Winter is for mysteries. There’s nothing like sitting inside, sipping on a hot beverage, while reading about somebody smarter than me solving a bewildering crime. If you have the same craving, or if you think that a sci-fi take on Sherlock Holmes is interesting, The Mimicking of Known Successes is an absolutely perfect addition to your reading list.
This novella takes place on Giant (Jupiter), the current home base of humanity after Earth is rendered uninhabitable. Mossa, an investigator, is tasked with solving a case that takes her to Jupiter’s most famous university— and straight into the orbit of her ex-girlfriend, Pleiti. Pleiti’s expertise is in ancient Earth ecosystems, and her knowledge of the university’s workings is help that Mossa can’t pass up, even if things between them ended badly.
I’m not going to spoil even a tidbit of the mystery, as seeing it play out is part of the beauty of reading a mystery for the first time. But I will say that the novella is very effective at leaving clues that will eventually be made clear. I certainly didn’t solve the crime, but once everything came to light, the earlier chapters clicked in a whole new way.
The relationship between Mossa and Pleiti is a lot of fun. Pleiti is our primary point of view, and getting the background of why things fell apart (and how much she wishes they didn’t) is a nice counterweight to the investigation. I also liked how standoffish and brisk Mossa could be. Her focus is on solving an important case, and in the Sherlockian way, emotions have to be her second priority. You can definitely see how and why the relationship didn’t work out— but also root for them to rekindle their relationship.
Older’s world building is phenomenal. The planet is crisscrossed by train tracks connecting cities and settlements, with every bit of usable area designated for something — be it farming, living, or housing a variety of Earth species for study and tourism. It’s made so clear that this was a massive undertaking by humanity, using all available resources, with asides about things like buildings made of metal from old satellites and other junk. It really adds a flavor and atmosphere to the world of Giant. Speaking of flavor, a special shout out to the descriptions given to food and drink. When Mossa and Pleiti visit Slow Burn, which features extremely local cuisine cooked over woodfire, I found myself absolutely craving everything they were having. I could read an entire series set on this planet and be happy.
Interview with Malka Older
There’s a tradition at GateCrashers where we like to ask you: what’s your favorite sandwich?
Mmmph I hate favorite questions because I am very into variety and my favorite tends to change a lot but that said, I had an amazing homemade sandwich last week that was: leftover maple syrup roasted chicken and the vegetables that were cooked under the chicken with unsmoked gouda and pickled jalapeños on baguette, toasted in a sandwich press. That was fab.
The biggest (or most Giant) question for me is: why Jupiter? So many stories about a human society that’s left earth focuses on Mars, or distant galaxies. What inspired you to decide that the gas giant was the place to be?
So it was kind of the other way around: years ago, I was noodling on how a society could exist on a gas planet and came up with the idea of rails mimicking the rings and functioning as both transport and a place to put non-moving structures. At the time I imagined it as an unspecified gas planet somewhere in the universe, in a far-future story when humans did casual spaceflight. When I came back to it for this novella, though, the destruction of Earth’s habitats was (and continues to be) very present for me, and I realized that the story had to involve that and therefore was going to be set on Jupiter as a last-ditch survival effort rather than some far-away planet as part of expansive multi-galaxy settlements. It did not feel like too much of a leap to imagine that Mars had been resource-mined out of viability even before the need for another planet became imminent,
I love the constant theme of classics versus modern that runs through the book. Is the tension between the two something you like to explore in your work?
Definitely. I’m fascinated by the ways that time differentials affect our perceptions of things: the good old days, utopian futures, the mania for various “classical” periods that re-erupts at different times and places throughout history, and so on.
Because of the sharp break between everything “classical” — while humanity was still living on Earth — and “modern” — anything to do with their current planet, so (as often happens in other cases as well) “classics” comes to represent, and enable, the desire to return to what existed before, while “modern” studies are about adapting to the present. I was thinking a lot about the tension between “back to normal” and “new normal” while writing. Given that “normal” doesn’t exist and we can never really go back to the past, especially an idealized past, while the concept of “new normal” is often used as an excuse not to do better, there’s a lot of contradictions and nuances and imperfections to dig through in that tension.
Sherlock Holmes- style tales are popular in our culture, with book, television, and film versions coming out frequently. Are you a fan of the original Conan-Doyle stories, or is there an adaptation you like more?
Sherlock Holmes adaptations are catnip for me, and trying to figure out why was part of what pushed me to write this book. In college a friend introduced me to the Mary Russell series by Laurie King, and that, particularly the early books, continues to be a comfort read for me, but more recently Sherry Thomas’s fantastic Lady Sherlock series has become a favorite. Then there are the Irene Adler books by Carole Nelson Douglas, the wonderful middle-grade graphic novels starting with Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz, Katherine Addison’s Angel of Crows, the Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer — so much better than the movies! — and so many more. And then, yes, the numerous movies and TV shows, although I’m less captivated by those.
I read most of the original Sherlock Holmes stories in high school, and I remember dissecting one in a literary criticism seminar in college — the overlap of plot and plot, for example. When I was preparing to write this book I went back and reread them all. It wasn’t a hardship, but that’s partly because they’re short. The women are insipid and unrealistic, the foreigners are cartoonish at best and inhuman at worst, they’re horribly classist, and Holmes’s rudeness to Watson gets harder and harder to take. (They also suffer from a problem very common in serial procedurals in the current day: the crime-solver is a genius/gifted; there’s a perception that the stakes of solving individual crimes gradually diminish; and so a criminal mastermind is created; then there are all sorts of contortions to make this mastermind an impossible adversary for the genius; who of course nonetheless triumphs. I find these arcs far less interesting than a variety of different puzzles, and Moriarty, who appears out of nowhere to be casually built up as a mastermind, is a particularly sorry example, although at least his influence on the stories is fairly brief.)
At the same time, the stories are decent on suspense and sometimes horror-tinged suspense, while not veering as far as Poe into that area; they have some interesting and varied puzzles; and they’re often quite good at conveying the excitement of the chase, of being on the track of solving the mystery. So, the building blocks of the mystery genre. But while all those things are important, looking at the many spin-offs and interpretations, it’s the relationships and the characters that make a mystery a Holmesian mystery. There’s something very powerful about the relationship between two people who are in some way partners but also have very different abilities, and particularly in the evolution of that partnership. And, finally but crucially, there’s something very compelling about a character whose brain works differently from most people — and who has found a way to apply that very effectively in a society which is otherwise a poor fit for them.
I loved the way that you described the ways people adapted to their new world and made things uniquely their own (especially the restaurants!). What’s something from Earth that you’d want to bring to your life on another world?
Books, in whatever form, both as knowledge repositories and as connections to the people of the past.
Malka, what’s next for you?
I’m really thrilled to be able to return to Giant with The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, the next installment of Mossa and Pleiti’s adventures. In it we learn more about the Speculative Faculty of the university, travel to Io, and follow their relationship as it continues to evolve — all while solving a mystery, of course!