Reposting to include Bill’s new review.

The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older science fiction book reviewsThe Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older science fiction book reviewsThe Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

On Jupiter, known as Giant, Mossa, an Investigator, and Pleiti, scholar and instructor, are on a new case, involving the disappearance of a student. As Mossa explores, she finds not one, but seventeen university students, faculty and staff have gone missing. What the two sleuths will uncover in 2024’s The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, by Malka Older, will destabilize Pleiti’s already-shaky faith in the university system, and her life’s work, even further.

These novellas are a pure pleasure to read. Older does so many wonderful things here. There is the setting, an innovative science-fictional imagining of a human colony of Giant, with exact details perfectly placed to make the place and its challenges real. There is her use of a slightly archaic narrative voice to evoke the sense of Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson stories; her exploration, through Pleiti’s point of view, of the emotional toll someone like a Watson experiences, assisting someone like a Holmes. The sociological question of the “mission back to Earth,” is baked into these tales, and the tweaking of academic culture is icing on the tasty cakes of these novellas.

As with the first book, The Mimicking of Known Successes, the mystery the two women pursue leads back to the Valdegeld University. In this case, there are two different cases. The disappearances are a puzzle, but Pleiti, in pursuing the original disappearance, discovers the corpse of the missing student. Pleiti’s own commitment to the Classics, a scientific approach to repopulating Earth via a rigorous, methodical, scientific process, is once again called into question. Is it wrong to discount innovation? Is the innovative approach irresponsible, burning up precious resources that can’t be easily recouped? These are background questions, but they aren’t that far in the background, and Pleiti and Mossa both wrestle with them realistically.

In The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, the question of community versus self-reliance plays out in the forefront of the story; not only on Giant, but on a side trip to Mossa’s home on Io, which shows us an early attempt at colonization. We discover, not surprisingly, that classism is alive and well on Giant and Io.

It’s not fair to review these books without spending a moment on the romantic relationship between the two women. Since most of the book takes place in Pleiti’s point of view, we share her struggles to parse Mossa’s feelings for her. Her feelings for Mossa, while clear, are complicated and contradictory. She loves Mossa. Sometimes she resents that she loves Mossa. She wonders if Mossa loves her. She hates that she pounces on every word and action to determine whether Mossa loves her. It’s a brilliant tightrope walk of a performance, perfectly delivered.

Come for the original what-if of the colony; stay for the deep questions and these complicated, engaging characters.

~Marion Deeds

The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older science fiction book reviewsI’m a bit betwixt and between on Malka Older’s Jupiter-based novellas, though I did enjoy the newest — The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles — more than the first, The Mimicking of Known Successes. Overall, both books left me somewhat cold, though there’s a lot to praise here as well.

Beginning with the positive, I love the setting and the backstory of how we’ve arrived here, as well as the way in which that backstory is dripped out bit by bit rather than handed over in large infodumps. That setting is “Giant”, a large colony established around Jupiter, with various “platforms” connected by rings and railcars acting as the colony’s various settlements. The oldest and largest is also home to the most prestigious university — Valdegeld — where the two protagonists Pleiti and Mossa met and where one now works as a scholar (Mossa has become an investigator). The story of how Giant was created, why humans had to leave Earth, and what Earth is like now and parceled out a tidbit at a time in wonderful fashion. Meanwhile, the Giant setting is conveyed efficiently and if it isn’t as richly detailed in worldbuilding as books three times as long as these, that doesn’t mean Older doesn’t serve up some nicely sharp details that make Giant feel fully realized, such as an architectural phase where buildings were built to look like escape pods The setting is somewhat expanded in book two, as we travel further afield, both on the Giant ring system and outside of it, with a side trip to a settlement on Io, where Mossa is from.

I also quite enjoyed the smaller setting-within-a-setting of Valdegeld University, with its fascinating competing schools/disciplines: The Classicists, who mine ancient literature for ideas of how to resettle Earth, the Moderns, who as their name implies think the Classicists are too focused on the past, and the Speculatives, who used their “flights of imagination to engineer the chain of inhabitable space stations” and would be asked to do the same to implement any return to Earth.

The mystery at the heart of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is the mysterious disappearance of a number of people from the university. The mystery itself is interesting and raises some tense questions, and Older does a nice job of increasing both the stakes and the tension when one of the missing is found murdered. As in The Mimicking of Known Successes, the actually unraveling of the mystery, as a process, fell a little flat for me, feeling more than a little perfunctory and with a revelation that seemed well telegraphed in advance.

Similarly, in both books the romantic element also fell flat for me. On one level, I simply found it uninteresting and didn’t want to spend the time we spent on it. I also felt the writing slipped in those sections from sharp and originally phrased insights into people and society to more overly familiar phrasings. On another level, I just never wholly bought into it. I’m told frequently that there is a relationship, one filled with love and passion if somewhat awkwardly so and if somewhat reserved thanks to one character’s personality traits. But unlike the setting it never seemed real to me; I read of it but didn’t feel it (and not simply because of that reserved aspect). That said, from all I’ve seen in terms of responses to these stories, it’s clear lots of people find the relationship a draw, so YMMV.

I’d certainly pick up a third Pleiti and Mossa book. One to further explore the stories’ setting and culture and two because the prose is certainly highly readable throughout and is peppered with some wonderful phrasings. And finally because as noted I enjoyed book two more than book one and so would hope that improvement continues. But I’ll pick it up hoping for a stronger mystery and either less focus on the relationship or more of a sense of that relationship.

~Bill Capossere

Published in February 2024. Mossa has returned to Valdegeld on a missing person’s case, for which she’ll once again need Pleiti’s insight. Seventeen students and staff members have disappeared from Valdegeld University―yet no one has noticed. The answers to this case may lie on the moon of Io―Mossa’s home―and the history of Jupiter’s original settlements during humanity’s exodus from Earth. But Pleiti’s faith in her life’s work as a scholar of the past has grown precarious, and this new case threatens to further destabilize her dreams for humanity’s future, as well as her own.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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