Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Down These Dark Spaceways

When I started reading Down These Dark Spaceways, six futuristic mystery novellas edited by Mike Resnick, I realized it was not really my proverbial cup of tea. I prefer historical mysteries rather than either thrillers or crime mysteries. At least the stories in this book are noir mysteries influenced by the mysteries of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, which have a certain charm to them that police procedurals tend not to have (at least in my eyes). And the authors in this collection of six novellas included Robert Reed and Jack McDevitt, two of my favorite authors, so I could not resist trying the book.

“The Big Downtown”, by McDevitt, is quite different from his novels which tend to be historical mysteries concerned with investigating ancient ruins and ships which vanish mysteriously. This story only has a touching glance with history, as one of the main suspects is a famous explorer of alien ruins. The rest of it is typical mystery: a death which looks like a hurricane-related accident, but the lover of one of the two victims is sure his girlfriend would never do anything so stupid as ride in a sailboat during a global-warming induced super-hurricane. So he hires the female P.I. protagonist who investigates for 60 pages before wrapping up the mystery in the typical glib tying up of loose strands of most crime stories. Or at least that is my take on most crime novels. At least the scenery is interesting, and the pacing never lags, but this story is more of a pleasant time-passer than an involving historical mystery such as McDevitt usually writes.

Robert Reed’s “Camouflage” is set on his Great Ship, a huge interstellar ship larger than most worlds filled with millions of beings from numerous worlds who are traveling on a millennia-long journey across the entire Milky Way. Some of Reed’s best stories, such as my personal favorite “The Remoras”, is set there, and it is one of the most wondrous creations in all of sf so that a story need only surround itself with the alienness and otherness of the Great Ship to be successful.

“Camouflage” concerns a former disgraced captain of the Great Ship named Pamir who has disguised himself for many decades to avoid being captured and punished by other captains. He is approached by a current captain who knows of his reputation as well his current disguise and asks him to investigate a series of murders. It turns out that the ten husbands and former husbands–all nonhumans–of a human woman are being killed. The mystery is interesting, although irrelevant, since the real focus of the novella is the Great Ship and its alien races, and they keep the story interesting even though I did not really care who the murderer was.

Catherine Asaro’s “The City of Cries” was a pleasant surprise. I had always assumed she wrote romances based on her reputation in that area, but this was a hard-bitten adventure mystery on a well-thought out alien world. Bhaaj is a detective hired by the royal family of her homeworld to recover one of the family’s princes who has apparently sneaked out of the family compound, which males are not permitted to do. The story combines Bhaaj’s dealings with the royalty who hired her–and who have the power to do anything to her they wish, should she displease them–as well as with members of the underworld in which she spent time as a youth. An old-fashioned adventure set on an alien world in Asaro’s Skolian Empire, this story is obviously the product of a natural storyteller, much more interesting than I had experienced. It made me realize it might be worthwhile seeking out more Asaro fiction.

The best story in the book is also the most frustrating one, David Gerrold’s “In the Quake Zone.” Set in a contemporary Los Angeles which has undergone a series of timequakes which serve as portals through a thirty-year period of time, the hero is a time-raveler who travels through time saving people’s lives from crime and accidents. The case he is investigating involves a serial killer who preys on young homosexual males. Most of the novella involves his investigation of that case as well as his own friendship with one of the young men, a friendship which seems to be gradually heading into a deeper, longer-lasting relationship.

What makes the story so frustrating is just when it seems to be reaching both its plot and relationship climaxes, it abruptly takes a left turn and becomes a totally-different story. While the second story was itself interesting, and did provide a resolution to the original story in an almost off-the-cuff way, I think the story could have been resolved similarly with less abruptness. Still it was a very good story, although it was a totally non-noir mystery considering the hero’s emotional involvement was its primary focus.


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