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.