Buried Deep by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Cover art by Greg Bridges
Published by Roc Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the very first volume of the Retrieval Artist series we met the Disty, one of the fifty alien species that are humanity's trading partners in the Earth Alliance. Although physically small and frail, they are feared because of their brutal and vindictive legal system, in which intent means nothing and even small children are treated as fully culpable for trespasses that may not even make sense by human standards. In fact, there are a fair number of humans who regard the Disty as moral monsters and humanity's cooperation with their legal system a travesty of justice. However, in The Disappeared the cases which involved the Disty were relatively minor subplots which helped to make the reader aware of how the Multicultural Tribunal system (a system that would make any transnationalist progressivist smile) works and just how truly alien the cultures of other species are. An alienness that raises serious questions of whether the aliens really are Rubber Forehead Aliens, literary standins for the Other in human society, or if they're really extrapolations of the possible inhabitants of exoplanets but a stupid or malicious human government is insisting on acting as if they were just Rubber Forehead Aliens and humans who transgress their laws just aren't putting out the necessary effort to learn the laws, rather than the laws not being learnable by human minds.
In this novel the Disty move front and center as the story takes us to Mars, a planet they have controlled for several generations. However, a sizeable population of humans has remained, whether from inertia or lack of the wherewithal to relocate to a human-controlled world, be it Earth, the Moon or one of the Outer Worlds (various settled exoplanets). As a result, although all humans on Mars are technically subject to Disty law, the human areas have a degree of self-government that allows them to have a legal system that makes sense to human social hardwiring. As a result, Sahara Dome has a human-style police department to deal with cases of human-on-human crime.
However, because humans hold only part of the domed city, there's a constant problematic cultural interface between human and Disty that is fraught with peril. Even a small error, however inadvertant, in interpreting a situation can easily result in mass reprisals, not just against the culprit but also against anyone connected to that person by ties that may well make sense only to a Disty.
Sharon Scott-Olson is a detective for the human police force at Sahara Dome. When she's called to look at a body that's been discovered at a construction site, she expects it to be a fairly routine accident. But no, it turns out that this is a body that's been long hidden in the Martian sand under Sahara Dome, and as a result its presence impinges upon the powerful taboos the Disty have about death.
It's been long known that the Disty have some very strange and frightening rituals related to death. The same Death Squads who handle executions (always horrifically bloody by human standards and always highly ritualized) also function as the undertakers and morticians of Disty culture. The Disty view death as creating a powerful and highly contagious metaphysical contamination, such that even just sharing a conversation with a contaminated Disty can be sufficient to render one contaminated and capable of spreading contamination by any contact with others, however slight or remote.
In normal cases the Death Squad clears the contamination quickly and easily, before it can strengthen or spread. But because this skeleton has lain hidden beneath the previous buildings for decades, the contamination has become extensive and pervasive. If the deceased can be identified and relatives located, the rituals will be tedious and time-consuming, but not particularly nasty. However, if no family can be located, a different ritual must be used that instead involves the individuals who found the body. That ritual kills most Disty who participate in it and is pretty much non-survivable for a human due to physiological differences. Desperate to avoid a slow and agonizing demise in a Disty ritual, Scott-Olson sets about the process of identifying the body.
On the Moon, the people of Armstrong Dome are still dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist bomb intended to disrupt diplomatic meetings related to a decades-over civil war. Those people include Miles Flint, Retrieval Artist, a man who seeks the Disappeared not to see them punished, but to bring them happy news of a pardon or an inheritance. So when he's approached by a woman just in from Mars who has a note on her file that indicates she's crosswise with the Disty, he's loathe to get involved. After one of the cases that led to his departure from the Armstrong Police Department, he's pretty much convinced that the Disty are a bunch of bloodthirsty maniacs.
However, when he learns that his services may be critical in saving a bunch of human police officers and construction workers from death in a Disty cleansing ritual, his attitude changes. Even as he begins investigating, the situation at Sahara Dome takes a turn for the worse.
To ensure they knew the limits of the contamination, the Disty government demanded that the humans dig several times deeper and show there are no more bodies. Everybody assumes it's just a pro forma exercise -- until they're almost at the required depth and find another body. And another. And another. Soon they have an enormous mass grave on their hands, and evidence of a massacre.
The result among the Disty is panic and mass exodus. But in their flight the contaminated Disty carry the contamination with them, spreading it everywhere they go and resulting in an ever expanding circle of disaster. Everything the humans try to do only creates worse carnage, both Disty and human, and the Disty government is talking of treating humanity as a whole as being guilty in this disaster. A war of extermination looms a a very real possibility.
The trail leads Miles to a story of a long-ago blood purge among human settlers, before Mars was handed over to the Disty. It's an ugly story of fear, hatred and cruelty, but it also carries the hope for an end to the Disty panic, a restoration of the Contaminated Disty to mainstream Disty society, and survival for the humans who uncovered the whole sordid story.
Since this story focuses less upon Disty notions of justice and more on the peculiarities of their death customs, the question of how much of their culture's peculiarities arises from their biology isn't such a fraught question. So it's a tense page-turner that doesn't leave you struggling to decide whether the Disty are Rubber Forehead Aliens or a real effot to extrapolate a nonhuman intelligence that, as John W. Campbell put it, "thinks as well as a man but not like a man."
Review posted December 22, 2011.
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