Legal Stuff

Consequences by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Cover art by Greg Bridges

Published by Roc Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Consequences is the third installment in the Retrieval Artist series, science fiction mysteries set in a future in which humanity shares the Earth Alliance with fifty other sapient species and a system of Multicultural Tribunals adjudicate disputes. Because many of these species have notions of justice that are vastly different from human ones, such that people have been condemned to grotesque punishments for things that don't even register as potentially problematic to human social hardwiring, there's a fair amount of dissatisfaction with the system. As a result, a system of Disappearance Services have grown up to allow such individuals to make a new start on another world. The protagonist, Miles Flint, was a cop until he got fed up with having to enforce alien laws in direct conflict with his human moral code, and particularly when alien judgements against adults are acted out on the bodies and psyches of children. He then became a Retrieval Artist, working to help the Disappeared get the news of such things as inheritances or revisions in their cases. It's a delicate task, since the very act of asking questions, even to computer systems, can attract the attention of alien legal systems that don't appreciate being thwarted.

One of the things that bothered me about the original book was the continual feeling that the various alien species were being treated as though they were just Rubber Forehead Aliens, literary standins for the Other within human society, when there was strong evidence that they were truly alien in their deep-level patterns of thought, along the lines of Robert A. Heinlein's Old Martians, H. P. Lovecraft's eldritch entities, and Stanislaw Lem's sentient planet of Solaris. If human society within the fictional universe was insisting on treating them as Rubber Forehead Aliens and willfully ignoring evidence that these species' societies and legal systems couldn't be parsed by human minds, then that novel would be a second-order idiot plot, that is, a work of speculative fiction that only works because the entire imagined society functions in an idiotic fashion. On the other hand, if the writer were failing to distinguish between the use of aliens as standins for the Other within human society and aliens as extrapolation of possible inhabitants of exoplanets, that would be sloppy worldbuilding.

The second novel, Extremes, ameleorated this problem by shifting the focus onto the use and abuse of the Disappearance system within human society, particularly in cases where there is a question of whether high emotions and a rush to judgment might have led to a gross miscarriage of justice. This novel seems to be following that pattern of keeping the alien cultures (and thus the question of whether the differences of their cultures from human ones is purely a matter of learned behaviors or if it involves neurological hardwiring) at arms' length.

When we first meet Miles in this novel, he's overseeing the joyous reunion of a woman with her long-estranged parents. The story then jumps backward six months to how her parents first approached him, and how he investigated them to ensure that they would not endanger her, whether deliberately or by carelessness. In the process by which he learns about Judge and Dr. Lahiri and their motives for finding their daughter, they reveal the process by they drove their daugter to become involved in a civil war on a distant planet in an effort to prove her worthiness by their standards. A human war, although there were some aliens involved in the begining, but their daughter's case was after that and inolves only human cultures.

So Miles agrees to take on the case and it ends in that happy reunion we saw earlier. All's well that ends well, as they say -- except who's this assassin who's killing people on other worlds? Why are his actions important to the story?

Meanwhile, Noelle DiRicci who had been Miles' partner back in his law-enforcement days has been put in charge of security for an important diplomatic meeting. Etea, a planet notorious for its bloodstained history of civil war, has petitioned to join the Earth Alliance, arguing they've established a stable government and should no longer be pariahs in the interstellar scene. However, there is also a vocal contigent who regard this government as too close to the crimes of that civil war, and thus too bloodstained to be morally legitimate.

And just as Miles is coming down from the Lahiri case, he's approached by investigative reporter Ki Bowles. She is following a case of a woman who has discovered her entire childhood was a lie and who wants to find the truth. Miles warns Ki that if this woman was in fact Disappeared as an infant, the very act of trying to find the truth could put her in grave danger. Several alien species carry out justice on the bodies and psyches of the culprits' children, not caring that those children may have had no part in their parents' crimes and may be harmed terribly in the process.

And then Miles gets word that the Lahiris, father, mother, and daughter, have all been brutally killed. Feeling responsible for their deaths, he begins to investigate. DiRicci confronts him, concerned that he may well use his knowledge and connections to Disappear rather than face the consequences for his involvement in the case. However, he reassures her that he has no intention of running away from his problems. No, he intends to pursue this matter until he gets answers.

And pursue he does, straight into a tangled web of secrets and lies that all lead back to the Etean civil war. A matter that also has bearing upon Ki's mysterious woman who wants to know the truth about her childhood.

In this novel we get some new information that upsets some assumptions I'd had about the Retrieval Artist universe. For instance, it's set a lot further into the future than I'd surmised from the first two novels. I'd assumed that some major breakthrough along the lines of Travis S. Taylor's Warp Speed had suddenly opened interstellar travel to humanity and it's maybe a century or so in the future. After all, Armstrong Dome is named for the first man to walk on the Moon -- but in this novel we discover it's been so many centuries that everything's been forgotten about those days except Armstrong's name. Nothing's remembered about Neil Armstrong the man, and Buzz Aldrin's been completely forgotten. When one of the characters is referred to as playing golf at a well-known lunar golf course, there's no sense that anyone remembers who was the first person to play golf on the Moon (Alan Shepard, commander of Apollo 14, who was also the first American in space). Even more telling, the Moon's political capital is located at Taurus-Littrow, but there's no awareness that it was the landing site of Apollo 17, the last lunar landing of the twentieth century, to be followed by a decades-long hiatus.

Review posted December 22, 2011.

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