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New Society, Familiar Crimes

The Dark Colony  (Asteroid Police, volume 1)

By Richard Penn 

18 Nov, 2014

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The Dark Colony is Richard F. Penn’s debut novel, published in 2014. It turns out if you want a positive review from me, it really helps to write a hard SF novel that addresses my frequent lamentation: too few authors have seen the plot possibilities in Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 essay Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships.” Penn appears to have written out of a parallel interest in the same subjects rather than because he was specifically trying to please me. Well done, at any rate.

By 2060, a time only as far in the future as the Apollo Program was in the past, a handful of people have worked out how to profitably exploit the minor bodies of the Solar System. They have spread from the Near Earth Asteroids to the Main Belt. The breakthrough is more technique than technology; the basic rocket technology that the spacers and settlers use would look familiar to an aerospace engineer of the previous century. 

Lisa Johansen is a young cop in a backwater community orbiting the asteroid 81 Terpsichore. The first hint she gets that the comparatively pleasant world she thinks that she lives in is a facade comes when she investigates an unidentified object in a nearby storage facility. The object turns out to be the frozen corpse of a young man. 

Although the young man, eventually identified as one Tommy Dekker, has been murdered, what grabs Lisa’s attention is the fact that the teen is a stranger to her. This should be impossible in a community so small and so isolated by the effects of distance and travel time. (Lisa’s love-life has been crippled by the Westermarck Effect.) Lisa is confronted with a paradox: the boy didn’t come from the Terpsichorian settlements but there are no other settlements in the region from which he could have come.

No known settlements, that is.

The dead boy is not alone; he died to get his eight-year-old younger sister Daisy to safety. Daisy is still in hiding but once the cops have reason to think there are undocumented inhabitants of the settlement, she is not that hard to find. Still a child, Daisy is only able to cast a little light on the mystery, but what she reveals makes an already disquieting situation far more disturbing.

Somewhere close enough to Terpsichore for travel to be practical, someone has set up a hidden colony populated by a small population of captive women, some kidnapped and some raised in the dark colony, a colony designed for the express purpose of sex slavery. Tommy sacrificed his life because he was afraid Daisy was old enough that the older men would begin preying on her. 

The facts Daisy relates are bad enough but what is worse are the implications of Daisy’s story. Stealth is hard to do in space, but somehow the dark colony has been able to carry out an undocumented trade with the Terpsichorians. They got away with this in part because nobody thought to look for strange vessels but more importantly, because the dark colony has gone to a lot of trouble to subvert the Terpsichorian traffic-monitoring systems. Seeming innocent events, like a cat with a habit of floating in front of CCTV cameras, are cast in a new light. The dark colony has had Terpsichorian help and while some of that help was thanks to uninformed patsies, much of it came from willful allies of the dark colony.

There is a government that claims dominion over the Main Belt but thanks to the scale of the Solar System (or even just the Inner System), and the limitations of the propulsion systems available, the experts of the Belt Federation Police Criminal Division, based in distant Phobos, are limited to offering their confederates in Terpsichore the kind of assistance that can be conveyed on a laser beam: evidence assessment, database trolling, and the like. Effectively, Lisa and her fellow cops are on their own, with no idea who among them is working for the dark colony. 

Penn has put a lot of thought into his setting, from how to hide a space colony in plain sight to the dating implications of small communities with only infrequent physical contact with other communities. His basic model seems closer to how Rupert’s Land and points west were managed than how the US West was settled. While the Belt Federation Police are handicapped by distance and time, the Belt is not a lawless chaos — or at least it is not supposed to be. 

This book reminded me of Janwillem van de Wettering … not so much his procedurals — I think Grijpstra, de Gier, and most definitely the commissaris would find Lisa’s methods a bit more lethal than they would prefer — but van de Wettering’s personal service with the police. Terpsichore may not draft civilians into the police but there aren’t the same established caste differences between cops and civilians as USians would expect. 

That said, the Belters are subject to some pretty draconian laws. Prohibitions on drugs are even more sweeping than in present-day North America: tobacco is illegal and alcohol appears to be tightly controlled if not outright banned. These prohibitions seem to be driven by safety concerns. To quote Star Cops’ Nathan Spring:

You leave Earth and anything you forget to bring with you will kill you. Anything you do bring with you which doesn’t work properly will kill you. When in doubt, just assume *everything* will kill you. 

The motivations behind Belter laws are laudable, but in practice, those very prohibitions gave the dark colony the lever it needed to turn people into the dark colony’s catspaws.

The Belters also appear to be comparatively poor, not in comparison with their terrestrial contemporaries (about whom we know little), but with us. Space travel may be much cheaper than it is today, but it is still expensive and very time-consuming, Wherever possible, the settlers avoid importing goods. Information flows freely across the Solar System but physical goods, not so much. To be honest, it was not clear to me what motivated the colonization of the Belt. It certainly does not seem to be for wealth; the surpluses appear quite tiny. 

(I am not clear how much the Coming Norbertification of the Economy, affects the Terpsichorian productive capacity)

While I accept the idea that some degree of stealth can be achieved by a combination of obscurity and subversion, some of the specific details of how hard it is to spot rockets once one is actively looking for them struck me as both implausible and possibly seeds of a long, rancorous argument on my Livejournal. I am also rather skeptical that space could be colonized and a whole new government established before Canada’s bicentennial. 

Although it may not have been intentional, Penn’s misogynistic dark colony seemed very familiar. Just as the Belt Federation Police echo the Northwest Mounted Police (if the NWMP had been limited to enforcing the law by telegraph), the dark colony echoes recent events on Pitcairn Island and other scandals too numerous to list here. In general, the novel pays more attention to the issues of sexual exploitation than I would expect from an SF novel. As Lisa discovers, the dark colony’s overt abuses have covert reflections within Terpsichorian society. There are authority figures who misuse their power both to abuse those below them and to prevent investigation [1].

A few first-novel rough patches aside, I quite enjoyed this mystery. Watching Lisa and her fellow cops come to grips with a crisis that rapidly evolves from murder to something much worse was absorbing. Penn’s decision to stick to plausible technology and its implications for an inner Solar System months and years across, was the right choice for this book. I look forward to future installments in this setting. 

You can purchase this book via links on the author’s site. 

1: It is probably just as well that the Belt in The Dark Colony did not go full-bore Pesky Belter and eschew belt-wide government in favour of many tiny polities. I would expect that in the second scenario, the combination of isolation and autonomy could produce some pretty awful communities.