On Arcturus VII by Eric Brown (book review).

The last few novellas with Eric Brown’s name on the cover that I’ve reviewed here were the four outings of the ‘Kon-Tiki Quartet’, co-written with Keith Brooke and published by PS Publishing. ‘On Arcturus VII’ is by Brown alone and is published by Ian Whates’ NewCon Press as the sixth book in their NP Novellas line. It’s available in paperback or as a signed and numbered limited-edition hardback. If you want the latter, though, there’s only 70 of them available so don’t wait too long.

I was intrigued to note that the novella’s cover art comes from the hand of Ian Whates himself, who is clearly not content with the titles of publisher, editor and author but wants to add artist, too. Since the art fits the story and provides for a visually arresting introduction to the book, I think Whates should feel suitably satisfied with his work.

The story opens with retired starship pilot and explorer Jonathan James being visited by a rich industrialist. Santor Vakhodia explains that he is planning to travel to Arcturus VII, an exoplanet whose highly eccentric orbit around the red giant Arcturus leads to extreme seasonal variations in climate. Aware that Jonathan is one of the last people to have explored that planet before it was declared off-limits three years earlier, Vakhodia has come to hire Jonathan’s services as an expert guide to the extremely dangerous flora and fauna to be found there during its current, intensely hot, summer.

Jonathan is hugely reluctant to humour Vakhodia for several different reasons. Most importantly, his previous visit to the planet led to personal tragedy when his partner and fellow explorer Solange died after being poisoned by a venomous plant. That is what led to his retirement and he has little inclination to revisit the site of her death, particularly when it will be even hotter and more dangerous now. On top of that, he doesn’t trust Vakhodia and is sure his real reasons for wanting to visit the planet are dubious in the extreme.

Unfortunately, Jonathan has vowed to protect the secret that led to Arcturus VII being closed to exploration. He knows that if he doesn’t go with Vakhodia, someone else with no such scruples will be recruited instead. In the end he agrees to the job, although only after persuading Vakhodia to recruit another of his former colleagues, Octavia Carrera, to come with them. That way, at least Jonathan knows there will be one other person he can trust on the mission.

The journey to Arcturus VII, aided by the near-instantaneous ‘telemass’ technology (a bulk version of ‘Star Trek’s transporter) goes well enough but when they get down to the planet’s surface, they’re unable to land any closer than 100 kilometres away from the site that Vakhodia wants to explore, as it’s in the middle of mountains. Can they survive such a long journey through the deadly plant and animal life of Arcturus VII? If they do, what will they find at the other end? Most importantly, will Jonathan be able to prevent Vakhodia from stealing the planet’s secrets whilst coming to terms with his personal demons from three years earlier?

As so frequently with Eric Brown’s SF writing, it’s his depiction of aliens that stands out above almost everything else. In this story, he counterpoints Vakhodia’s bodyguard Stent, a huge rhinoceros-like Voronian, against the petite but highly intelligent humanoid Pharan that are native to Arcturus VII. Although this would seem to be a rather crude contrast between brains and brawn, he manages to dig sufficiently deep into the nature and character of each species that I ended up admiring both as fully realised examples of extra-terrestrial life. To achieve that within the limited sweep of a novella is no mean feat.

In similar fashion, the extremely unusual nature of Arcturus VII’s native flora and fauna, a cornucopia of creatures with accelerated lifecycles, voracious appetites and a multitude of ways to kill their prey with extreme prejudice, is brought to life so effectively that I found myself almost as concerned for Jonathan’s and Octavia’s welfare as if I was there alongside them.

Brown has woven an entertaining plot around his characters and setting, giving us plausible reasons for Vakhodia’s trip to Arcturus VII and a viable rationale for why Jonathan would even consider returning to the site of his lover’s death. As the story winds up towards its conclusion, the pacing accelerates and forces us to read on until the end, which provides a satisfying resolution of the key questions raised during the story.

All in all, ‘On Arcturus VII’ provides us with a wonderful new example of Eric Brown’s skill at weaving an exciting and ultimately satisfying slice of classic science fiction within the length constraints of a novella. I do hope he chooses to revisit some of these characters and settings in future, as I loved spending time in their company.

Patrick Mahon

September 2021

(pub: Newcon Press. 103 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-912950-95-9)

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