The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older, author of the remarkable The Centenal Cycle, is a many-layered book that becomes more and more interesting upon closer examination. On the surface, it is a very good mystery about the search for a missing man. It is also a fine relationship story about the investigator, Mossa, and her friend from university days, Pleiti. The setting is remarkable, for in this story humans have for centuries been living on a series of platforms constructed in the upper reaches of the atmosphere of Jupiter, here called Giant. And it is about human daring and imagination of what the hoped-for and long-delayed return to Earth might look like. At the same time, it is about the question of reconstructing a failed relationship or trying for something new. That’s a lot to pack into a short novel, but it succeeds brilliantly on every level.
To start with the mystery that drives the story, a strange man gets off a train on one of the most remote platforms in the atmosphere of Giant and soon disappears. In a prologue, told from the point of view of Mossa, we learn that she reluctantly takes the case, which is likely only to confirm a suicide. Since the unidentified man could well have come from the university, called Valdegeld, where her ex-lover Pleiti lives, she decides to seek her help. The rest of the story then switches to a first-person narrative by Pleiti, who has mixed feelings about the sudden visit of Mossa, but agrees to work on the case with her. They soon discover that the missing man is a scholar in Pleiti’s department, the pompous and self-centered Bolean Trewl.
I couldn’t get very far into The Mimicking of Known Successes without marveling at the engineering of human residence on Giant and the intrusive nature of its atmosphere, which pervades every scene. After a period of living on stations in orbit around the planet, people constructed a series of steel rings around Giant which provided the substructure for railroads and platforms on which cities and institutions could be built. Though people were initially protected completely from the atmosphere by impermeable atmoshields, they soon came to prefer a porous shield, supplemented by atmoscarfs, which everyone wears outdoors. These allow people to go about despite the frequent “eerie, unfurling howl of winds” and driving storms they have to live with. The strangeness of the external setting, however, is offset by the cozy, comfortable quarters at the university where many of the scenes take place and where a lot of tea and scones are consumed. It’s a strange contrast, but it works.
Pleiti is a scholar of “Classical” studies, which refers to the ecosystems and lifeforms of Earth. Their ultimate goal is to restore and reseed the ruined planet in preparation for the return of humans, though that possibility seems quite remote. The other major department is for “Modern” studies which refers to the environment of Giant and how to manage it for human habitation. As a symbol of the possible return to Earth, a living museum of animal and plant life forms has been constructed on one set of platforms, called informally the mauzooleum. Since Bolean seems to have departed from there on his apparently final journey, Mossa and Pleiti go there to question the staff. When Mossa is attacked by a wild cat, a caracal, she becomes convinced there is more going on than a simple disappearance.
Aside from the mystery of the disappearance, the center of the story is the relationship between Mossa and Pleiti. Mossa is the slightly Holmsian detective, astute but tight-lipped, keeping most of her speculation to herself. From Pleiti, we learn that she and Mossa had had a relationship in university days, but both now are extremely tentative about renewing it. Yet the attraction of Pleiti comes through in several beautiful scenes when her breath is taken away anytime she comes close to Mossa or has to touch her skin. It’s a wonderfully understated re-emergence of feelings that Pleiti is never sure of and that Mossa hardly acknowledges at all, leaving them both fumbling through their rather formal way of speaking to each other.
Both the mystery and the relationship come to their different conclusions in a well paced narrative full of insights into human nature. There are marvelous incidental descriptions that perfectly capture a character.
“Frefor was one of those men who must always make noises before they speak, like a short runway allowing their thoughts to launch.”The Mimicking of Known Successes, Kindle edition, Location 848
In a sense, The Mimicking of Known Successes is about human daring. Having expunged, apparently, the earlier drive to exploit and profit from all resources, which led humans to destroy the Earth, what should people be striving for in their dream and ultimate goal of returning to their home planet? Should it be a restoration of things as they had been, that is, the “known successes” of the past growth of life, or a going back to first principles to foster something different? That idea is also applicable to the relationship between Mossa and Pleiti. Should they try to rekindle the love they had in university days, which did not end well, or should they try for something new that is adapted to who they are now? That’s a beautiful blending of parallel themes in this deeply charming and involving novel. Highly recommended.
My thanks to Tordotcom and Net Galley for an advance review copy of The Mimicking of Known Successes as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.