Sunday 16 April 2023

Successful Mimicry

Given the character’s adherence to logic and to the scientific method, Sherlock Holmes has long been considered at least liminally a science fictional character. In various guises, and with thinly-veiled references, Holmes lurks in the margins of almost every science fictional mystery tale.
(Image via Amazon)

But science fiction is a difficult setting in which to construct a mystery plot. Drawing readers in to an imaginary world involves providing information about the setting … which is at odds with the ways in which mysteries must keep a reader guessing. Offer too little information about a science fiction setting and readers will not know what’s going on, offer too much information in a mystery story and the whodunnit becomes trivial.

With her recent novella Mimicking Of Known Successes, Malka Older provides one of the few examples of navigating that philosophical tension successfully, providing a richly imagined world whose politics and conflicts hit close to home, while also drawing readers into a mystery whose solution isn’t immediately obvious.

Set on a network of floating communities in Jupiter’s atmosphere centuries after the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, the book follows an academic ecologist named Pleiti who is dragged into a missing person’s investigation by detective (and ex-girlfriend) Mossa. The detective is renowned amongst her peers for her ability to solve cases from minute pieces of evidence; she is the person that they consult when cases seem insoluble. The case grows more complex as items are stolen from Pleiti’s university laboratory, and the two get targeted by an assassin.

Any story with a master-detective who has a near preternatural understanding of evidence working alongside a non-detective friend will inevitably be read as a modernized homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. It is a daunting mantle to bear, but Older carries it remarkably well.

Malta Older is known for policy-forward
and wonkish science fiction (which we've
enjoyed in the past). Mimicking of Known
is a departure, but still excellent.
(Image via
Far too many of those who have sought to imitate or adapt Doyle’s stories have failed to grasp the centrality of the Watson-Holmes dynamic, often portraying Watson as a dullard sidekick who serves as a sounding board as Holmes expounds upon unfolding plot details. Older seems to understand Doyle’s work and character dynamics, imbuing the Mossa-Pleiti partnership with both a warmth and a mutual respect that fans of Arther Conan Doyle will appreciate. The fact that there’s romance between the two main leads is believable and more interesting because of that foundation.

When Mossa and Pleiti unravel the mystery, it is largely unexpected and yet makes perfect sense within the setting and the society that Older has presented. Just as importantly, the motivations of the primary antagonists are understandable, and easy to empathize with. It is an impressive piece of writing.

Given that Older is best known for her Hugo-finalist Centenal Cycle, readers might expect hard-edged and wonkish prose that delves into governance structures and alternate ways of organizing. However, Mimicking Of Known Successes provides something more similar to Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books; something cozy and inviting that has hidden depths for those who want it.

Mystery and science fiction are rarely this satisfying when mixed, and rarely this much fun.

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