won’t get into those).

The basic premise of the story isn’t bad, just underdeveloped. There are a great number of “whys” requiring resolution.

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