Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kristine Kathryn Rusch - The Disappeared

I discovered Kristine Kathryn Rusch through Asimov's Science Fiction. Whenever I saw her name, I knew the piece below it would be one of the issue's best, the kind of Science Fiction that creates new and vast rules and societies and, from them, gripping plots that delve into characters and issues. After a few such stories, I knew I had to try Rusch's novels. Alas, from those expectations, The Disappeared was not the best choice. Though conflicts inherent in its setting do generate its plot, this is a novel whose setting is riddled with little holes, inconsistencies, and silliness, and all to such an extent that it rather sunk the book.

The human part of the Retrieval Artist universe, which this is the first novel (though not the first story) to explore, is vague and not particularly striking. Most of what we see of this sometime in the future setting takes place on the Moon, in what is referred to as the Armstrong Dome. We spend our time with two detectives, a fugitive, and an affected family, so we don't get to see a great deal of the Dome or the people in it. What we do see is rather familiar; when a character is forced into a police aircar, Rusch immediately gets rid of any strangeness involved in the air part of the vehicle by bringing up the old police car ordinariness: there was a plastic protective barrier between the back seat and the front, and there were no door handles on the insiders of the back doors (p. 176). Just about the only things I found interesting about the human society here were the references to a Moon historical preservation movement (p. 160), a consciousness of a historical progression from our time that we, alas, never got to see much of.

The majority of The Disapppeared's worldbuilding, however, is concerned with aliens, or, as we never learn all that much about any one particular alien group themselves, how aliens interact with humans. Humans, see, are expected to abide by alien laws when in contact with those aliens. The Rev subject their prisoners to hard labor. The Disty, to public vengeance killings. The Wygnin, though, leave you alone – they take your children. As a result, human cops find themselves having to track down humans who committed no crime by human standards so that they can be delivered to inhuman justice, a setup reminiscent of an exaggerated version of today's international law courts or US antebellum Northerners and the Fugitive Slave Law (comparisons that Rusch invokes by referring to these laws not as interplanetary, interspecies, or anything like that, but as multicultural (p. 42)).

Detectives Flint and DeRicci are two such cops, tasked with three outcroppings of such cases. Three people were found dead on a yacht at the hands of the Disty. Two parents struggle to win their children back from the Wygnin by any means necessary. And a woman, promised to the Rev, has managed to escape and is loose somewhere within Armstrong Dome. The three cases are linked by more than just alien involvement. Each of the three used a Disappearance Service, companies of humans who believe that no human should have to answer to inhuman laws, who smuggle the guilty away and into new lives with new identities. But one of those Disappearance Services is now selling its clients out to the very people chasing them. From all this, The Disappeared attempts to be a steady exploration (or, as it's the beginning of a series, at least the beginning of such an exploration) of these interaction's intricacies, and, while that intellectual puzzle is developed, Rusch provides tension through the fugitive's storyline.

My first problem is that I simply don't buy the setting's central premise, that men would ever allow themselves to be subject to such draconian punishments that they had no control at all over from people that they did not know. At one point, we learn about "the interstellar waiver" (p. 269), which makes every member of a company submit to all laws of the worlds on which the company they worked for did business (p. 269). This means that, when a single employee messes up with the Wygnins, everyone, no matter how many worlds away they were, just lost their children. What?

Rusch tries to justify all this by having characters say that This is the price we pay for interstellar commerce (p. 276), making it all, I suppose, an attempt to show the injustices we'll put up with in the name of the dollar. But it goes too far for plausibility. This is not showing a factory's poor conditions; this is like saying that an immigrant in a factory is not only subjecting himself to poor conditions but that, if another immigrant he has never met performs poorly, his great grandmother will be plucked from her native land to be eviscerated by the foreman. I have no idea why any reasonable human being would ever agree to such terms, let alone in the aggregate, especially as we are never shown what it is that all these aliens have that could justify such absurd risks.

The novel's big moral revelation – that all this is sort of, maybe, you know, wrong – is therefore not exactly a surprise to any reader who has not, in the past few years, enslaved another human being. When Flint realizes that he can no longer support such a system, the reader is not wowed by his moral strength or bravery but is simply stunned at how nobody but he and his partner find all this a tad outlandish. DeRicci is considered a bad cop with a terrible past because she once refused to go along with one of these things, but I simply don't believe that every other cop in the department was so gung-ho about the whole evisceration-deportation routine that they could assume her a morally failed incompetent for it. All of this "no, really?" morality is not exactly helped by stunning revelations like: He [Flint] wasn't sure he would like being punished for doing the right thing (p. 286).

Moving past the whole plausibility issue, the puzzle at The Disappeared's heart, the question of how the different cases can be solved without surrendering the humans and how the detectives can play the aliens off against each other, are crippled by holes in the setting. If aliens are allowed to hunt down anyone who crosses them, and if the law joins them in that hunt, then helping a fugitive disappear should obviously be a crime; aiding and abetting a fugitive most certainly is in our day. Not at all. In fact, these Disappearance Services have a wealth of public knowledge about them floating around (p. 287). Yet no one thinks to arrest them or to, at the very least, start the search with their files.

The various alien groups maintain their consistency no better. One of the first things that we told about the Rev is that they are incredibly quick to anger and that they despise both [hand] gestures and interrupting (p. 225). Then our character and an interpreter, an expert in Rev culture, are put in a room with some Revs. What happens next? The interpreter raised two forefingers, so that Flint wouldn't speak any more (p. 251). But the interpreter shouldn't feel too bad; even the Rev can't keep track of their own cultural quirks: "This is fine," the Rev said in English, interrupting Flint and the interpreter both (p. 256).

The fugitive that is supposed to be providing the novel's tension is a cunning foe (p. 326), a woman who has genuinely set the record for fleeing the law in Armstrong Dome. Flint finds himself thinking that: If every criminal were as smart as Greta Palmer, his job would be a lot harder (p. 237). So what is so brilliant about Ms. Palmer? That's rather hard to say, or at least to say in any way that isn't the two word dismissal of "absolutely nothing." Her vaunted escape from police custody? Entirely the result of how nobody ever thought to search her properly, allowing her to simply keep her gun and shoot her way out of their fancy/retro aircar. Her record breaking time on the run, in which she avoided the city's massed street patrols and was undeterred by having her plastered on every buildingboard and the net? I'll let her give you her tactic herself:

Before she got too far, however, she altered her appearance as best she could. she turned her shift inside out, revealing its white interior (which still looked clean) and she rolled up her pants so that they ended just below her knees.

Even though she felt that would keep her away from all but the most observant police, she was still cautious (p. 292).

Oh. Yeah, that does sound rather brilliant. Similarly to how I'm forced to conclude that everyone but Flint and DeRicci have had their ability to empathize surgically removed, I have to conclude that the entire Armstrong Dome police department, besides those two, is stunningly bad at their jobs. Or maybe they are all just dragging their feet, not wanting to have to turn the poor woman over to the alien Gulags.

As one would expect from a Detective novel, Science Fiction or otherwise, The Disappeared's plot progression and climax are both dependant on the intelligent piecing together of clues and details. Alas, the piecing together here is not so intelligent. Flint spends the first half of the novel slowly deducing what was handed to the reader in the first few chapters and would have been obvious regardless, that one of the Disappearance Services is not so scrupulous. The main why he does this is by checking the captured ships' logs. The hardened criminals knew, of course, to erase any incriminating data. But they apparently did not know that their computer would bare its soul, including anything supposedly erased, to anyone that identified themselves as police. Whoops.

The climax, though, is worse. Just about every character in the novel simultaneously comes up with the same brilliant solution to a Disappearance Service gone bad and the aliens closing in – use another Disappearance Service that hasn't gone bad! Everyone goes off to do this. It goes swimmingly. The end.

The Disappeared exhibits some of the same traits that Rusch's excellent short fiction has in spades, but it shares none of that works' success. The characters of Flint and DeRicci are competently done but are, like just about everything else, drowned under the setting's flaws. Though I haven't given up on Rusch, I can't say I'll be quite as excited as I once was to see her name in print the next time around.

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