Paloma by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Cover art by Greg Bridges
Published by Roc Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Paloma is the fifth installment of the Retrieval Artist series, science fiction mysteries of a future in which humanity's dealings with fifty alien species are regulated by a system of Multicultural Tribuals. On paper the system of holding everybody to whatever local law prevails in a given area sounds eminently fair -- but in practice it ignores the problem that differences in other species' societies aren't just cultural. Sometimes they're the outgrowth of actual differences in mental hardwiring between species, such that the categories upon which a species' rules rest can't even be learned by humans. But the system either can't or won't acknowledge this fact and persists on treating all interspecies crime as a matter of the willful failure of the human to learn and follow the alien species' laws.
After lunar cop Miles Flint left the Armstrong Police Department because he was fed up with having to enforce alien laws that ran contrary to his moral code, he became a Retrieval Artist. Such people seek the Disappeared, people who went into hiding to avoid alien justice systems that are insane by human standards -- not to drag them back for punishment, but to bring them important news they may need to act upon: an inheritance, a pardon, the death of a loved one.
In beginning his new profession he had a mentor, a woman by the name of Paloma. She'd wanted to get out of the business, so once she had everything transferred, she dropped out of sight for a quiet retirement. Miles hasn't thought about her for years.
So he's caught by surprise when he gets a terrified message from her. Although he hurries to her apartment, he arrives too late. Her body is a mangled mess, and there's evidence of alien involvement.
Paloma leaves Miles a docked spaceship, the Dove. On it he finds a recording in which she reveals that she was not what she presented herself as. Before she was a Retrieval Artist, she was a lawyer, working for the famous lunar law firm WSX, which has handled the Tracking of many Disappeareds, whether or not their deeds were crimes by any sane human standards. In that time she fell in love with one of the other senior partners and bore him sons.
Further investigation uncovers a sordid web of lies and half-truths. Although Paloma always talked a high moral line in training Miles, he now find out that she supplemented her income by working as a Tracker even as she posed as a Retrieval Artist.
Meanwhile, investigative reporter Ki Bowles is trying to put together the shambles of her career after the fall she took in Buried Deep. Unwilling to accept a transfer to the gossip side of journalism or to submit to having all her work scrutinized by fact-checkers, she leaves her job and strikes out on her own. But that means she's got to come up with something juicy enough that it'll draw, and fast.
And Noelle DiRicci, Miles's old partner from his police days, is starting to wonder if she made a big mistake in accepting that cushy new job as director of security for all the United Domes of the Moon. Especially since she's getting dragged into the mystery surrounding Paloma's death and she really doesn't want to get crosswise of WSX or the powerful Wagner family, who go back to the beginnings of lunar settlement.
As Miles investigates further into Paloma's death, he discovers she owned yet another spaceship, the Lost Seas. This one lies in an obscure berth, sealed under a quarrantine by the mysterious Bixian Government.
As both Miles and DiRicci try to find out something about the mysterious Bixian Goernment, we get some new information about what lies beyond the Earth Alliance. Instead of it being just a scattering of frontier worlds, there are actually a number of major polities, presumably as powerful as the Earth Alliance.
We also get to see some history of Disappearance Services. Instead of being the product of grass-roots anger at the results of the Multicultural Tribunal system and the disasters it produces when humans interact with aliens whose minds function in fundamentally different ways, they were actually created by the corporations who were doing business with those alien cultures, as a way of hiding valuable employees whose services they wish to retain after relations with one or another alien species go sour. The popular sentiments help smooth the way for the Disappearance Services, but aren't essential to their operation.
This information also helps answer a question that's been bugging me since the first book -- namely, if it's known that some species have cultures and legal sytems so alien to human hardwiring that humans literally can't parse them, why haven't human governments stopped dealing with them, or at least issued Do Not Travel advisories? If the governments have been reduced to window-dressing for the megacorporations, as we see in so many cyberpunk novels (and increasingly in the Primary World), they're not going to get in the way of corporate profits, even if those corporations are selling their employees down the river on a regular basis to alien governments for stuff that makes no sense to a human mind. And attempts to protest or agitate for change are pointless, for the simple reason that the government is a sham and the real masters don't care and won't listen to what the common herd say.
Review posted December 22, 2011.
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