The Mimicking of Known Successes – by Malka Older

Looking for something quick, enjoyable, and possibly science-fictiony? Here’s what I’ve found: a mystery on a space outpost, sapphic main characters, a good blend of cosiness and old-timey noir vibes.

Title: The Mimicking of Known Successes

Author: Malka Older

Publication Date: 7 March 2023

Genre: Science Fiction – Mystery

Pages: 169

Standalone or Series: Mossa & Pleiti #1

Representation: Main characters in a sapphic relationship

Content Warning: Death – Suicide – Murder – Violence – Climate change

Synopsis

The Mimicking of Known Successes presents a cozy Holmesian murder mystery and sapphic romance, set on Jupiter, by Malka Older, author of the critically-acclaimed Centenal Cycle.

On a remote, gas-wreathed outpost of a human colony on Jupiter, a man goes missing. The enigmatic Investigator Mossa follows his trail to Valdegeld, home to the colony’s erudite university—and Mossa’s former girlfriend, a scholar of Earth’s pre-collapse ecosystems.

Pleiti has dedicated her research and her career to aiding the larger effort towards a possible return to Earth. When Mossa unexpectedly arrives and requests Pleiti’s assistance in her latest investigation, the two of them embark on a twisting path in which the future of life on Earth is at stake—and, perhaps, their futures, together.

Analysis

Form & Style: The Mimicking of Known Successes is a short novella very loosely inspired by Holmesian murder mysteries; as such, after a short introduction in third person, it features a first-person narrator who’s not directly leading the investigation, but is still following its development from close due to her personal relationship with the detective.

The writing might sound perhaps a bit too pompous for someone’s inner monologue – until you remember that Pleiti, our narrator, is indeed an academic who spends her life perusing ancient books for minute bits of information.

I was more alarmed by her use of “futuristic” interjections (Radiations and recombinants, anyone?), although fortunately their occurrences were sparse enough to be negligible – and for clarity, I am all for innovative slang and expressions, as long as they sound like something that could have naturally develop in common speech… which, if you ask me, does not apply to recombinants, no matter how big of a science nerd you are.

Setting: The story is set on a space colony orbiting around a gas giant, built by humans escaping the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem. At the time of our events, most people are still clinging to a steadfast hope to go back to what they still consider their home, even though the feasibility of such a project is unclear, and definitely not imminent.

Now, you might think such a premise would be conducive of a bleak, unwelcoming setting, however its rendition is anything but that. Indeed, while living spaces are described as cramped, and there’s some ongoing debate on the use of resources, the narrator indulges in cosy descriptions of quaint cafes and restaurants, steaming cups of tea, yummy scones, as well as on small moments of intimacy and comfort. Moreover, despite its very futuristic technology, the colony is suffused with a vaguely rétro atmosphere that adds a layer of melancholic sweetness to the setting. The future the book portrays has plenty of implied tragedies, but it’s still pleasant enough for your escapistic needs.

Is the worldbuilding entirely believable from a technological or sociological point of you? Probably not wo much. The book, however, was never meant to discuss the opportunity or feasibility of a space station on a gas giant; instead, it was designed to be a comfort read with a charming and unusual ambience, and it absolutely succeeds at that.

Although there’s one bit I can’t really figure out – if the planet is identical to Jupiter, and is regularly referred to as Jupiter by all official blurbs and synopses, why do the characters call it Giant?

Characters: Our two main characters, Mossa and Pleiti, share the spotlight more or less equally. While their dynamic was meant to recall that between Holmes and Watson, it’s easy to notice how the balance between the two is less uneven: sure, Pleiti doesn’t miss a chance to admire Mossa’s brilliance and dedication, however she’s far from a mere observer herself; while Mossa is the one appointed to solve the case, in several occasions Pleiti provides her own precious insight, and is as involved as her companion in figuring out the mystery.

The two are depicted as having somehow conflicting personalities – Mossa being a cold and single-minded workaholic, Pleiti being warmer and more empathetic, but also more in need of care and attention. This is not to say they are polar opposites: both are in fact clever and observant, as well as passionate about their own inquiries.

Mossa and Pleiti used to date as college students, however their relationship failed due to their personal flaws; meeting once again after several years, they find themselves once again fascinated by each other – perhaps enough to give it another go? I must say, I am not usually a fan of romances between characters with clashing personalities, however in this case their conflict seems of the kind that could indeed be overcome by their increased maturity and self-awareness; Mossa herself is a decent example of how to write a cold and aloof love interest without making them utterly toxic – so yeah, I am willing to give these two ladies a chance.

Plot: The Mimicking of Known Successes is, structurally speaking, a fairly traditional murder mystery, with clues to follow, more or less reliable witnesses, and a final confrontation. The setting, however, does not play a merely aesthetic role: without spoiling anything that matters, I’ll just say that the mystery is in fact strictly tied with other essential elements of the worldbuilding, and that’s definitely part of its appeal. I enjoyed following Mossa and Pleiti in their investigation, not just because how the mystery was unraveled, but because more facets of the world were revealed in the process.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: While this book is primarily meant to be an entertaining comfort read, it does come with a few fairly interesting themes. First of all, it portrays a world at once bleak and hopeful; where Earth has been turned into a toxic wasteland, but where humanity lives on, in a not entirely graceless exile. This way, the novel acknowledges current issues and responsibilities, while still providing a pleasant-enough scenario for our imagination. The hypotheses discussed in universe on how to preserve life forms and ideally repopulate Earth are interesting enough in terms of worldbuilding, even thought at a first sight their relevance doesn’t go beyond the realm of abstract speculation – what would be more feasible, from a colony on Jupiter? To rebuild Earth’s original biomes as faithfully as possible, or to look for a different, but hopefully still functional, environmental balance? Honestly I have no strong opinion on that. Leaving aside the specifics, however, the theme of being divided between past and future, between the sirens of nostalgia and the need of accepting change with all its promises and challenges, goes well beyond the sci-fi premises, applying to the lives and feelings of the main characters, and perhaps a bit to our own as well.

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