1991’s Polar City Blues is the first volume in Katharine Kerr’s Polar City space opera series.
During the interval between humanity’s collective triumph over Einstein (spaceflight) and the collapse of the terrestrial biosphere, humans were able to establish extraterrestrial colonies, of which Hagar is one. Now unified as the Republic, the human polity is overshadowed by its two neighbors, the Alliance (dominated by the Master Race) and the Confederation (dominated by the carlis). Remaining neutral and unconquered by aliens demands an ongoing balancing act.
Murdered consular personnel could unbalance the diplomatic teeter-totter. Polar City Police Chief Bates now must deal with a murder with far-ranging political implications.
How the dead carlis died is clear: someone slit his throat. Who the dead alien is takes more time to unravel, but that too becomes clear: he was in life Imbeth ka Gren, protocol officer for the Confederation Embassy. Ka Gren’s position means that the murder is a political hot potato. It’s up to Bates and the other humans on Hagar to determine who the killer was, ideally someone whose identity will not justify prompt military retaliation from the Confederation.
Mulligan had dreams of escaping the second-class status to which he was consigned by his pale skin and unfashionable accent. Baseball was to have been his ticket to respectability, until his telepathic gifts manifested. No major league team will hire a psychic, no matter how talented a player. Mulligan was therefore relegated to the minor leagues and whatever jobs he could get selling psychic services.
Commissioned by the Polar City Cops to learn what he can from the corpse, no sooner does Mulligan begin than he collapses. He wakes missing a chunk of memories. Bates cannot rely on Mulligan for quick answers.
In fact, the case is not particularly mysterious. Ka Gren dabbled in espionage well enough to make him a danger, but not so effectively as to conceal his identity. An Alliance assassin was dispatched to express the Master Race’s displeasure. It’s an ideal outcome, because the Republic is not at fault.
Knowing who ordered the hit is not the same as knowing who carried it out. Hagar’s population being mostly humans, the Master Race did not send one of their own; they would stand out. They assigned the task to Tomaso, a human psychic lucky enough to serve the Master Race1 as an assassin. Tomaso should have been able to murder ka Gren, then slip away, just part of the human crowd.
But Tomaso is excessively concerned with possible eye-witnesses. Before leaving Hagar, Tomaso is determined to murder every possible witness. Of course, each murder could have its own witnesses; those will have to die as well. Each murder will increase the risk of detection.
Were the above not bad enough, Tomaso manages to contract an unpleasant alien disease whose side-effects include pungent body-odor. This is not a plus for secret agenting.
Tomaso was able to stun Mulligan and erase his recent memories. Nevertheless, Mulligan is on Tomaso’s to-kill list … provided Tomaso can deal with certain unforeseen complications, such as the first contact scenario even now playing out in the Hagar system.
Science marches on: reading this novel today, I wonder if a planet so hot that only the poles are human-habitable could avoid a runaway greenhouse effect? Of course, Hagar could be in the early stages of such a scenario. Geological evolution is slow enough that doom’s timescale may exceed human planning horizons. After all, it appears to have done so on Polar City Blues’ Earth.
In Tomaso’s defense, the Master Race are terrible bosses and workplace stress has taken a toll on Tomaso’s sanity. Thus, the approach to covert assassination which, if carried out to its logical extreme, requires Tomaso to track and murder everyone on Hagar as a potential witness. One by one.
Kerr’s novel places humans well down the galactic pecking order, with white humans being near the bottom. While this detail might not stand out today, this worldbuilding element was not usual when the novel appeared in 19912. For that matter, the novel rejects the usual ethnic segregation seen in many space operas: the Master Race may run the Alliance, but the Alliance has its human worlds3, from which a lucky few are selected to serve their betters.
Polar City Blues is a competent thriller with engaging characters. I recall it being discussed favourably on rec.arts.sf.written. This raises the question of why it fell out of print so quickly in North America4. Unlike too many novels in similar straits, Polar City Blues is back in print.
1: If Tomaso refuses to serve the Master Race, he faces summary execution for being a psychic human.
2: Although it would be easy enough to come up with a Tor essay about Five Science Fiction Novels Where White People Are Not in Charge, I suspect Tor would decline it on the grounds that the conversation would turn into a flame war one or two comments in.
3: There a mere two human worlds in the Alliance; they are sequestered from polite society.
4: Rumor has it that Polar City Blues attracted the ire of a well-known SF critic. I have a pretty good idea which critic that was but until I can track down a copy of the October 1990 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to see exactly what was said, I will refrain from naming him.
The claim that reviewers affect sales in any measurable way is a controversial thesis for which support can be difficult to find. The 1990s were an exciting decade of ruthlessly applied sales algorithms and distribution consolidation. There are many reasons why a book could have fallen out of print, the malice of blinkered reviewers being but one.