2002’s The Disappeared is the first volume in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Retrieval Artist series.
Faster-than-light travel gave humans the stars and contact with other intelligent species. Each alien civilization has its own set of laws. The question of whose laws apply when and to whom is the subject of carefully negotiated treaties. Those treaties complicate the lives of hard-working space cops.
Miles Flint and Noelle DeRicci enforce the law in the Moon’s Armstrong Dome. Armstrong has a starport, which means that alien entanglements are always a possibility. Still, treaty complications aren’t exactly common, which is why it is so odd when Flint and DeRicci are faced with three such cases at the same time.
The most clear-cut of the three cases: a derelict spacecraft sent in the direction of the Moon by pilots who then abandoned the craft. In the vessel, three vivisected corpses. It is clear the ship was the scene of a Disty execution, in which case it was almost certainly legal under the treaties. The one odd note is the missing lifeboat. It seems that someone escaped the massacre.
In the second case: Jasper, a child kidnapped from a Lunar city, is found on a Wygnin vessel headed out to Wygnin space. The aliens claim they have a warrant allowing them to confiscate Jasper for crimes committed by a parent. Likewise, they make the same claim re the two other human children found with Jasper. In accordance with Wygnin law, children of criminals are taken away to be raised as Wygnin.
Third: a spacecraft makes an emergency landing at the space port. The only passenger, Greta Palmer, claims that the ship was boarded and that she made a narrow escape. Physical evidence does not support this claim. The alien Rev who arrive in their own ship soon afterwar insist that the so-called Greta Palmer is actually convicted criminal Ekaterina Maakestad. They demand her surrender.
The three corpses in the first ship are criminals wanted for their role in the murder of a Disty years before. Well, that seems OK …
The Wygnins are convinced they have the right children. The police know that Wygnin notions of childrearing make it a hellish experience for humans. They stall, insisting that the Wygnin prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have the right kids.
The Palmer case proves the most vexing. Palmer escapes before she can be handed over to the aliens. The aliens are large, prone to violent outbursts, and easily provoked, If the two police cannot capture Palmer, one of them will have to inform the irritable aliens. Which could be dangerous.
Alien jurisdiction cases are rare. Three of them at once? Statistically improbable. Flint discovers that there is indeed something connecting the three. One of the world’s most trusted companies is handing humans over to vindictive aliens. And it’s perfectly legal.
I wanted to be pulled into the story, but problematic choices in the worldbuilding destroyed my SOD (suspension of disbelief).
The author’s descriptions of space travel suggest that the she has little notion of just how large the universe is or how planets and stars are distributed within it. Nor is she all that much better on Newton’s laws. In space, with little matter, and thus friction, to impede motion, objects in motion should remain in motion for a long time. Her spacecraft drift to a halt when their drives shut down. Like cutting the gas on a terrestrial car.
The novel is a police procedural, not an astronomy or physics text, but still, blithe ignorance and Trek-level handwaving are distracting.
I was also distracted by the oddly homogenous aliens. For example, Revs are all short-tempered, impatient, and violent when frustrated1. Each and every one of them. This is a failing of bad SF. Resorting to Planet of Hats is a time-saving short cut, but it’s just plain dumb science. How is it that humans are the only species with variability?
Of course, the aliens may have their own, justifiable, stereotypes of humans. In this book, just about every human with an active, on-stage role is either a criminal or an obstructive bureaucrat. Ekaterina Maakestad/Greta Palmer is both. It must be very frustrating for a Disty, Wygnin, or a Rev to find themselves having to deal with a human who will either commit some gross violation of law or try to interfere with the speedy application of properly adjudicated penalties.
I did, however, appreciate that the author postulated a galactic civilization with clear rules for interspecies interaction. Rules that were hammered out across a conference table, not a battlefield. The results seem to be somewhat unsatisfactory for all concerned (the mark of successful diplomacy) but points for effort. The aliens appear willing to abide by the rules. How long they will do this in the face of on-going human obstruction and evasion is unclear.
I suspect that readers are expected to sympathize with the human fugitives, not the enforcers of draconian alien law. If so, it would have made for a more engaging plot had the humans’ crimes not been so severe (amounting to negligent homicide). Or if some of the fugitives had actually been innocent2.
1: The one translator competent to translate for and to the Rev is horrified to discover that he is expected to deal with the Rev in person rather than indirectly. The police maneuver to get him to deliver as much of the bad news as possible. Protect and serve!
2: Jasper, one of the seized children, is an innocent party. But his father, Jamal, really did commit the crime of which he was convicted. Jamal then had a child, knowing that the aliens would come for Jasper if they twigged to Jamal’s new identity.
If this subplot had been written from Jasper’s viewpoint, it would have been unbearable. It’s written from Jamal’s viewpoint. The jerk.