Good science fiction mysteries are a rare commodity these days. Few have been able to successfully combine the two genres into some semblance of a decent story. Kristine Kathryn Rusch bucks this trend with The Disappeared, the first of the Retrieval Artist series of books. First introduced in The Retrieval Artist and Other Stories, Miles Flint is a detective with the police force in Armstrong Dome on the Moon. When a series of seemingly unrelated cases appear, Flint quickly puts together the clues to determine just what these cases have in common. Sworn to uphold the law–despite his misgivings–Detective Flint must do everything in his power to ease his conscience, while staying within the strict guidelines of the law. Can he reconcile himself in these difficult circumstances, or will he be forced to bend–or even break–the laws he’s dedicated his career to?
The Disappeared is a wonder in world-building on a massive scale, yet does an excellent job of keeping readers from being overwhelmed. Set in an undisclosed future timeframe, humanity has spread to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Most of the action in the novel takes place in Armstrong Dome, which is one of four major cities on the Moon. Miles Flint and his partner, Noelle DeRicci, are called to the scene of a derelict ship that’s been towed to the Moon. Aboard the ship are several eviscerated bodies that seem to point to an alien vengeance killing. But what appears to be an open-and-shut case quickly escalates into a conspiracy far larger.
Perhaps what’s most unusual about The Disappeared is how little Rusch tries to focus on the science; this novel is very much about the characters and the mystery surrounding the plot. Most science fiction novels work extra hard to describe the background and history of their universes, but Rusch does not–there is no mention of what year the book is set in (hundreds of years in the future, at least), how humanity discovered other races, or how they learned to travel to other planets beyond our solar system. There is so little information about the history of the universe The Disappeared is set in, it actually improves the enjoyment of the story. While readers may be curious about the past, it’s not at all important to the events in the novel–at least not in any meaningful way. Still, it’s clear that the Retrieval Artist series has a very carefully and well-crafted universe to explore, and fans will reap the benefits in future entries of the series.
The characters in The Disappeared are well-developed, if not fully three-dimensional. The secondary characters have their own pasts, faults, and issues to deal with–in fact, they may be more developed than the main protagonists. Certainly Flint and DeRicci both have their flaws and challenges to overcome, it just seems like some of the changes the characters go through in the novel come about just a little too rapidly. Perhaps the fact that very little of the past is alluded to or described in this novel weakens their development just a bit. It’s a minor criticism though, in a book that’s difficult to find any faults with.
The alien races that Rusch has brought to life are unique, and, well, alien; it’s just what a good science fiction story is supposed to be. The Rev, Wygnin, and Disty cultures appear to be very odd, at least in human terms. Again, the lack of a backstory here provides both intrigue, and provides subtle frustrations–readers will want to know much, much more about these races, but will learn little in the pages of The Disappeared. Hopefully, future installments in the series will shed more light on not only these alien beings, but their tumultuous history with Humans.
What’s most astounding about this novel is how accessible it is. This is not some futuristic utopian–or dystopian, for that matter–novel hell-bent on destroying the Establishment. The Disappeared is a mystery first, with a science fictional world wrapped around it. The technology utilized hasn’t seemed to advance much farther than that we own today–quite the opposite, in some circumstances. Sure, there are flying cars, spaceships, and cities on the Moon, but at times, readers will be hard pressed to believe they’re not on Earth, in some typical city in North America.
The Disappeared is not the world’s greatest detective novel–far from it, in fact. It is, however, an excellent science fiction novel that’s very much a detective-story. It is certainly well worth the read, if for nothing other than the amazing universe that Rusch has created. With many other novels in the series, it’s an excellent entry to the Retrieval Artist saga for any reader.
Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown