Review Date: 30 August 2003

Extremes, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Roc, New York, NY, July 2003, 374 pages, Paperback, US$6.50, ISBN:0-451-45934-2
a review by Rich Horton

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's first story, "Sing", appeared in Aboriginal SF in 1987, and with "Fast Cars" in the October 1989 Asimov's she was anointed as a hot new writer, and she won the 1990 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, beating out Allen Steele, Nancy Collins, John G. Cramer, and of all people Katherine Neville, who was nominated for her best-selling historical fantasy The Eight, which I think is an awful awful book. (For many reasons -- one of the lesser is her having a nun in 1789 use "meter" as a unit of measure.)

Rusch was from this time regarded as an extremely promising newwriter, of a generally "literary" bent. Her work as editor of first Pulphouse, then F&SF, generally helped her standing. But to my mind she has not really achieved her initial promise. She has won a Hugo Award, in 2001 for Best Novelette, "Millennium Babies". (Not an award with which I concur, I will add.) I have enjoyed a lot of Rusch's work, perhaps most notably the novelette "Echea" (1998, and a Hugo and Nebula nominee), and also the story "June Sixteenth at Anna's" from Asimov's earlier this year. But even in her best work manipulative string-pulling is evident. I've read only a couple of her novels, competent work but not outstanding.

It occurs to me that I am perhaps being unfair. Rusch is noticeably a reliable writer, a writer of entertaining stories. Her work does not seem terribly ambitious, and she does not seem particularly a brilliant idea-woman, nor a master of prose or characterization -- but in all areas she is competent. Had she not won the Campbell, had she not been labelled early on as an up-and-comer, a sort of "great white hope of SF", would I be disappointed? Perhaps not. Perhaps I would compare her with her sometime co-writer, Kevin J. Anderson, who started at about the same time, and whose career has followed a somewhat similar arc, and relative to him I would surely mark Rusch as a very fine writer. And she's really not bad -- she's just, well -- minor.

All this is lead-in to discussing her new novel Extremes. This is an SF mystery set on the Moon, a "Retrieval Artist" novel, and as such a sequel to her June 2000 Analog novella "The Retrieval Artist" (a Hugo nominee, and a story which I remember as OK but not great), and her 2002 novel The Disappeared. As I said, this is a mystery, and it's not a bad mystery, but it's not particularly good either. It's competent, readable, but on several grounds not quite convincing and somewhat disappointing in resolution. It's a sturdy commercial work but nothing memorable.

Extremes is told in three narrative threads. One follows Miles Flint, the Retrieval Artist of the overall series title. His job is to track down people who have "disappeared" -- basically, people who have taken on new identities. It appears that most such people are fleeing capricious prosecutions by alien species -- apparently, it is somewhat easy to violate obscure alien laws and to be sentenced to death for something trivial, or even for something a relative did. This seems to have been the subject of the first Retrieval Artist novel, but it doesn't really come into play here. Flint is approached by a law firm to track down one Frieda Tey, a human Disappeared who violated quite ordinary human laws -- she was accused of killing some 200 people by introducing a genetically-engineered virus into an outsystem dome. However, she and her father (who engaged the law firm) claim that the deaths were accidental and she is being railroaded.

Another thread follows Noelle DeRicci, a cliché "maverick" cop (i.e.she's really good but her career is stalled because she won't play politics) who is assigned to investigate a death at the annual "Moon Marathon", a standard length marathon run on the Moon's surface in environment suits. Apparently, some idiot dies every couple of years in this event accidentally, and DeRicci seems to get the cleanup job every time. But it's soon clear that this death is a murder, perhaps intended to look accidental.

The third thread follows Miriam Oliviari, a "Tracker" looking for Frieda Tey. Trackers are sort of the opposite of Retrieval Artists. They do the same thing: try to find people who have "Disappeared". But Retrieval Artists only do so for the benefit of the Disappeared -- to allow them to claim a legacy, or something. They are ethically bound not to reveal the new identity of the Disappeared. Trackers are apparently engaged by the people the Disappeared are hiding from, by contrast. Miriam has tracked Frieda Tey over several years, and she has decided that Tey is one of the Moon Marathon competitors.

No prizes for guessing who the murder victim at the Moon Marathon is identified as.

There is a further connection between these threads -- DeRicci and Flint were once partners, before Flint quit the police force. And the two of them begin to cooperate once they realize that besides the murder the Moon Marathon is being disrupted by an outbreak of a virus very much resembling the virus that killed all the people Tey was accused of killing. Oliviari realizes the same thing, and as her cover identity is one of the marathon medical team, she is forced to deal directly with the virus outbreak -- an outbreak she may know more about than anyone because of her research into Tey's past. So the novel continues, with DeRicci dealing with a very unusual murder and an epidemic to boot, and Oliviari forced to compromise her chance to catch Tey in order to save lives; while Flint is also forced to compromise his Retrieval Artist ethics. All ends in a thrilling space chase.

On one level, it's exciting stuff. The ending is pretty scary and well set up. The basic mystery is interesting. The novel is a whole is fast moving and good reading. But ... goddammit, nothing really makes any sense! Part of my problem is just economics -- I simply cannot believe there are enough Disappeared and enough associated legacies and stuff to support the apparently thriving business of Retrieval Artists, and the incredible fees they charge. (Flint, for example, is set for life as a result of a previous case.) Part of it is the overblown villainy of the eventually revealed bad guy. Part of it is the strained setup of the original crime, depending on just too many coincidences. Part of it is the mechanics of the whole thing -- Flint's computer security skills, for instance, which as presented might as well be magic. Part of it is the structure -- the novel is supposed to be a Retrieval Artist Novel, but Flint's Retrieval Artist skills basically never come into play. Read the book quickly without thinking much and I think you'll be entertained -- but pull on any of the dangling threads and the whole thing collapses.