Review of The Mimicking of Known Successes

Review of The Mimicking of Known Successes

Jeremy Brett

Older, Malka. The Mimicking of Known SuccessesTordotcom, 2023.


The science fiction detective story is a subgenre with a most respectable line of ancestry and descent: its conventions of the world-weary sleuth or law enforcement agent, the femme fatale (or homme fatale), the uncovering of deadly secrets, the exposure of the seamy and corrupt underbelly of society—all woven into tapestries of fantastical and futuristic settings—have been explored in a myriad of works. We see it in stories ranging from Asimov’s The Caves of Steel and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (whose noir elements became turbocharged in the 1982 film adaptation Blade Runner)to Rusch’s Retrieval Artist series, Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Mieville’s The City and the City, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and Scalzi’s Lock-In. Why the SF and detective genres have mixed in such fruitful combinations might be connected to their mutual concern with the truth of things: detective stories, from the most simplistically pulpy to the most cleverly devised, are tales of uncovering truths, the truths of personal lives, of relationships, of the motives driving people to extremes, and of how societies and their structures (governments, law enforcement, corporations, capitalism) operate in the “real world” in opposition to ideals of law and justice. The best traditions of SF also look towards the exploration of truths—how things such as scientific advancements, encounters with the alien Other, or even simple contact with the unforgiving, hard vacuum of deep space cause human beings to reexamine themselves and their place in the universe and to make revelations about the truth of our existence.

Malka Older is no stranger to stories in which the hidden is uncovered or in which truth becomes a crucial resource. Her Hugo-nominated Centenal Cycle (Infomocracy, Null States, and Plate Tectonics, 2016-2018) explores a near-future Earth whose planetwide political system consists of constantly shifting microdemocracies that depend on information flows for their very existence – the truth of which has nation-changing potential. And she has co-created/co-written several streaming serials—Orphan Black: The Next Chapter and Ninth Step Station, the latter of which is a series of literal detective stories—whose primary themes include the harm done to innocents through deliberate informational occlusion by the powerful. Drawing upon these traditions, Older brings readers a new and honorable addition to the SF detective tale: The Mimicking of Known Successes. An impactful opening sets the tone and the expansive exoticism of the novella’s setting:

The man had disappeared from an isolated platform; the furthest platform eastward, in fact, on the 4°63’ line, never a very popular ring. It took Mossa five hours on the railcar to get there, alone because none of her Investigator colleagues were available, or eager, to take such a long trip for what would almost certainly be confirmation of a suicide.

The platform appeared out of the swirling red fog, and moments later the railcar settled to a halt at what could barely be called a station. Mossa, who had not been looking forward to the long trip herself, had nonetheless passed it in a benevolent daze, looking out at the gaseous horizon that seemed abstractly static and as it moved in constant strange patterns. Once disembarked, she found the rhythm of talking to people on the platform only with difficulty. (Prologue)

At once the necessary economy of information is provided: we have a possible crime, certainly a mystery. We have a detective, one dogged and curious enough to take on a case in which others see no promise, a detective who does not relate well to other people. And we have a setting that is at once familiar to mystery readers: the investigator disembarking from a train into a crime scene. But Older immediately puts an SF spin on this by dropping the reader without warning into a world we instantly know not to be our own. Mimicking is set in a far future, where humanity has fled an environmentally ravaged Earth and set up a ring-structured colony called “Giant” that orbits Jupiter. But within this extraordinarily evocative setting, Older weaves a tale consisting of multiple strands: a “cozy” mystery (one where bloody or extreme violence is generally eschewed); a story of academic life, with all the intrigue and internal rivalries those stories tend to feature (most of the novella is set in the area of Valdegeld University, a center of scholarly tension between rival Moderns, Speculatives, and Classics); and a Holmesian pastiche, in which brilliantly cerebral and peerlessly logical Investigator Mossa teams up with Classic Scholar Pleiti, the novella’s narrator and source of emotional comfort, occasional inspiration, and eventually, romantic connection for Mossa.  

Several kinds of truths are laid bare over the course of Mimicking. The most obvious and relevant to the detective genre of which the novella is unquestionably a part, is that of the mystery itself: the whereabouts and fate of arrogant Scholar Bolien Trewl, last seen at the very platform Mossa arrives at as the story opens. But moving farther along the novella’s ring, Moss and Plieti also uncover truths about their own needs for romantic human connection—it is heart-wrenching to watch Pleiti hesitantly expressing, if only to herself, her desire for Mossa while Mossa responds for much of the novella with tempting, teasing closeness that belies her own deep yearning. In the end, the most profound truths may be less the ones that come at the end of a chain of evidence or a series of clues, and more the ones that reveal things about ourselves as living, connected human beings. In a scene close to the novella’s end, Mossa and Plieti confront their mutual attraction, something both characters take pains to avoid before this pivotal moment.

“Mossa. Mossa. You are doing important work. And – and –  and I don’t know anything about Investigator culture, but I could tell your colleagues respect you, admire you even. And you have your own home in this beautiful city. You have changed since university, even if not exactly in the way I – and mostly – and mostly I don’t care.”

“You don’t?”

I should have, I knew that, but I couldn’t. “I don’t.”

“Does that mean – do you mean – Plieti, might I kiss you?”

“Yes,” I said in a rush, and threw my arms around her.

But the most crucial truths within the novella’s own universe involve rival interpretations of humanity’s future in space. The eventual return to a reconstructed Earth is a common dream on Giant—much of the story, for one, circles around the Koffre Institute for Earth Species Preservation, a sanctuary for genetically-reconstructed Earth plants and animals maintained as a resource for the eventual reseeding of a renewed Earth. It is a topic of crucial importance, but on Giant beliefs in its immediacy and practicality become the source of extreme and dramatic tension. As a Classical Geography Scholar, Pleiti studies ancient Earth history as part of a long-range collective plan to re-create the old Earth, but other factions see the truth elsewhere. Pleiti exclaims to a rival Scholar at one point, “You are going to overturn years, decades of planning for Earth reanimation, delay the time when we can finally go back” to which her enraged colleague replies, “It’s never going to be Earth!… Not the Earth that you Classicists deify! It’s never going to be exactly like it was before, and that means you’re never going to be willing to let us get back there.”

Which truth about humanity’s return home is closer to objective reality? Does a colony-wide reconstructive endeavor planned and carried out over decades, if not centuries, better resemble the truth of the situation, or should impulsive, individual decisions rule the day? The truth, as with most things, lies somewhere in the middle, Older tells us. Or, as Mossi puts it, “[A]ttempting to approximate an idealized past is most certainly both futile and foolish, but individually disrupting what absolutely must be a collective endeavor is no better, and selfish as well.” The same sort of collectivist vs. individualist tension marks Older’s Centenal Cycle, and we also see echoes of it in detective fiction, where individual decisions based on impulse and passion and idiosyncratic interpretations of the truth give birth to crime, and where lone investigators must solve crimes for the common good. It is in these concerns with the tensions of warring truths, as well as the expertly drawn Holmes-Watson relationship of Mossa and Pleiti, that we see how beautifully and skillfully The Mimicking of Known Successes follows in the footsteps of the best of both SF and detective fiction.

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Librarian at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.

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