REVIEW: Alien Crimes edited by Mike Resnick
REVIEW SUMMARY: A worthy successor to Down These Dark Spaceways.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology of six original science fiction mystery novellas.
PROS: Five novellas good or better; two of them standouts.
CONS: One story was too long and moved too slowly.
BOTTOM LINE: Another enjoyable anthology of detective fiction from Resnick.
In his new anthology, Alien Crimes, Mike Resnick follows up his previous (and slightly better) hard-boiled detective fiction anthology, Down These Dark Spaceways, by challenging authors to write crime fiction that is specifically not hard-boiled. I am continually amazed at how such an objective can yield stories of such varying topics. But perhaps this is more a statement on the science fiction genre itself than on the sub-sub-sub genre of non-hard-boiled detective sf.
All stories presented here are, as advertised, science fiction mystery stories (even though the Williams story starts out as fantasy). However, the mystery element appears in varying degrees. Some stories are constructed as classic mysteries, others are science fiction stories based around a crime. In any case, only one story (“Dark Heaven”) failed to entertain. The standout stories here are “Nothing Personal” by Pat Cadigan and “A Locked-Planet Mystery” by Mike Resnick.
STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:
- “Nothing Personal” by Pat Cadigan [2007 novella]
- Synopsis: A middle age detective and her new partner investigate the murder of a young girl.
- Review: Marked by great characterizations and swift storytelling, this present-day mystery is a wonderful treat. Ruby Tsung, the middle-aged protagonist, is fully-fleshed out through interesting and relevant background details about her life; like her strained relationship with her former partner Rita, who warns Ruby that she should quit the detective game before she suffers a mental breakdown. It just might be too late since Ruby has been feeling “The Dread” creeping up on her for some time. When a new young victim is found brutally murdered – the latest in a string of murders – the feeling becomes even worse. So much time was spent on Ruby’s ruminations of The Dread that it began to feel like unnecessary padding. But that proved false in Cadigan’s capable hands which made The Dread as much a character as any other – and germane to the story. Ruby’s new partner, the young Rafe Pasco formerly of the fraud and cybercrime division, seems like an unlikely fit for Ruby’s style and experience, but does seem to know his stuff. Rafe’s experience provides the science fiction element here, the way of which is a spoilery plot element, so I will not divulge it (even though the book jacket’s description of the story does – don’t read that!). Until that time, you won’t realize that you’ve been cleverly fed clues along the way. And by story’s end, you’ll want more time with Cadigan’s cool premise. Well done!
- “A Locked-Planet Mystery” by Mike Resnick [2007 novella]
- Synopsis: Jake Masters investigates the murder of the chairman of the Braaglmich Cartel on the chlorine planet Graydawn.
- Review: This follows the traditional crime fiction format where the detective has gathered all of the suspects in a confined location – in this case, an air-filled dome on an otherwise uninhabited chlorine planet – and grills them to zero in on the culprit. There are seven suspects: one human; a Thrale, political enemies of humans; and five tripodal Gaborians, one of those the victim’s doctor, one his successor. Jake Masters, who we first met in the hugely enjoyable “Guardian Angel” in Resnick’s other sf crime anthology Down These Dark Spaceways, is more than capable of handling the crime and his logic and reasoning make sense. His interrogations are entertaining in that the mystery it builds up is sound. It is also educational as he breaks in his alien “partner”, a purple beach-ball-looking alien named Mxwensil (Max, for short) who hired him to find the killer. Resnick drops enough clues for the reader to figure out the mystery, though par for the course, I personally didn’t figure it out ahead of time. Interestingly, after the identity of the culprit was revealed, the focus shifted on getting them to incriminate themselves. Good stuff, but it would have been nice to have an actual motive instead of it being explained away as something too alien to understand and, therefore, not worth finding out. But otherwise, this was yet another top-notch story from Resnick.
- “Hoxbomb” by Harry Turtledove [2007 novella]
- Synopsis: Sergeant John Paul Kling must work with an alien to solve a crime that used terrorist methods often employed by those aliens.
- Review: This is less of a detective partner story than it sounds; much of the footwork done by Kling and his alien partner – dubbed Miss Murple because of the obvious reference and because the alien language consists of unrecognizable screeches – is done separately. That makes sense insofar that the Snarre’t are significantly different than humans. (As if the reverse spelling weren’t indication enough.) Humans excel at technology and surveillance, to the point that make today’s privacy concerns seem laughable. The Snarre’t are better at biotech since that complements their keen sense of smell. Of course, the crime is solved through teamwork, no easy task as there is an uneasy truce between species and prejudice is the order of the day. Tutledove’s prose makes prolific use of analogies (“Bald Ones knew as much about genetics as Snarre’t knew about popup-blocking software.”) that are used for black humor (mostly) and to highlight those inter-species differences. In any case, they were occasionally distracting to the otherwise quick-moving plot. (“You got dark comedy in my science fiction!” “You got science fiction in my dark comedy!”) For those who are interested in such things, the story also draws upon the real-life political climate when you consider the inclusion of weapons of mass destruction, prejudice between species/nations and the Big Brother security methods used by humans. This gives a little depth to a story that’s already a good read and something that author is obviously having a good time writing.
- “End of the World” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch [2007 novella]
- Synopsis: Officer Becca Keller investigates a grim discovery (that may involve aliens) at an ancient desert resort that her ex-husband, Chase, is renovating.
- Review: The story is told in two alternating plot threads: the first, taking place in the present, follows Becca as she investigates the crime scene at the desert resort named End of the World; the second, taking place nearly 100 years before, follows young Sarah, last of a shape-shifting alien species running for her life. Together they tell the story of the atrocity that happened at the resort. This storytelling method worked quite well for the story as each thread supplied its own level of suspense. With Becca, it was in discovering the cause of the crime. But even though Becca is given some depth through much – sometimes longwinded – description of her relationship with her ex-husband, it seemed that her character was less of a detective and more of a bystander. Her storyline read more like historical mystery than it did a whodunit; it definitely didn’t read like science fiction unless maybe you count a town legend involving aliens. With Sarah, however, the alien who befriends a black man named Jess Taylor, the element of suspense was in following their escape from threatening townspeople, driven to murder by fear of what they do not understand. This thread was more interesting as it involved some drama (a chase, angry townspeople, shape-shifting aliens, racial prejudice) and the wonder of how it connects with the latter-day story. Along the way, Rusch weaves the theme of Hope in both storylines and, in case you didn’t get the hint, even names the Oregon town in which it occurs “Hope”.
- “Dark Heaven” by Gregory Benford [2007 novella]
- Synopsis: Homicide Detective McKenna investigates the murder of a Gulf Coast fisherman whose death just might be related to the amphibious aliens that have taken up residence nearby.
- Review: This was a way-too-long story about a crime whose investigation moved way-too-slowly. McKenna, occasionally lamenting about his deceased wife, uses his experience as a fisherman to gain confidence with the locals – who continually proceed to finger him for what he is and offer him nothing. And the Centauri aliens are apparently being guarded by the feds, offering yet another dead end for our protagonist. At times, it was a race to see whether McKenna would give up the case before I gave up reading the story. The only pertinent science fictional element – the aliens – was withheld for the majority of the story until the disappointing payoff at the end. Was this story an attempt to seem “Literary” by avoiding sf tropes in favor of longwinded passages about life, the sea and growing old? I don’t know, but the result was not very entertaining. Benford can do – and has done – better than this.
- “Womb of Every World” by Walter Jon Williams [2007 novella]
- Synopsis: A swordsman named Aristide and his talking cat, Bitsy, enlist a team of ogres and trolls to battle a marauding troop of bandits in a fantasy setting. Or is it?
- Review: Williams, who specializes in untraditional science fiction, has created an ambitious novella (140 pages!) that’s two parts fantasy and three parts mind-blowing sf. The opening sequence – a fantasy involving a swordsman, a band or orcs and trolls, magic swords and pools of reincarnation – is itself novella-sized. As might be suspected in an anthology with the theme of alien crimes, all is not what it appears to be in fantasyland. I am hesitant to give away pertinent plot points whose discoveries are part of the fun, but suffice it to say that the reader will realize something is amiss with a setting that has a sun that never sets and references “implied spaces”. When the world changes, as it were, mentions of Vingean Singularities, Asimovian Safeguards and pocket universes will make the sf reader feel more at home. To a point. Williams’ universe if filled with ideas that require acclimation time, so much so that the mystery plot (generically speaking: involving kidnapping, private wormholes and evil Gods) takes a back seat. Put another way: the story succeeds more as Big Idea Science Fiction than it does as a mystery. Looking at the story in retrospect shows how cleverly crafted it was, but I can’t help feeling that I was on the outside looking in. This is especially evident when Aristide, posing as a potential victim for the unknown criminals, flits through twenty or so pages of waiting, unsuccessfully, for someone to take the bait.
- Note: My recollection is fuzzy, but this might be set in the same universe as his well-received story “Incarnation Day“. It certainly shares some of the same tropes, which shall go nameless for fear of spoilage.
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