Station Eternity, Mur Lafferty (Ace 978-0-59309-811-0, $17.00, 336pp, tp) October 2022. Cover by Will Staehle.
In Station Eternity, her first novel since Nebula, Hugo, and Philip K. Dick Award nominee Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty turns two old tropes of the PI-murder-mystery genre on their head. Firstly, the misanthropic investigator. It’s an old one, and maybe not seen as much these days, but the loner PI who’s grown contemptuous of humanity is still likely to be familiar to fans of the crime genre. Mallory Viridian doesn’t want to be around people, it’s true; in fact she is one of only two humans officially on the sentient, and alien, Space Station Eternity (and one of only three in reality). However, it’s not because she doesn’t like humans, but rather because murders just seem to happen around her. Rather than relishing solitude, she is terribly lonely – but she doesn’t want more people to die around her, hence being somewhere as isolated as she possibly can. This murder-attracting trait of Mallory’s is the other trope Lafferty is playing with: the likes of Miss Marple and Father Brown always seem to just happen to be in the area when a murder happens, but that fact isn’t usually called out. Mallory has certainly noticed the deaths around her, where Marple and Brown are rarely suspected of being themselves responsible for the deaths. Mallory has, which hasn’t made her life any easier. (She’s also gone on to solve most of them, but that still hasn’t helped her reputation with the police.)
As the story opens, it’s a few years after First Contact. Earth has received some official alien visits, and the planet is in negotiations to allow humans to visit the nearest alien station, Eternity. There are several alien species who live in Eternity; the wasp-like Sundry, the huge and apparently made-of-rock Gneiss (think a bit like Pratchett’s trolls, but faster and smarter), and others of varying appearance – mostly bipedal, except for the sentient station itself. The most intriguing thing about these alien species, and what marks humans out as different, is that they are in symbiotic relationships. The aliens generally think humanity inferior for the lack of symbiont, and wonder how we can possibly survive or thrive. Lafferty strikes a nice balance with her aliens: they are indeed alien, in appearance and behaviour and expectations; but they are still familiar enough, with recognizable problems (like family) and motivations (often family, again), that it makes sense these sentients could indeed co-exist, and include humans within their society.
Mallory has already been living on Eternity for some time, tolerating the official human ambassador and reacquainting herself with Xan (the unofficial third human on station), with whom she went to college and whose presence on the station is a matter of some mystery. She’s been trying to understand alien written communication (Lafferty cheerfully uses an implanted translation device to circumvent the whole “alien language” thing), and has been earning credits by allowing the Sundry to examine her biology. Things start to go pear-shaped when it’s announced that an unexpected shuttle full of humans is about to arrive. Mallory is terrified that, with that many humans around, her weird connection to murders will make itself apparent; Xan has his own reasons to be worried about who might be on the shuttle (not least the fact that he’s military and officially AWOL); and the ambassador, Adrian, is outraged at having been sidelined. The shuttle arrival is the signal that the plot is about to blow up and get very messy, and it does. Unexpected connections are made, backgrounds are revealed, and it’s not just humans whose lives are upended; this is going to have a profound impact on several of the alien species, too. The story unfolds like a good mystery should, as clues are observed and seemingly random bits of information are linked together and eventually a coherent explanation comes together for pretty much all the oddities.
Lafferty has some amusing notes here for science fiction fans – Mallory willingly being examined by aliens is a nice turn on the alien-probe theme; there’s an amusing story about a college professor who refuses to include Octavia E. Butler on his American literature course; one of the characters writes fanfic on AO3. On the other side, I note that this series is called “The Midsolar Murders” which makes my English-murder-mystery-heart sing. Station Eternity balances both the science fiction elements – meeting aliens, understanding how to work with them – and the mystery elements very evenly; it genuinely works as both genres (and works best as both). I’m already looking forward to however many more of these stories we get, because it was just so much fun.
Alexandra Pierce reads, writes, podcasts, cooks and knits; she’s Australian and a feminist. She was a host of the Hugo Award winning podcast Galactic Suburbia for a decade; her new podcast is all about indie bookshops and is called Paper Defiance. Alex has edited two award-winning non-fiction anthologies, Letters to Tiptree and Luminscent Threads: Connections to Octavia E Butler. She reviews a wide range of books at www.randomalex.net.
This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.
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