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August 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Extremes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Roc / Penguin Putnam PPBK: ISBN 0451459342 PubDate: 07/01/03
Review by Ernest Lilley

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Following in the footsteps of her well received The Disappeared, Rusch brings back "Retrieval Artist" Mike Flint, a ex-cop on the moon who specializes in finding people…especially ones that have disappeared on purpose. Now on his own after leaving the Armstrong Police, he's wondering if he made the right choice, but he won't have much time for second guessing when he gets caught up in the murder of another Retrieval Artist and a young woman, both of which point towards the same scientist, and he's gone missing.

The underlying plot is one of SF's longstanding banner ideas, that humanity needs extreme stress to rise to its full potential. You see examples of this in stories back to Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, where convicts were made to face certain death just to see if one of them might show some talent that would let them escape it. You see it in William Tenn's short story: "Danger Human", where Earth is marked off on the maps of galactic civilization as a place to avoid, and to their dismay one group of aliens decides to cage a human to see what the fuss is about, unleashing the human's unknown powers. More recently, it was the core of the movie Unbreakable where the villain kills hundreds just to see if one special survivor will emerge.

I don't think I've seen a more artificially isolated bunch of characters than you'll find here. The private eye/retrieval artist shuts down everyone's datafeeds the second they come into his office, and has pretty much severed connection with the human race as a whole, without either a sexy secretary or femme fatal to give him pause. He's filthy rich, thanks to a windfall from the last case, so he's working just to keep busy, and because he thinks it needs doing...but his reasons are thin. The archetypical "friend on the force" a woman who offends the brass every fifteen minutes and is sent off to look into a murder at the lunar marathon because its not an especially important detail, habitually shuts off her personal comms without any outside help. Of course that means that information critical to the case hangs in limbo...and as the case continues, the threat goes from simple murder to something much, much, more deadly and on a much much bigger scale. Even the killer is cut off from everyone else in the book, hiding under an assumed name, moving with deadly purpose to promote a hidden agenda.

Mixing whodunit with science fiction is a challenge that few have pulled off, and I'm sad to say I can't give Extremes the hearty approbation I hoped for. Though it reads reasonably well as a hard boiled detective story, it founders as SF. There are plenty of SF gimmicks and gadgets around but none are all that critical to the plot, and the technology isn't handled convincingly. There are spaceships and ubiquitous datanets, autodocs and viral hot zones, and even a final space chase sequence that would have made "Doc" Smith wince, but all in all it would have played better in old LA.

This scene of the crime happens to be pretty popular in space whodunit. Isaac Asimov used almost an identical setting in one of his Dr. Wendal Urth stories, and by interesting coincidence, I just read a short story by Larry Niven in his Scatterbrain collection (see my review this issue) that used the same setting, though hardly in the same way. My all time favorite SF Mystery isn't a whodunit at all, but a scientific mystery, and it uses the same setting...a corpse discovered in a space suit on the moon...and despite the fact that this corpse is 50,000 years old, he's a far more compelling victim than the woman in the suit in Extremes. That book, by the way, would be James P. Hogan's debut novel, Inherit the Stars, which he wrote on a bet to prove he could write a better story than "The Sentinel", from which 2001, A Space Odyssey was developed.

There's still a chance that this is a middle book in a trilogy and like most middle children it has the job of bridging the beginning and the end without resolving anything on its own. Maybe the themes that this talented author has alluded to will come to fruition in the next book. Maybe the tough cop will take her phone calls. Maybe the Retrieval Artist will find himself in the end. We can only hope.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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