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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 28, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Retrieval Artist, Clean Screen, Funny Republicans

There was a long stretch of time when I read and reviewed every single science fiction and fantasy short story published in the major magazines and anthologies. Then I wrote a review column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which likewise required that I read a lot of sci-fi.

It became work.

I burned out.

The result is that for more than a decade I have read very little science fiction for pleasure. It was once my favorite reading, because I loved being taken to places I've never seen before and exploring societies that have never existed.

The trouble is, after reading thousands and thousands of stories and novels, I find that very few sci-fi writers can take me anywhere I haven't already been. I get three pages in and I'm recognizing everything. It takes the fun out of it.

I can still read fantasy for pleasure, because that genre is going through a huge transition, in which the fantasy worlds are as fully invented and fleshed out as in the best historical and science fiction novels of the past. But with a few exceptions -- new books by writers I have always admired and enjoyed in the past -- I just don't read science fiction very often.

But I recently made an exception. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has had a remarkable career in the field of science fiction -- and elsewhere.

She once edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (where she never bought a single story from me, perhaps because I don't think I ever sent her any).

She has written a free online book called Freelancer's Survival Guide, which is without doubt the best, most essential book for writers who are contemplating quitting their day jobs and doing the writing thing full time. I wish it had been around when I went freelance the first time back in 1980; I have friends who have absolutely relied on Rusch's advice and it never leads them astray. Read it at kriswrites.com.

OK, so I knew her name; I even knew some of her early work. But I hadn't read anything by her in years. Then I signed on to Audible.com and a novel of hers popped up as one of their featured books -- the most recent installment in her Retrieval Artist Series.

Since I have a "platinum" membership -- which means I pay in advance for a substantial number of books -- it feels like whatever I pick up is free. That is, it only costs me "credits" instead of money. This makes it psychologically easier to buy and download a novel just to try it out.

Yes, sometimes this attitude has left me with an audiobook that I detested. But buying audiobooks in CD form has had the same result sometimes! And far more often, those what-the-heck purchases at Audible have led me to wonderful books I would never have read otherwise.

And that's what happened with Rusch. I downloaded the new book -- but because it was part of a series, I also bought a few of the earlier titles.

Annoyingly, the books aren't numbered -- that is, the cover doesn't say anything about the order in which to read them. Nor did I find a listing that specified the order on Rusch's own website. Amazon.com doesn't have most of the series for sale, but at least they number a few of them -- and list the copyright dates as well. But what I downloaded was books 1, 3, and 6.

It didn't matter. Each book stands alone. Though it's best to start with the first book, as the foundation for all the rest, you can then read in any order.

But you won't want to. Because Rusch does a superb job of making the Retrieval Artist books work as fully satisfying standalone mysteries and as installments in a gripping saga full of love, loss, grief, hope, adventure, and discovery.

It is also some of the best science fiction ever written.

The novels are centered in the Armstrong Dome on the Moon, where the hero, Miles Flint, works to help keep people -- particularly children -- safe from the almost unbearable devil's bargain that humanity has struck with various alien races in order to maintain peaceful trade relations.

His career path makes him an ideal detective in this future world. He was a wizard computer programmer, living on the Moon with his wife, an even smarter biologist, when their daughter was "accidently" killed by a daycare worker. Miles became obsessed with making the daycare worker pay for the crime; he left his computer work and trained to become a policeman.

Not long afterward, his wife divorced him, so he begins his career with the police as a lonely, grieving man. After serving a stint with the Port of Armstrong police, he makes detective and is teamed with Noelle DeRicci, a tough, smart woman who speaks truth to power. This is not normally good for one's career, but Miles finds that she's a great detective and learns from her.

So far, this might feel like pretty ordinary backstory for a noir detective -- but I haven't told you the sci-fi stuff yet. As part of the Earth Alliance's treaty with various alien species, each species is pledged to respect the laws of the others when crimes are committed on their planets.

Here's the rub. Some of the aliens regard as crimes things that we would regard as accidents -- or not even crimes at all. And some of the punishments are unbearable to human beings. For instance, one species' law requires that a convicted criminal give up her own firstborn child to be raised as by the aliens as one of their own. If an infant is so taken, it survives the process and becomes a reasonably happy -- though no longer truly human -- adult. But children who are a little older are mentally destroyed by the process.

Other species exact blood vengeance, or forbid a convicted criminal to raise children, or other bizarre, brutal, cruel punishments -- which are nevertheless logical within the worldview of the aliens.

So what we have are legal dramas and crime stories in which the human characters have to deal with completely believable and yet unbearable alien laws and punishments. And a human cop is required to cooperate in the enforcement of laws that seem utterly unjust. A child paying for the crime of its parent?

One might suppose that the whole thing is unbelievable -- humans would never accept treaties that allow their children to be seized or destroyed by aliens. But the more you know about history, the more believable it seems. After all, only a few people are subject to such penalties -- and human governments cooperate to give them as little publicity as possible. We humans have an almost infinite capacity to ignore other people's suffering, as long as it stays at a distance.

But for Miles Flint, there is no distance. Every child he's required to hand over to aliens is an unbearable loss -- he can't forget his own lost child.

There are ways to evade these draconian sentences. Disappearance services offer -- for a steep price -- to help convicts and their children get new identities. This is far harder to bring off than in our present-day witness protection program, because the future technology makes DNA testing about as easy as a handshake. And for every Disappearance service, there are Trackers for hire, charging the aliens very high fees to locate the humans they're chasing.

There's another category, too: Retrieval Artists. They have to accomplish the same feats of detection as Trackers, finding people who have Disappeared -- but their goal is to notify them that they have been pardoned, or convey to them an inheritance, or give them news about the people they have left behind.

So the Retrieval Artist not only seeks the Disappeared, but he must also do so in such a way that no Tracker can follow in his footsteps and locate the hidden criminals.

All this makes for intricate plotting and intense moral dilemmas. What if the human really is guilty of a crime, yet the punishment seems unjust? For Miles Flint, these moral dilemmas are tortuous and torturous, but he takes them on. For he cannot continue as a detective, a job that requires him to help enforce laws that destroy children and other innocents. So he quits, buys an old woman's Retrieval agency, and begins yet a third career, skirting the edges of the law while trying to do some genuine good in the world.

Here's Rusch's genius: She doesn't confine herself to the rules of any one genre. She does world-creation and social criticism like the best sci-fi writers; she creates crime stories that would be Best Episodes on Law & Order or CSI; and she creates stories of human relationships that rank her with the finest character writers working today.

It has taken me rather a long time to give you all this set-up -- but I've barely touched the surface of any of the stories. You simply have to read them -- or listen to them -- for yourself.

Here are the Retrieval Artist novels, in order:

1. The Disappeared

2. Extremes

3. Consequences

4. Buried Deep

5. Poloma

6. Recovery Man

7. Duplicate Effort

But there's a problem. The early novels have gone out of print in book form. Fortunately, they're all available on the Kindle and other e-book formats. Or you can simply start with one of the books that is still available in print form -- this is truly a series in which each novel is fully self-contained.

And I can tell you from experience, having read them out of order, that knowing the things you're told in later books does not make the earlier books less enjoyable. This is because Miles Flint does not always find out everything that happened, so the later books will tell you what he thinks happened, while we readers find out key things that he cannot know and may never discover. So you can start with the most recent book, still in print, and it will be almost as good an introduction to the series as the first one.

Or you can buy and download them from Audible.com, then listen to them in the correct order.

The audiobooks are produced by Audible itself, with Jay Snyder reading. Snyder is a superb narrator, rendering all the voices differently and recognizably, with good acting. As with every reader I've ever listened to, there are occasional mispronounced or misunderstood words, but he makes no more errors than the author does.

(Authors all make mistakes, including me. Rusch, for instance, gets "whom" right most of the time, but she completely messes up subjunctive, using it in cases where it's dead wrong. My guess is that most readers won't notice the mistakes or care much if they do. As for my mistakes, let's just say that I embrace my own imperfections.)

If you love puzzle mysteries, crime novels, well-invented sci-fi worlds, or stories about characters you can believe in and care about, you owe it to yourself to give Rusch's Retrieval Artist novels a try.

*

Links to Look At

First things first: My new novel, Pathfinder, comes out at Thanksgiving. It's my first official Young Adult novel, though Ender's Game, written for adults, has been embraced by many younger readers. For me, the only real difference in writing for the YA audience is that I can't indulge in long introspections -- the story has to keep moving. So that might make it more enjoyable for adult readers, as well.

Here's a preview that you might enjoy. You can read the first chapter here. And another story extracted from the novel, "Expendables," is available in my online magazine Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show at http://www.oscIGMS.com .

*

I'm sure that you keep your computer screen clean ... on the outside. But what are you doing about cleaning the inside? Maybe those streaks and stains you can't get rid of are because you haven't been performing all the necessary maintenance. Check out an excellent method of screen cleaning.

*

They rarely show short films at the theaters these days -- after all, short films don't make the theaters a speck more money, so it's better to run the teasers (which will make money as you presumably come back to see future movies), then run the feature, then get you out of the theater, clean up, and start the next showing of the money-maker.

But that doesn't mean people aren't making great short films. For instance, here's one in which The Office meets The Twilight Zone .

*

It's a fact, plain and simple, that Republicans just aren't as funny as Democrats. Or maybe it's just that most comedians tend to hang out with a lot of politically correct people and adopt their worldview, so only a few comics view the world from the conservative side.

This is true of comic writers, as well. These days, Republican attempts at comedy are usually too angry to be funny -- a common disease among revolutionaries. This makes it so they can be enjoyed only by people who are angry at the same things, which means fellow Republicans.

The main exception for the past few decades has been P.J. O'Rourke, who is funny no matter who you are -- and if you don't mind his coarse language, he's almost enough to make up for all the leftwing comics!

But he's not the only one. Here's a piece by Frank J. Fleming about the upcoming Congressional elections that makes perfect sense, but is also funny enough to be enjoyed by anybody with a sense of humor.


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