Ed. note: I had this longish issue of the newsletter going earlier this year where I talked about a handful of different books but I never published it because the issue never felt right; like it didn't actually sound like me, like I was self-consciously wrestling with some interesting ideas but I never quite managed to do the words good-right. But now that I'm back in blog-land, it seems relatively harmless to share these, because I do like these books, and I think maybe I was on to something interesting here. Maybe?

So: here's a slightly edited (but still weird-feeling to me) bit from that lost issue.


A man goes missing and an investigator is sent to find out what happened to him. Thing is, the location's Jupiter, the investigator's a lady with a skitch more emotional IQ than Sherlock Holmes, and her Watson-like companion is her ex-girlfriend. That's the set-up for The Mimicking of Known Successes, the new novella from Malka Older.

So, yeah. I loved it. I'll admit that after having become a fan of Older through her Centenal Cycle trilogy I wasn't exactly sure the pivot to the "cozy mystery novella" genre would play out, but once in a while the right book lands in your lap at the exact right moment, and this was exactly the book I needed when it arrived. I've been feeling more than a little anxious lately, and comfort reading, reading to feel better, is alright, y'know?

That said, for being a novella, it's a remarkably expansive one. It's no mere gimmick that sets the story on Jupiter—specifically, on a network of stations and platforms set on rings that circumnavigate Jupiter; Older both finds a way to write about post-apocalyptic humanity in a way that is not overtly terrifying and in a way that serves the fundamental narrative mechanics of her story. As I'm googling around for reference notes here I'm also reminded of how much Older reps for the importance of and the joy of competence in characters, and I'll admit that while knowing her investigative duo was a strong-minded pair with complementary skillsets, that layer of competence was so smoothly integrated into the story it flew completely under my critical radar. (Ed. note: yeah, "critical radar"? Someone was trying a bit too hard here.) Which, also, I suppose, is a good thing; perhaps it shouldn't need to call attention to itself? Either way, great, fun book, and I'm already on board with the fact that she's turning it into a series, with at least one more novella on the way.

Then by sheer coincidence, I think, I had Older on the mind when for my next book I finally picked up A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which I'd heard described as a bit of old-school, classic space opera. Though there's some big space energy present in the book the focus skews a bit more toward the political intrigue end of that spectrum, as an ambassador from a remote, independent space station is summoned to the city on the world at the heart of a galactic empire, under mysterious circumstances.

Generally speaking, I liked it without loving it, though without giving too much away, I'm left with high hopes for the sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, which I'll certainly read as well. (Ed. note: have not read yet, still plan to, got distracted.) I think maybe what I found lacking isn't exactly fair of me to note, but I feel like if I'm reading a story about an empire I'm going to be most drawn in when I can feel like I'm mentally pushed to feel the bigness of the thing I'm reading about, and with the relatively narrow focus of the story on it's primary character and those in her orbit investigating the mysterious circumstances around the death of her predecessor it was maybe hard to ever really feel the scope of the backdrop of the empire as a true thing or setting against which the main story was being told. (Ed. note: in other words, it felt like a small story against a big backdrop; I wanted more big stuff. Or at least I think that's what I meant.)

Which is fine, of course, because, for one, I still have a reread of The Expanse series coming up sometime in my life, which nailed that whole scope thing for me so well, and because there really was much else in Memory that I did feel drawn in by. The main character is pretty delightful, there's some cool cultural and technological contrasts at play that create some interesting frictions within the story, and the story treats language as an intrinsically interesting thing.

Which, of course, it is, and which, as well, is what got me thinking again about Malka Older, specifically about her concept of narrative disorder:

This comprises both the addiction to narrative content that has made, say, Netflix such a success (and long before that serial narratives on radio and in magazines, and before that bards and other purveyors of oral history) and the sense that the narratives we ingest affect how we interpret the world, what we expect to happen, how we stereotype the people we meet and their roles in our lives, how we ourselves act.

Older works this fictional disorder into her Centenal Cycle books well, to great effect, on the personal level, with at least one of her primary characters being diagnosed with this as a disorder, in her hypothetical future. Martine seems interested in something similar, though, but at a cultural level, at the level of the idea of a nation or an empire telling itself a story about itself. It goes as deep as poetry serving as a narrative device in the plot of the book up through the gentle layer of near disassociation her galactic empire seems mired in as it perceives itself through the lens of its own near-timeless layers of storytelling, from ancient grand epics through to contemporary cheap serials; everyone seems to relate everything throughout the book to one story or another, not the least by the ambassador herself, who has pursued her position out of an odd love for the general idea of the story of the empire she's seeking to help her station resist. It's even when events become conceptually more real to a particular character—when the story starts to give way to a chilling reality—that one character has a near emotional breakdown. Great stories do need to end, but when they end wrong, the story itself is damaged in the process.

Which is all to say that if I'm not quite one hundred percent on board with the hype around this book—if I'm not quite sure I fully get it—I can say that this aspect of the story is the one that gives me a way into it, a thread I kind of wanted to pull on a bit more and more as I kept reading.