I’m way ahead of the publication date for this one, but I couldn’t resist jumping right into The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by the remarkable Malka Older. This is Book 2 of the Investigations of Mossa and Pleiti, my favorite detective couple since Holmes and Watson, and it’s another beautiful and charming story. As in The Mimicking of Known Successes, this short novel begins with a prologue from the point of view of Mossa, the supersleuth, that sets out the basic story.
People have been disappearing from Giant, the new home for humanity constructed on vast rings around Jupiter, and Mossa is on her way to Valdegeld, the university town where the missing persons live. It is also the home of her friend and lover Pleiti, who is a scholar at the campus. The prologue lets us know that an equally strong motive for the trip is a chance to spend time with Pleiti. The rest of the story is told in first person by Pleiti, who is always most interested in interpreting every gesture and tone of voice by Mossa to see if her brilliant friend really wants to be with her.
Their relationship is, of course, the heart of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, but it is skillfully interwoven with the investigation of the missing persons. Pleiti’s narrative, couched in her fairly academic style, captures the full range of her endless and endearing analysis of every detail of Mossa’s behavior as she tries to interpret whether her lover wants to stay with her or only needs her to assist in an investigation. And Mossa is equally careful about not making assumptions about Pleiti. For example, when Mossa raises the idea of Pleiti possibly helping her in this, their second investigation together, she phrases it abstractly about a policy for investigators working with people who do not have the same training. Naturally the elements of this policy, as she carefully lays them out, fit Pleiti perfectly.
Since the story unfolds as Pleiti’s narrative, it is her careful gathering of facts about the missing that we get closest to. Mossa’s method seems more intuitive, and she can find the patterns in Pleiti’s data, often keeping her conclusions to herself until she can reveal a major piece of the puzzle. Like any good mystery, the search for clues about the whereabouts of the missing persons brings out a great deal about the society and the structures that have permitted humans to live in the most hostile settings of the solar system.
For me, one of the triumphs of this series is the envisioning of the settlements around Giant, and we learn a lot more about them as well as the earliest human settlements in the Jupiter system. It turns out that humans first settled on the highly volcanic moon of Io when fleeing a ruined Earth, and stayed there until the vast construction of rings and platforms around Giant permitted settlements to be constructed there. But some families stayed on Io, where Mossa came from, and there is a mutual dislike between settlers of the two worlds. The people of Io, who live amid constantly erupting volcanoes and tremors that shake the ground underfoot, are proud of their pioneer status, even though they are looked down on by the people of Giant who regard them as country cousins. Some Ionians descended from the wealthy corporate leaders, now held in disgrace, who had taken settlers on as indentured servants, and were also held responsible for much of the destruction of Earth’s resources. Local transportation on Io depends on a road system, protected from lava flows and earthquakes (though not enough to reassure Pleiti) along which buggy-like battery powered cars are guided by human drivers.
We also get more detail about the system of rings and rails surrounding Jupiter, the variety of platforms sustaining human settlement and the railcars that enable transportation among the many towns and cities. There is also more detail about the major divisions of study at Valdegeld University. Pleiti is a scholar in the Classical department, devoted to careful reconstruction of the ecosystems that made life on Earth possible. The Modern scholars focus on the methods essential to sustain life on Giant, and the Speculative faculty, which developed the remarkable system of space stations, great rings around Jupiter and platforms on which farming, factories and cities could be constructed, is also responsible for devising the methods for bringing the human population back to Earth when it is deemed safe to do so.
Despite the violence of Jupiter/Giant’s atmosphere, where storms often rage and the sky can be a sulfurous yellow, the rooms Pleiti and Mossa spend a lot of time in, especially Pleiti’s quarters at the university, are quite cozy. While they can only navigate the outdoors with the help of atmoshields and atmoscarfs, Mossa and Pleiti have access indoors to plenty of tea and scones, comfortable couches and beds, frequent hot baths and plenty of interesting food.
I could spend hours listening to Pleiti’s worries and distractions about her relationship with Mossa. At one point, she compares it to the romances of Modern love stories – Modern in the sense of the period of Giant settlement. Was separation necessary for romance, she wonders, as it featured heavily in stories about lovers longing for each other across great distances between space stations and moons or platforms around Giant. Of course, Mossa and Pleiti are separated only by a much shorter rail journey between Valdegeld and Sembla, where Mossa now lives. She catches herself going round and round wondering if obstacles, real or imagined, were necessary for love to flourish. Perhaps that explained why she could never feel satisfied, even when they were easy together, and she was clearly happier than when they were apart? I suppose that’s the way of most relationships, that doubts persist despite all evidence to the contrary, but there is a kind of Chekovian humor in Pleiti’s reflections and worries that draws me in completely.
If there is any flaw in The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, it’s that the story is a little too short and the mystery in this case a little less complex and dangerous than its predecessor. But I still loved it and hope to read many more investigations of Mossa and Pleiti. It’s a brilliant series.
My thanks to Tordotcom and Net Galley for an advance review copy of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.