Nathan’s review of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older
After the stunning creative success that was The Mimicking of Known Successes, I was honestly a bit let down by this follow-up of Pleiti and Mossa’s investigative adventures. This book had all of the same pieces as the first book – sci-fi worldbuilding, sapphic romance, grand philosophical ideas, and a mystery – but it ultimately lacked the heart of what made The Mimicking of Known Successes one of my favorites of last year. Somehow, and it feels a bit weird saying this as a reader, it is almost like this book missed the point of what made the first book such as a resounding triumph.
The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles picks up a bit after the first book, and Pleiti and Mossa are now in committed relationship. The impetus of the book comes when Mossa starts to investigate a group of missing persons who are all affiliated with the university, and asks Pleiti to come on board as a special consultant on the case.
What this novella (short novel?) does really well is seamlessly expands upon the the world Older has created. We get a better since of the history of the human colonization of Jupiter, the social tensions between different groups of people, and the (perhaps useless) quest to return to Earth. Older’s depiction of what a post-apocalyptic situation might be has always been masterful. She has always nailed the desire to return to a perceived homeland, even if you have no direct connection to it. None of the people who live on Jupiter, including Pleiti, have ever been to Earth. They have only known Jupiter from birth, and yet they still feel this alienation about their surroundings. They know that, based on all of the tech needed to just keep them alive, that they aren’t meant to be there, and rather than enjoying themselves they find themsevles always seeking a return to a past they know little about.
This was the main theme of the first book, and Older continues it here while adding on an additional question – why as humans do we always make things harder than they need to be? Why do we always get in our own way and set up the titual “unnecessary obstacles”? Whether it is the macro, structural social problems that we have created for ourselves (internal divisions, classism, etc.) or the micro, individual elements (like when we have a perfectly good relationship but we have to make it hard for some reason), it seems that our species just thrives on extraneous hardship. Like the meme of the kid putting the stick in his own bicycle wheel, we just cannot help ruining perfectly good things.
On the whole this is a great theme for Older to explore in this futuristic world, and as the grand level of the “idea” it should really work. One of my biggest issues with this book is that the themes are just not seamlessly integrated. The philosophizing crosses the line to be a bit too academic, a bit too wordy, and ultimately overwhelms everything else. What made the first book such a treat was the way Older was able to explore big themes while also telling a cozy, Holmesian mystery with a sapphic romance. In this book, everything except the ideas get sidelined.
This ultimately makes for a book that is relatively boring and feels longer than its pretty short page count. The relationship between Pleiti and Mossa loses its spark, mainly because the characters themselves lose their spark. Mossa and Pleiti are separated from each other for large sections of the book, and honestly Pleiti (as a character) needs Mossa to “pop”. I understand that the point of the book was that their relationship has progressed beyond the honeymoon phase, but they just didn’t feel like characters to me. They instead felt like pawns on a board to get to the themes and ideas Older wanted to discuss.
It also didn’t help that the mystery was not engaging. What starts off as a very interesting mass missing persons case quickly devolves into…nothing. There are many different ways to make an interesting mystery. Maybe it is a puzzled box, or a traditional whodunnit; but mysteries are only interesting if there is some element of the reader playing along. In this book there is no way for the reader to “play detective” with Mossa and Pleiti because the way information is given to the readers are so erratic. The book turned into the reader just following Mossa and Pleiti from place to place without any real narrative momentum and heft. The best parts of the book are the ones that don’t involve the mystery, such as Mossa’s background on Jupiter’s moon Io. I maybe would have preferred the book without the mystery elements, but instead just diving into the relationship between these two women.
Ultimately this book was a bit of a miss for me. The ideas and worldbuilding are still strong, but it just lacks the core of what made the first book so great. I’m still on board for whatever Pleiti and Mossa have in store for the future, but I hope that any future books find that specialness again.
Concluding Thoughts: A short novel/novella that is big on ideas, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles finds academic Pleiti and detective Mossa on another case. The ideas are once again the star of this book, this time examining why and how we make are lives more difficult than they need to be, and why as a society and individuals we cannot be happy. Unfortunately the ideas are not as seamlessly tied into the characters or plot this time around. The characters don’t sparkle and the mystery falls flat. This was a bit of a “sophomore slump” for this series, but I am hopeful it will return to its glory in the future!