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Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

Nathan’s review of The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

A sapphic murder mystery set on Jupiter? How could I not pick this book up?


The Mimicking of Known Successes is a delightful little science fiction mystery set in the future after humans have completely destroyed Earth and Mars, and are now settled on the further -out planets of our solar system. The book follows Pleiti, a Classics scholar whose job is to study what little humans know about the ecological functioning of Earth to hopefully rebuild Earth for human occupation, and Mossa, an Investigator looking into the mysterious disappearance of a prominent scholar. What results is an addictive and fast-paced detective story that has real Sherlock and Watson vibes….but in space!

This novella should appeal to fans of both science fiction and mysteries. Older finds a great balance between these elements that won’t turn away fans of either genre. For science fiction fans, there is enough talk about genetics and the technological necessities living on Jupiter to keep you turning the pages, but it isn’t so much that cozy mystery fans would be turned out by too much scientific mumbo-jumbo. Since Goodreads has this marked as the first book in a series, I do hope that we get more human-colonized Jupiter worldbuilding in future books because the little details sprinkled throughout The Mimicking of Known Successes were so fascinating!

I also recommend checking out this novella if you like gaslamp fantasy or historical fiction set during the 1800s. While the technology and sci-fi setting are not reminiscent of that time period, this novella has a similar attitude and vibe that you would get from those genres and time periods. I wasn’t expecting this walking into the novella, but I love the slightly old-school aura and atmosphere combined with a futuristic setting and vibe. The mash up really worked for me and ensured that the setting and overall of the tone of the novella has occupied a long-term residency in my mind.

There is so much great stuff going on in this novella, but what stands out the most is the major theme of letting go of the past. The title of the novella says it all – The Mimicking of Known Successes. Older digs into that feeling of wanting to create or recreate our past, both real and imagined. Whether it is those holiday traditions that you must do every year, the appeal of the conservative slogan “Make America Great Again’, or just the melancholy of nostalgia, we all believe that the best way forward is to look backward. But this attitude can hold us back. By always looking to our pasts, by always desiring what is behind us, we lose focus on what possibilities the future holds for us. We limit ourselves by using the past as a barometer for our success; we limit ourselves by using the past as a list of choices that we can make, versus just a summary of the choices that we did make.

And no character better exemplifies attitude this than our main POV character, Pleiti. Pleiti’s entire career, her entire identity and mode of being, is defined by studying the few remaining pieces of evidence of what Earth was like before humanity ruined it (even going so far as to tease apart children’s stories that talk about Earth’ flora and fauna). Pleiti is a stand-in for what we all desire – some return to the past that we probably won’t ever get back to.

Mossa represents the opposite. Mossa cares relatively little about the past and is all about looking forward. Whether that is her disinterest in somehow “returning” to Earth, or that she doesn’t exert a lot of emotional energy in worrying about the fact that she and Pleiti had a (doomed) relationship in college. As Mossa and Pleiti continue to encircle one another, Mossa doesn’t let their past dictate their future. While Pleiti worries and overthinks their newly kindled relationship, Mossa jumps in two feet first.

It really is the differences between Pleiti and Mossa that propel the deeper questions and themes of the novella forward. They act as perfect foils to one another; Pleiti is reserved and careful, while Mossa is impulsive and unbothered. I’ll admit – I am 100% a Pleiti and therefore I gravitated to her character much more (I’m also in grad school, so some of Pleiti’s observations about academia also resonated with me), but I have always desired to be a Mossa. I have always desired to not overthink things, to look to the future, and not be too concerned about the past (which is not easy to do since as a career I am archaeologist…). There aren’t really any other significant characters in the book (there are suspects and others that you would expect from a mystery, but no one major), and so the novella rests entirely on the interactions between Pleiti and Mossa. Luckily, these characters absolutely come alive on the page and their personalities fill up these pages and more.

In this review, I realize that I haven’t mentioned the mystery element that much. This isn’t because the mystery isn’t engaging; it was just for me the mystery was just a hook, a way to enter into this conversation about the past and future, and what we think we desire versus what we actually desire. However, if you are a “plot” reader I think you will also fall in love with The Mimicking of Known Successes. What starts as a relatively simple mystery – how did this man disappear along some train tracks – becomes a much larger conspiracy with many surprising developments. And while many “it’s actually a conspiracy!” stories go off the rails with their implausibility, Older is able to keep this one grounded and believable. So while I love this novella for its character and themes, it had an exciting plot to back it all up.

The physical book I got from the library itself didn’t say anything about a series, but I hope that the way that it is coded on Goodreads is true because I not only want to spend more time on Jupiter, but I want to further explore Pleiti and Mossa.

Concluding Thoughts: At the surface what seems to be a cozy science fiction book is actually a thoughtful and illuminating exploration of nostalgia and the limitations of holding too securely onto the past. In just a few pages, Malka Older introduces us to two complex and well-drawn characters embroiled in an engaging mystery. Come for the Holmes and Watson dynamic and the sci-fi worldbuilding and stay for the beautiful examination of recreating past successes.

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Mimicking of Known Successes!

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