Malka Older’s 2022 The Mimicking of Known Successes is a stand-alone science fiction mystery, one of the Holmes and Watson variety.
Thanks to humanity’s communal quest for profit, Earth is uninhabitable. Indeed, such was human diligence in this matter that even Mars was somehow made even less habitable. Only on a single giant planet1 do the remnants of humanity survive. They have finally embraced more responsible behavior; the alternative is total extinction.
It’s no utopia. Thus, police. Thus, missing persons cases — possibly murder cases — for said police to investigate.
A stranger vanished from a remote railcar station. No railcar had arrived to bear him away, suggesting he plummeted from the station into the giant world’s depths. Did he commit suicide? Was he murdered? In either case, why? Investigator Mossa is determined to find answers.
The missing man is one Bolien Trewl of the planet’s most august university, Valdegelt. As it happens, Mossa knows or at least knew a Valdegelt faculty member, Pleiti. Touching base with Pleiti is a logical first step to better understanding Bolien and his work. It’s also a plausible excuse for Mossa to spend time with her ex-girlfriend, Pleiti, by recruiting her to assist in the investigation.
Despite the doom bearing down on Earth, the founders of the giant world’s civilization had time to procure genetic records of a broad cross-section of Earth’s lifeforms. Someday, perhaps, they will be used to reseed Earth. Until then, the records and the animals spawned from them provide academics with subjects for study. Bolien, for example, concerned himself with the role of altitude in ecologies.
Suicide or murder2? The evidence seems equivocal. However, clarity is provided when someone sets a caracal on Mossa. Generally speaking, murdering investigators only makes sense if there is something to conceal. Perhaps a killer thinks Mossa is getting too close.
Another corpse adds to the probability that this was murder. This time the victim is an end-of-the-world preacher Rechaure, whose battered corpse is found in a rail station. Are the two cases connected? And if so, what could possibly connect an obscure, unlikable scientist with a colorful vagrant?
I will admit up front I could not make the descriptions of the settlements or rail-based transportation systems congeal into a coherent model in my brain. I get how one colonizes atmosphere-rich worlds. How you connect such communities by rail escapes me.
As mentioned in the footnotes below, the term “Jupiter” does not appear in the book (yay, ebooks and the ease of searching them). The planet is called “Giant.” In fact, I had a glorious chain of evidence to support the hypothesis that the novel is set on Saturn and not Jupiter, a nearly flawless case save for the detail that Jupiter’s moon Io orbits Giant. In my defense, in every other respect the fictional Giant resembles the actual Saturn than it does the actual Jupiter.
(Yes, yes, James once again focuses on the backdrops at the cost of ignoring the play. But I get distracted and vexed if a work is supposedly set somewhere and what that work tells us about the somewhere fail to line up with the facts. The changes appear entirely arbitrary. This sort of narrative mismatch is cognitive tinnitus for me and I envy people without that particular quirk.)
Readers may wonder why humans have settled a gas giant when the same technology could have been used on Venus. It seems to be an accident of industrial development: it happened that Giant had some resource worth refining so when humans decided they had to leave Earth, there was a station above Giant around which further settlements could accrete. If the experiment were run a second time, perhaps slightly different initial conditions would have led to radically different outcomes.
This sort of historical accident defining later communities is clearly a reference to the work of Robert H. MacArthur and E. O. Wilson. This is so obvious I will not insult you by explaining why it must be so. I will assure you, however, that this is no accident. Some may moan that this is yet another entry in the vibrant field of Holmes and Watson pastiches in which insular biogeography plays a central role. All I can say is “more insular biogeography, please.”
The appearance of romance in a Holmes and Watson pastiche is not entirely unexpected. In this case the work deviates from the norm in that it is set long after the pair met and reluctantly concluded they could not work as a couple. What effect the passage of time has had on irreconcilable differences is something the characters will have to discover, provided their antagonists do not succeed in murdering them.
If by some chance your first instinct on reading a work is not to whip out your sliderule but rather to savour character, prose, and pacing, there’s a lot here for you to enjoy. It’s a Not-Holmes and Not-Watson adventure in murder, missing persons and academic shenanigans, set in a world beyond tomorrow.
1: Which the back cover copy says is Jupiter, but which is never IDed as such in the book. My editor suggests this is because the settlers come from a wide variety of cultures; “Jupiter” may not be the name used in their languages.
2: Accident seems to be ruled out for some reason.