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The Mimicking of Known Successes coverIt would be something of a misnomer to call Malka Older’s inviting new novella, The Mimicking of Known Successes, a cozy mystery. Its lead sleuth, Investigator Mossa, is a professional detective whose flashy deductions and emotional remoteness evoke nineteenth-century gumshoes like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allan Poe’s ur-detective, C. Auguste Dupin. The inciting incident, in which an academic disappears from a remote railway platform, draws from a long tradition of locked room mysteries. The chief subplot is a will-they-won’t-they romance between Mossa and the book’s narrator, the Scholar Pleiti, who also happens to be Mossa’s ex-girlfriend. And while much of the action centers, in the tradition of cozy mysteries, on a small town, that town is located on one of a series of floating platforms that make up a human colony on Jupiter (known to the locals as Giant).

And yet. In addition to being a cracking and economical mystery-sci-fi-romance, Successes is an undeniably cozy read. Older’s space colony is replete with gas jets, fireside conferences in snug apartments, insulating atmoscarfs, railcars with heated benches of rose-colored velvet, bookshops, tea kiosks, and scones delivered via dumbwaiter. All this is enhanced by the chilly Jovian fog swirling outside in the red, yellow, and orange hues of an extraterrestrial sunset. It’s a deliberate and artful coziness, contrasted as it is with the book’s undercurrent of grief and longing: grief for the collapsed ecology of a depleted Earth, and a longing for lost species and clear skies and soil to walk on.

If Older’s worldbuilding is emotionally layered, it’s also refreshingly succinct. I’ve seen too many SFF novels in which the worldbuilding crowds out the story. “I did my homework,” the authors of these unhappy tomes seem to say, “and now it’s your turn!” But Older wisely uses her novella’s brevity to avoid this trap, eschewing too-lengthy explanations in favor of trenchant details and an abundance of (literal and figurative) atmosphere. Memorable images, like “the moon-spotted sky” (p. 45) or “puddles in the shallow depressions of the weathered platform where pigeons were now splashing their iridescent feathers” (p. 91), do more to convey a sense of life on Giant than a dozen appendices. When we do get explanations, they’re grounded in our narrator’s emotions. Here, for example, is Pleiti describing the main setting, the venerable university town of Valdegeld:

I searched, as always, for the almost unnoticeable seam where inconsistencies in the surface of the platform traced the plating of an ancient satellite, snagged from its orbit and hammered flat. I loved Valdegeld’s quaintness, its details of salvage and bricolage, unlike the newer, uniform platforms pressed in enormous pieces from asteroid metal. (p. 12)

All at once and with economy, this passage describes Valdegeld’s antiquity, how the platforms are made, and, most importantly, it conveys the warmth, nostalgia, and civic pride that Pleiti feels for her home and workplace.

Older’s depiction of language and culture on Giant benefits from a similar light touch. English has assimilated Spanish words (“ráfagas” for “sudden gusts,” “andén” for “platform”), and developed arch exclamations like “Tempests!” or “Railcars and recombinants!” The term “conservative” is now a vicious insult, which made me rub my hands together with glee. Settlements on Giant are linked by floating rings that circumnavigate the planet. Humanity has belatedly abandoned capitalism in order to survive, and travelers between settlements commute along the rings via railcar in a planetwide system of free public transit. Because platforms cover less than one sixteenth of Giant’s surface area, space is at a premium and dwellings are small.

Successes shines brightest when Older juxtaposes these SF elements with her own innovative spin on classic mystery tropes. Both genres are on display as Mossa’s investigation links the disappearing man to a seemingly unrelated murder, and to the theft of genetic material from the Koffre Institute for Earth Species Preservation, known unofficially as the “mauzooleum.” The Preservation Institute serves as both the repository of DNA necessary to clone a bevy of transplanted Earth fauna, and as a literal zoo that allows the displaced humans of Giant to see live plants and animals in real time. It’s also a potent symbol for what humanity has lost and hopes to regain.

But Older’s best and most effective instance of genre cross-pollination is her depiction of Mossa’s partnership with Pleiti. If Investigator Mossa is the spiritual descendent of such venerable detectives as Holmes and Dupin, then Pleiti, our narrator, is descended from Dr. John Watson and Dupin’s unsung sidekick (Poe doesn’t even give the poor fellow a name). These narrator-companions often act as audience surrogates, observing the detective’s deductive skills from without, the better to be dazzled by the detective’s insights and then brought up to speed when the detective explains his or her reasoning. Older emphasizes this lineage by having Mossa guess Pleiti’s thoughts at one point late in the story:

I was mostly silent on the return trip, and grateful for Mossa’s reliable taciturnity. Bad enough that the Preservation Institute had lost materials… The worst was that the Institute for Earth Species Preservation might be lost. True, the very concept of the mauzooleum was extravagant, and unlikely, and extraneous; but there were few enough such spots on our planet, and it would be a sadder place without the glimpse of biodiversity offered at the Preservation Institute.

“And yet,” Mossa said, across the train compartment from me, “one has to wonder how the animals feel about it.”

I gaped at her, first in incomprehension, then in disbelief. “How did you know what I was thinking?”

Her smile was almost sad.

“Your face, dearest Pleiti,”—and my traitor face heated, though her expression warned me well enough that this was not a compliment, that the superlative was merely a drip of casual affection—“tells all, transparent as, oh, this window.” She tapped it with her knuckles. “Particularly when you are upset, and when you are thinking through the logic of it.” (p. 88)

This scene echoes a similar one in Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which Dupin uses deductive reasoning and a variety of nonverbal clues to guess his companion’s thoughts as they take an evening stroll along the streets of Paris. In his own tribute to Dupin, Conan Doyle has Holmes deduce Watson’s thoughts using similar methods, first in “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (1893) and later in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” (1903).

Older isn’t simply doing a callback here, however. Where both Dupin and Holmes worked out their companion’s thoughts through elaborate chains of observations and deductions which they were all too happy to explain, Mossa’s own explanation is simpler. She has known Pleiti a long time, and has grown interested and invested enough in her ex’s emotions to make an educated guess about Pleiti’s inner monologue.

Older’s second departure from the Dupin formula is even more noteworthy: she reverses the roles a few chapters later, in a pivotal scene wherein Pleiti herself deduces Mossa’s thoughts and anticipates her next move. When Pleiti does catch up with Mossa, who is about to depart without warning towards the next, dangerous phase of the investigation, Mossa is as pleased as Pleiti is exasperated:

Mossa glanced around us, though I was sure she already knew the precise number of people on the andén (I cannot myself be more specific than few if any). “To be – to be truthful”—I knew as she said this that she too was reliving that last fight at university, when I had accused her of frequently being dishonest without lying—“I was hoping you would come, but I wasn’t sure I should. Hope for it, that is, or tell you, or invite you.”

“Why,” I gritted out, “not?”

“Well, it’s sure to be dangerous,” Mossa said, somewhat abashedly. “And, beyond that, it’s my job, you know. You have your own work, very important work, which I’ve been taking you away from for the past few days.” A movement in the dimness caught my eye: the railcar, approaching in the distance, illumination glowing from its windows. Even in the midst of that anguished conversation, the warmth and shelter promised by those remote and moving lights tugged at me.

“We talked about this,” I said, with difficulty. “Choices. Each person gets to make their own choices. I don’t care how smart you are, I’m not stupid.”

“Of course you aren’t,” Mossa said, as if indignant that I should suggest it. “You figured out where to find me.” (pp. 102-103)

A trope that started off as a deductive parlor trick for Dupin and Holmes has evolved, in Older’s hands, into an exercise with two participants, both of whom have a real emotional stake in guessing correctly. The novella’s romantic subplot, in which Pleiti guesses and second-guesses Mossa’s thoughts and intentions, trying to gauge if she’s interested in rekindling their relationship, makes a poignant counterpart to the central mystery.

The romance and the mystery pair particularly well because of thematic parallels between the lovers’ sundered relationship and humanity’s exile on Jupiter. Pleiti and Mossa feel they’ve bungled their first chance at happiness together and are hoping they’ve both changed enough to reunite. In the same vein, Valdegeld’s Classics Scholars hope that humanity has changed enough to return to a sustainable existence on Earth one day, while accepting that even an Earth rendered habitable again won’t be the same as the Earth that was lost. Thus, the undercurrent of longing that gives Successes such aching authenticity. One memorable scene, in which Pleiti assists Mossa as she washes an injury, beautifully interweaves both types of longing:

They say our ancestors in those final days on Earth had no heated water for washing, certainly not enough to fill a tub, with their every resource thrown towards the final desperate twin tasks of escaping the planet they had destroyed and making another one livable. I’ve always been skeptical of that story; I’m sure there were people who believed that their own indulgence wouldn’t matter in the larger scheme of scarcity. But it was doubtless true for many people, and I pitied them thoroughly as I rose in response to Mossa’s call, and stepped into the dim-lit bathroom. They never would have seen a sight like this: the arch of her warm back lapsing from the water, muscles and spine curved in harmony on a theme. (pp. 47-48)

I find myself wanting to write more about Pleiti’s effectiveness as a narrator, and as an investigator in her own right. Mossa is a successful variation on an old archetype, while Pleiti feels like an innovation, an improvement on her predecessors. True, Watson was a more capable foil for Holmes than we sometimes give him credit for, but we rarely got to see him matching wits with Holmes and arriving at a crucial insight first, as Pleiti does near the case’s denouement. Arguably she’s both the narrator and the protagonist of the story, wrestling with two mysteries: the platform disappearance and the emotional iceberg that is Mossa. Pleiti’s narrative voice, erudite and filled with clauses that nest inside one another like Russian dolls, makes for a lovely depiction of an intelligent person trying to keep their emotions at arm’s length. She’s also drily funny. In an encounter with one pompous administrator, she describes him as “burbling like a coffee pot” and “one of those men who must always make noises before they speak, like a short runway allowing their thoughts to launch” (pp. 81-82).

And, like Watson with his medical practice, Pleiti has meaningful work of her own when she’s not running around solving mysteries. A Classics Scholar at Valdegeld, she specializes in the study of life on Earth before its ecology collapsed. Specifically, she studies the surviving evidence for clues to how Earth’s ecosystems might have worked, and how a viable ecosystem might one day be reconstructed. (Modern Scholars study life on Giant, and Speculative Scholars focus on life as it may play out in the future.) Over dinner, Pleiti tells Mossa about cataloguing twentieth-century plants and animals based on a novel that sounds very much like Watership Down (1972), a detail that’s amusing until it becomes incredibly sad. As Pleiti says, “…the author assumes that every organism he mentions is familiar to the readers. He barely describes any of it, because everyone he can imagine reading it already knows” (pp. 72-73).

Now, a mystery is only as good as its conclusion. “The solution must seem inevitable once revealed,” writes Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep (1939) and other hardboiled classics. “[I]t is not enough merely to fool or elude or sidestep the reader; you must make him feel that he ought not to have been fooled and that the fooling was honorable.” [1] Resolving a mystery in a science fiction setting is particularly tricky, as the solution won’t be satisfying if the reader doesn’t grasp beforehand the rules and technology of the author’s fictional world. The author may feel an especially strong temptation to cheat by introducing some new means of murder or concealment at the last minute. This problem is not confined to SF; I shall never forgive Ross Macdonald for writing a mystery that will remain nameless, the solution to which is quite convoluted and involves an electric blanket used to obfuscate the corpse’s time of death.

So, how does Successes resolve its case? Was the fooling honorable? Mostly. I’m afraid that Older does resort to an eleventh-hour introduction of new technology to explain how the missing man vanished from the platform unobserved. But happily, that’s incidental to the story of where he went afterwards, and why. The larger explanation is simple and surprising, and makes good use of the otherworldly setting. Older’s mystery sticks the landing.

As science fiction, Successes executes a particularly satisfying reclamation of the space colony trope. If you’re reading this, you too are probably an enthusiastic SF fan. You too may feel disheartened and enraged about the ongoing trend in which billionaires with bottomless wallets and limitless self-regard have co-opted the language of the genre—metaverses, commercial space flight, and Mars colonies, to list some examples—while using their considerable power to hasten Earth’s destruction. “No sense in changing our habits of exploitation and consumption,” the argument goes. “When this planet is a husk, we can flee to the stars and devour new worlds.” Older refutes this cynical lie by portraying humanity’s sojourn on Giant as something tragic and, one hopes, temporary. She depicts a civilization that holds the lessons of its past close, and tries to change for the better. Not coincidentally, the villains Older reveals by the story’s end are vainglorious bozos of the “move fast and break things” school of thought, arrogant men who reject the slow process of change, collaboration, and consensus that Pleiti and Mossa have come to embody. They also favor a mythologized ideal of individual ruggedness over collective coziness. This prompts Older to mount, through Pleiti, a defense of coziness near the book’s end. “Yes, I loved my cozy quarters and ancient texts,” Pleiti reflects, with more than a little defiance. “My breathing calmed just thinking of it, of the students, and the operetta I had tickets for in a few days, and the easy railcar ride here to see Mossa” (p. 165).

Older, whose Centenal Cycle was a Hugo finalist for Best Series, understands the power of coziness and comfort. Coziness, she tells us, doesn’t have to be an opiate. It can be a survival mechanism, a reason to keep going when the going is hard. Older has worked in disaster relief and began writing Successes near the end of a disastrous year. In an interview, she describes setting out, in late 2020, to write a comfort read that combined her favorite genres and themes. I read Successes during an unseasonably warm February, with hail and fog buffeting the windows of my high-rise. I read much of it while sitting up with a baby to whom warm winters will likely prove an unremarkable fact of life. It is indeed a comforting book, and it left me pleasantly sad. Hopeful too, in the way one can feel hopeful after going through some necessary mourning.


[1] Raymond Chandler, “Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story”, Later Novels and Other Writings, Library of America, p. 1007.  [return]

Seamus Sullivan’s fiction has appeared in Terraform, and some of his plays can be found on New Play Exchange, or on Flying V’s Paperless Pulp podcast. He divides his time between writing, housework, and finding new ways to make a toddler laugh.
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