Legal Stuff

Extremes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Cover art by Greg Bridges

Published by Roc Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In the future, humanity has made contact with fifty different alien species, each with its own distinct biology and culture. The Earth Alliance, a loose confederation of worlds established to help facilitate commerce by ensuring the uniform enforcement of laws, has taken a position that each species' laws will have force within its own territory, and all persons of all species who visit those territories will be responsible for the breach of those laws. It sounds simple and commonsensical enough -- until one considers that many of the other races have laws so radically different from human culture as to be incomprehensible to humans, such that a human may suddenly discover him or herself to be facing a possible death sentence for something as trifling as walking along the wrong path by a river or stepping on a flower.

As a result, many people who have run afoul of bizarre alien legal systems have fled into hiding rather than submit to what they regard as a travesty of justice. There is just enough grass-roots support for their position, in spite of the official government position of multiculturalism, that an entire industry has sprung up on the edges of the law to help people Disappear into hiding sufficiently well that they cannot be found by a casual search. However, not everybody who Disappears is necessarily on the run from incomprehensible alien laws.

The novel begins with a race across the lunar surface, the famous Armstrong Marathon. Since it's held on the open surface, Outside as the lunar residents call it, the participants must wear complete environmental suits, creating an additional challenge beyond the usual ones of a distance run. Simple things such as striking a sharp rock that causes the suit to depressurize or the kinking of an oxygen hose can have deadly consequences. Thus when a runner finds a fellow runner, his business partner in an outfit known as Extreme Enterprises, lying by the side of the course, it doesn't immediately ring alarm bells. It's only when the cops arrive and see all the things about the body that don't add up that they begin to realize that they aren't looking at an accident, but a murder investigation.

Meanwhile, former police detective turned Retrieval Artist Miles Flint is hard up for cases when a young woman from a major law firm arrives in his office, claiming that she wants to hire him based upon his excellent ethical record. Uneasy about all the buttering up, Flint sends her on her way. However, it is not long before he is approached by one of the senior partners of the firm, who finally manages to present sufficient bona fides that Flint decides to listen to him.

Wagner wants Flint to look into the sudden death of another Retrieval Artist he was using on an inheritance case. This Retrieval Artist was trying to find a scientist whose father had bequeathed his entire inheritance to her for the purpose of clearing her name of charges he believed to be false.

Frieda Tey had been working on an epidemiological study on the movement of communicable viruses through a population. It involved setting up a temporary habitat dome on Io in which two hundred healthy test subjects agreed to live for a set period of time. During that time a common cold virus, annoying but generally not dangerous for healthy subjects, would be introduced into the population and its transmission patterns would be mapped.

However, something went disastrously wrong. The virus sample was contaminated, resulting in a rapid mutation into a deadly virus that swept through the population with alarming speed. When the subjects tried to flee in hopes of finding a cure elsewhere, Tey sealed the airlocks and refused to allow anyone to leave, citing the danger of mass infection should the mutated virus be transmitted to the general population, resulting in a raging pandemic of lethal proportions. All two hundred of her volunteers subsequently died, and she was accused of mass murder. Some people believed that she was guilty of nothing more than bad luck and failure to die alongside the victims trying however futilely to save them. Others accused her of having deliberately introduced the mutation and coldly recording their agonies without making any effort to save them, thus portraying her as someone on the moral level of Josef Mengele or the organizers of the Tuskeegee Syphilis Study.

In any case, she did not stick around to face the consequences. As soon as it became clear that she would be tried, she vanished. She did not avail herself of any of the various Disappearance services, but did it on her own. Many regarded it as an admission of guilt, and thus considered it not at all surprising that she was convicted in absentia of the deaths of all two hundred of her test subjects. Her two assistants were also convicted and, since they did not follow their boss into hiding, were given life sentences without parole.

Since then Miriam Oliviari, a Tracker, has been relentlessly searching for Tey. She has seen the articles Tey has published under various pseudonyms, laying out her theories about the power of extreme circumstances to bring out previously unknown strengths in humanity. Today she is masquerading as a member of the marathon's medical staff in order to illegally obtain DNA samples from all the female runners, since she believes Tey, an athlete as well as a scientist, will be running in it under an assumed name. While Oliviari is working, a runner suddenly collapses and dies with symptoms markedly similar to the infamous Tey virus.

Soon other runners are falling sick in rapid succession. Now Oliviari is having to beat a deadly ticking clock to gain the necessary equipment to destroy the virus, and a very real possibility that not everybody will get the life-saving treatment in time and they will have to determine who can best benefit from it and who must perforce be left to die so that time wasted on treating them will not result in others dying who might have been saved. Worse, the very real possibility that Tey herself is the author of this horror and is now trying to make her escape yet again, this time Disappearing in a way that nobody will bother to look for her for the simple reason that everybody will be convinced she's dead.

On the whole, I found this novel more enjoyable and in many ways more convincing than the original Retrieval Artist novel, The Disappeared. Because it dealt primarily with questions of human justice and of medical ethics, it didn't have the elephant in the living room question of the degree to which the peculiarities of alien justice might be the product of actual biological differences in the hardwiring of alien brains, and thus could not be parsed by a human being, no matter how willing to make their best effort to follow the laws of those among whom they were traveling or doing business, not to mention why the society was putting up with this situation so long. I did have some issues with the flimsiness of the environmental suits being used by the police detectives and many of the runners -- one would think that anything upon which a person depended so completely for survival would be required to be made to far higher standards. However, it could very well be a way by which the author is showing yet another aspect of the contempt for human life that has invaded the culture and allows individuals to be sold down the river to incomprehensible systems of alien justice in order to ensure continued corporate profits.

Review posted August 29, 2010.

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