The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older
Malka Older’s 2023 novella, The Mimicking of Known Successes, gives us a Sherlock-Holmes-like mystery-adventure set on Jupiter. The extraterrestrial locale is more than merely a setting; it’s part of the plot of this charming SF mystery romp.
When humans finally rendered Earth uninhabitable, they moved to other planets in the solar system; at least to Jupiter, which is called Giant. The surface of Giant is also uninhabitable, but engineered bands encircle the planet at the point where atmosphere and gravity allow for human life (with obvious adjustments). When a scholar, Bolien Trewl, disappears completely from a remote railcar station, governmental Inspector Mossa catches the case. Mossa is a determined, detail-oriented, intense investigator. The case takes her to the university of Valdegeld, and she enlists the help of Classics scholar and ex-girlfriend Pleiti. As a Classicist, Pleiti studies old eras of earth, helping to create the perfect environment to seed flora and fauna and make the home planet habitable again. Another class of scholar, the Modernists, are more interested in the nature of Giant itself. Trewl studied altitude and its impacts. He was a self-centered, unpleasant man by all accounts, but his arrogance seems to rule out a suicide.
After an initial awkward reunion with Mossa, Pleiti assumes the Watson function in the story. The Earth Preservation Institute, jokingly called the “mauzooleum,” preserves genetic material from earth and has brought back many species of animal as an inspiration for the Giant-dwellers and the dream of returning “home.” Bolien made a visit there before he disappeared, and as they ask questions, Mossa is attacked by a wildcat that has been released from its habitat. Mossa discovers that valuable genetic material has been stolen from the Institute, and in almost no time at all, the body of a doomsday “street preacher” complicates the case.
The story is filled with clues, centered mostly around the railway and the railcars, old and new. Older’s sly but affectionate mockery of academia adds a peppery sharpness to the tale, and it’s fun to watch Mossa and Pleiti haltingly find their way back to friendship and romance.
Like the original Watson, Pleiti isn’t only there to take in information and look admiring. She is smart, capable, and provides plenty of real help to the investigation. Of the many versions of Holmesian adventures I’ve read in recent years, this is one of my favorites; not only for the relationship and the wonderful setting, but for Older’s slightly formal, quasi-Victorian style. This short book was a treat.