Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

When things are broken, you can wait ages for them to go back to normal, or you can adapt

Argentinean literary critic Ricardo Piglia described, in one of his many essays, his personal theory of short fiction: every plot contains two plots. This is most evident in the detective genre, where the protagonist's tale (the investigation) is about unveiling an earlier tale (the crime). So reading detective fiction (and, according to Piglia, all fiction) is a dual task: to follow the protagonist's thought process is to simultaneously discover the two stories contained in the text.

By that standard, Malka Older's new novella The Mimicking of Known Successes is twice as ambitious as the typical detective mystery. Set in a network of metallic platforms where future humankind clings to survival among the clouds of Jupiter, it presents, instead of two, four stories to unveil: an investigation on the sudden disappearance of a university professor, the scholarly endeavor to reconstruct the last years of life on Earth, a rekindling romance between our detective and an old flame, and the project to bring homo sapiens back to a livable ecosystem. Once put on the page, these four stories become four mysteries that drive the reader's curiosity: What happened to the missing professor? What made humans leave Earth? Why did the two lovers break up years ago? And how can catastrophic historical failures be repaired without causing more damage? Upon reading it, one can intuit that the biggest structural challenge of this book must have been to write it in such a way that pursuing each separate question leads to answers for all the others.

To give proper praise to the way Older weaves these questions around a unifying theme, it's necessary to spoil at least part of the answer. This is a story about the dangers of misplaced nostalgia and the need to learn new forms of compatibility. Here Older resorts to a helpful literary device by which the larger conflict mirrors the inner conflict; that is, the civilizational question about the compatibility between human beings and their environment is explored in parallel with the personal question about the compatibility between the protagonist and her former lover. And for both conflicts the resolution is the same: you need to stop wishing things could return to the way they used to be. A totally new compatibility is possible if you're willing to adapt.

This is the meaning contained in the book's title: there's little to be gained from just repeating what worked before, because when the circumstances no longer allow that outcome, you become stuck. And Older reinforces that theme with her faithful, but not subservient, homage to Sherlock Holmes. The narrative style is clearly inspired by Watson's observations of Holmes's work, but doesn't try to replicate it. The floating colonies built in Jupiter are prone to atmospheric disturbances that make radio waves unreliable. So this is a cold and foggy world of scarves, coats, and cozy fireplaces, where people have to rely on telegrams and travel by railway between isolated structures because there's no solid ground. The result is a book that evokes the flavor of Victorian detective novels, but doesn't share their worldview—a happy synergy of genre, aesthetic and setting.

It is remarkable to find such complexity in so brief a wordcount. Although the plot flows with effortless readability, it rests on an intricate scaffolding that enables all the literary elements to bolster one another's strengths. The intriguing backstory emerges in hints scattered through the blend of colloquial and erudite prose, a sign that this civilization has lost continuity with Earth culture; the first-person narrator laments the impossibility of pairing recovered accounts of life on Earth with their physical referents; the core argument about the pitfalls of yearning for a lost past resonates with the narrator's characterization, the villain's masterplan, and the contemporary reader's circumstances. Like the platforms linked by railways, all the parts of the story are meticulously interconnected. The Mimicking of Known Successes is not only a potent environmental and political parable, but a major achievement in storytelling technique.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Older, Malka. The Mimicking of Known Successes [Tor, 2023].