Legal Stuff

Recovery Man by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Published by Roc Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The defining moment of Miles Flint's life was the death of his daughter. Until that point he was a loving dad and a skilled computer programmer. But when his little Emmaline was killed by a day care worker who shook her to death, a worker who had already shaken another baby to death, and it wasn't recognized as a deliberate act until a third baby fell victim to the same brutality, the foundations of his world were torn apart. In order to keep from descending into a spiral of self-loathing because he put his trust in the wrong place, he decided to switch lines of work and entered the police academy. Even if it was too late for his little girl, by becoming a law enforcement officer he hoped that he could stop other child-killers before they had a chance to kill again.

And in doing so he put himself on a collision course with one of the ugly realities of life in his world, namely, humanity's legal agreement with the fifty alien races that comprise the Earth Alliance. On paper, it looks like an equitable deal -- each polity's laws will be paramount within its own territories, and everyone who visits those territories will be liable under them. But it fails to take into account the fact that alien laws really are alien, and what is common sense, even self-evident and unnecessary to explain, to one species may well be incomprehensible to another. As a result, good human beings are frequently running afoul of alien criminal justice systems for things they wouldn't even think about being possible danger areas, things like walking along a certain river bank in a particular season or letting an alien neighbor kid pick up some English vocabulary. And many of those alien races have punishments that strike humans as grotesque and completely disproportionate to the offense, and sometimes aren't even levied upon the actual perpetrator, but instead upon other members of the family.

Unable to reconcile his personal moral code with having to enforce laws which mandated the punishment of people who hadn't done anything wrong in order to satisfy alien laws their relatives had broken, perhaps quite unwittingly, Flint resigned from the police force and became a Retrieval Artist, hoping to thus correct some of the injustices that are the result of humans running afoul of alien laws (a situation that is implied to be the result of systematic corporate greed, since one would expect that after a few ugly incidents there would be such a hue and cry from the electorate that the human governments would put up do-not-travel warnings against the planets where the locals' notion of good mental health more closely approximates serious human mental illnesses, and the ones with particularly vicious and compassionless legal systems). A Retrieval Artist is someone who tries to find the Disappeared, people who have gone into hiding in order to escape alien legal systems that are going to punish them or their families for things that humans do not consider wrong. Technically Disappearance is illegal, but there is enough grass-roots discontent with the Multicultural Court system that the human legal system quietly looks the other way, except for the Trackers who hunt down people who have Disappeared as a result of actions that really should be offenses. However, sometimes family members may want to find a Disappeared relative to let them know about a major emergency, or an inheritance, or that their case has been resolved in their favor. In these cases, a Retrieval Artist will carefully locate the person without revealing their location and let them decide whether to come out of hiding.

And now Flint is discovering in his slain mentor's files hints that the case of his daughter's death may not be nearly so simple as he thought. At the time he and his wife decided that they would accept her death as final rather than availing themselves of a cloning facility, a technology of borderline legality. Both of them agreed that no child should have to grow up with the burden of being a replacement for another child. But now he's finding evidence that the girl may have been cloned anyway.

The issues of distorted family dynamics aside, there are also serious legal implications to cloning one's lost child. Although cloning is not a crime, clones have a very marginal legal status. In some human jurisdictions, they aren't even people under the law, but property. Even in jurisdictions where they have the right to life and can't be arbitrarily killed simply for being inconvenient to their creator or used as laboratory animals, they can't inherit unless they're adopted by the person who created them, and apparently may well have other civil disabilities (for instance, can they vote, can they own property, are they excluded from certain high-pay, high prestige professions, etc?). Rather like the eponymous protagonist of Robert A. Heinlein's Friday said, it seems like human beings have a deep and abiding need to have someone to despise and look down upon, so once we eliminate the old kinds of bigotry, we use biotech to create new categories of second class citizens to discriminate against and deny opportunity.

Meanwhile, on the Jovian moon of Callisto a young girl named Talia is suddenly accosted by a mysterious man who brutalizes her and locks her in a closet, then kidnaps her mother. Thirteen-year-old Talia is a smart girl, and manages to work around the thug's hacking of the house computer in order to release herself and call the police. But in doing so she makes some nasty discoveries. Most importantly, she bears a tag on the back of her head that identifies her as a clone (got to make sure those second-class citizens are unquestionably identified as such so they can't possibly presume to pass as Real People), and that makes her worthless for his purposes. Coming in tandem with the trauma of her mother's kidnapping, this revelation is a major psychological blow for her.

But she's just angry enough at the manhandling and dissing she got from this guy, who calls himself a Recovery Man, that she's not going to meekly devalue herself. Instead she stubbornly fights for her rights, including her right not to be swept up into custody by her mom's employer, who claim to have legal rights of guardianship over her.

And her mom is none less than Miles Flint's former wife, Rhonda Shindo. A chemist, she was working on an experiment that promised to give life to dead worlds, and instead dealt death to an entire generation of an alien species. An accident for which she took the fall, and for which her punishment was that she would never be permitted to have children, and any children she should have would be confiscated by the alien race. However, these aliens, the Gyonnese, have very rigid definitions of what constitutes a true child. Because their reproductive cycle consists of both sexual and asexual reproductive phases, they consider only those children that are produced by sexual reproductive reproduction real children. The subsequent buddings from the original larva are considered false children -- and to the Gyonnese, human cloning is the legal equivalent of a larva budding. So Rhonda was permitted to keep and raise Talia as her own child because the girl was a posthumous clone of Emmaline.

But now the Gyonnese want to use Rhonda as a test case for their attack on the Disappearance services. Because the case was officially settled and Rhonda is living openly in her employer's company town, no Tracker will take the case on. But a Recovery Man is a matter -- operating at the edge of the law, they usually search for missing things. Officially things that have gone missing from their rightful owners, but all too often things that a wealthy person is missing from their collections and would like to have, irrespective of the rightful owner's lack of willingness to sell. Because Hadad Yu doesn't have much experience dealing with living subjects of his acquisitive activities, Rhonda is just barely able to get the jump on him -- but not enough to take over his ship and escape.

This novel features a little reference to the second volume of the series, Extremes, in the form of a visit to the facility on Io where Tey's disastrous medical experiment took place. However, in this volume Tey's first name is given as Josephine, but in that one it was given as Frieda, and some of the details of the experiment are different. But since we are getting Rhonda's memories in this book, it's completely possible that it's a case of unreliable narrator rather than an oversight on the part of the author. Rhonda's under considerable pressure in that scene, and it's completely possible that she never followed the case closely, so it might not be surprising that she'd have a rather confused memory of an incident decades old.

I found this volume of the Retrieval Artist series a less problematical read than the earlier ones because of the growing implication that the greedy corporations have in some way or another subverted the governments of the various human jurisdictions to put corporate profits ahead of basic human rights, so some of my questions about the plausibility of the situation have been allayed. It's not quite a cyberpunk scenario, in which corrupt megacorporations have actually taken over and function as a government without any accountability to anybody but their shareholders and governing boards, and thus are free to treat ordinary people as objects to be manipulated and thrown away. However, the governments look to have been reduced to little more than window-dressing, and voting just means picking between a slate of candidates who will dutifully follow the directives of their corporate masters. It also suggests an answer to my question of why there is no public outrage against the most egregious of cases: even if the First Amendment and other free-speech provisions are still officially on the books, expressing problematic opinions could very well be a good way of getting oneself blacklisted as a troublemaker, with no judicial review and no recourse. I could completely imagine young people going off to college (the prime period for political activism) being earnestly warned by parents and other adult authority figures to be very careful about the political opinions they express in public, lest they find themselves rendered unemployable pariahs who'll spend the rest of their lives dependent upon the charity of others.

Review posted September 10, 2010.

Buy Recovery Man: A Retrieval Artist Novel (#6) (Retrieval Artist Novels) from