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Justice in an alien universe

“The Retrieval Artist” series:
Justice in an alien universe

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I read speculative and science fiction in addition to literary fiction, to the bemusement of some of my friends. I recently finished an anthology of fantasy fiction (a sub-genre of sci-fi) that led to the discovery of several fine writers, including Michael Swanwick. He has a large presence online and is a master of the short short story. The story by Swanwick included in the anthology, Years Best Fantasy 3, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, is “Cecil Rhodes in Hell.” You can read that wee but wonderful tale here.

About the same time, readerholic me snapped up Kristine Kathryn Rusch‘s Extremes: A Retrieval Artist Novel from the sci-fi shelf at Fred Meyer, when I was supposed to be buying groceries. (There are always more books in my humble abode than food.) The book is about a specialized kind of detective. In a future world, humans co-exist with equally intelligent aliens. However, their interactions sometimes lead to cultural clashes. The penalty for some of those conflicts, approved by intergalactic law, is death for humans convicted of some crimes against aliens. The role of a retrieval artist is to locate the “disappeared,” humans who have assumed new identities to hide from alien justice. The anti-hero of Extremes is Frieda Tey, a brilliant scientist and human terrorist. She challenges the capabilities of three protagonists, Noelle De Ricci, a police detective, Miriam Oliviari, a bounty hunter, and a retrieval artist, Miles Flint. They must cope with the crime she has recently committed, which threatens a colony of thousands on the moon.

Tey’s goal is to challenge humans to use their maximum potential so they will excel in comparison to aliens. Her method is to frighten humans into performing better by forcing them to risk death if they don’t. Extremes addresses the matter of just how far xenophobic people are willing to go to obtain dominance over the Other. The book also raises questions about what justice is in worlds where different beings have different values. Though the book is set in a sci-fi universe, it invokes issues important to understanding our roles in our own world.

My curiosity was peaked enough for me to seek out the first book in the series, The Disappeared. Three cases of human-alien conflict shape the novel. The most compelling involves children who are being taken from their parents as recompense for crimes their parents committed against the Wygnin, aliens who use forced adoption as a form of punishment. The aliens do have legitimate complaints. Their choice of restitution is rearing human children, and sometimes adults, as members of their own society. The typical human reaction to this alien justice is that it isn’t fair. However, if deprived of their adoptees, the aliens will have been wronged without a remedy. That isn’t fair either.

With Extremes and The Disappeared under my belt, I wanted to read the short story that started the series. Rusch published “The Retrieval Artist” in Analog Magazine three years ago. Fellow writers and editors urged her to expand the story into a novel, which became The Disappeared. It, in turn, begat Extremes. There will likely be more books in the series. I tracked down “The Retrieval Artist” at an ebook publisher and purchased a download. The short story proved useful to me as both a reader and a writer. Writers don’t always know where their work product is headed. Rusch considered “The Retrieval Artist” self-contained when she wrote it. So, she was faced with reconciling subsequent works derived from it with it and each other. For example, in the short story, Miles Flint is an experienced retrieval artist and independently wealthy. She explains how he became a retrieval artist and acquired his wealth in The Disappeared. Perhaps because she wanted to delve more into the isolated Flint’s personality, he and De Ricci, his former partner when he was a police detective, appear to have a much closer relationship in Extremes than they do in The Disappeared. Rusch does not try to reconcile everything among the works, which I believe is a wise decision. It is better to leave loose ends than to resolve them in an awkward way. I hope I recall this lesson if I ever try to turn one of my published short stories into a novella or novel.

A qualm I had as a reader of Extremes is addressed in “The Retrieval Artist” and The Disappeared. The book seemed to imply that aliens were more likely to be evil than humans. That is a misconception I was corrected in regard to when I read the earlier works. The villains in both are human.

This series raises important issues in what some would dismiss as an inferior form of writing. As I’ve said before, genre fiction can sometimes rise above the paltry expectations people have of it. Rusch’s works often do. I recommend the retrieval artist series as both good reading and a window into how writers develop their works.

Note: My blog is Mac-a-ro-nies. So far, I haven’t written anything about pasta, but I’m keeping the option open.

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