Sunday, November 20, 2022

Review: Station Eternity, by Mur Lafferty by Rich Horton

Review: Station Eternity, by Mur Lafferty

by Rich Horton

Station Eternity is Mur Lafferty's third novel (not counting media tie-ins) -- her first, Playing for Keeps, dates to 2007, but it was her second, Six Wakes (2017) that gained a lot of notice, including Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick shortlisting. (Lafferty has also been editor or co-editor of the major SF fiction podcast Escape Pod for most of its existence.) Six Wakes was an unusual murder mystery set on a spaceship ... and Station Eternity is an unusual murder mystery set on an alien sentient space station. It is subtitled The Midsolar Murders, with the implication that it may be the first of a series -- and, indeed, the ending leaves room for more books with some of the same characters, especially the main "detective" character, Mallory Viridian. (I emphasize, though, that the story this book tells is complete -- the series would be in the form of many mystery series, including a pseudonymous series mentioned in this book -- written by Mallory herself!)

The novel opens establishing that Mallory Viridian, a 30ish young woman, has been, Murder She Wrote-like, present at numerous murders, and that she has been able to solve many of these. This hasn't done her much good -- her dating life is pretty much shot, and she hasn't been allowed to make a profession of her detective ability, as her close connection to various murders makes her an object of suspicion. In despair at the danger she seems to pose to anyone close to her, she decides to apply for a sort of asylum on Station Eternity, a space station that is home to several alien races, and which has in recent years contacted Earth -- but so far has only invited three humans to live there: the official ambassador, linguist Adrian Casserly-Berry; Mallory herself; and Xan Morgan, who is coincidentally (or is it coincidence?) an old college friend of Mallory, as well as a soldier who had been working on a classified project involving the aliens before he was mysteriously spirited off the station.

The primary action of the story is driven by the impending arrival of the first large group of humans at Station Eternity -- a mix of a couple dozen bigwigs, some military, and lottery winners. Xan and Mallory and Adrian are each incensed by this development, for different reasons: Xan convinced he faces a court-martial or worse; Mallory simply desiring to maintain her distance from the humans she feels she endangers; and Adrian believing he will be replaced as ambassador. But before any of their concerns are addressed, there is a worse crisis at hand: the space station, a sentient being, has gone crazy, perhaps because its symbiote, an unpleasant alien who serves as sort of an interface between the station and its inhabitants, has been killed. As a result, the shuttle carrying the human visitors is destroyed, with more than half of the visitors killed. Xan and Mallory are charged with rescuing the survivors; while Adrian ends up as a potential new symbiote for the station.

Whoa! Feels like time for a breath -- there's so much going on. What seemed at first a somewhat comic SF take on the Murder She Wrote trope of an obvious serial killer heroine "solving" the unusual number of murders in her neighborhood (and apparently something of this nature is going on in the British show The Midsomer Murders, as signaled by the Midsolar Murders label for Lafferty's impending series) has become rather darker and more urgent. Clearly, human/alien relations are focal point here; particularly the difference between humans, who do not form symbiotic relationships with other species, and the alien species, all of who do form such relationships. In addition, everyone on the station, most certainly including Mallory and Xan, is in mortal danger. And -- what's up with all these sudden human visitors? The novel digresses here to fill in the back stories of most of the humans (and a couple of aliens as well.) Mallory's life is detailed, and Xan's including his military background, which involves a horrible incident -- in which a number of soldiers died, and Xan and his friend Calliope Oh were implicated for negligence or worse. And Calliope is one of the survivors of the shuttle accident -- as well as Xan's brother Phineas, a rap star; as well as Mallory's unpleasant Aunt Kathy; and a certain Mrs. Brown and her violinist granddaughter -- both of who have killed people in self-defense (though Mrs. Brown went to jail, partly because Mallory investigated one of her killings ...) Add an obsessive fan of Mallory's books ... It becomes quite clear that the events that have brought this particular group of humans to Station Eternity are not a coincidence. Beyond that, Mallory's best alien friends, the rocklike Gneiss, turn out to be significant too -- for one thing, they are responsible for Xan's arrival at Station Eternity; for another thing, one of them is a Princess, and another is ready to use a very dark Gneiss secret ...

Gasp! And I've left a lot out. Suffice it to say that this book is stuffed full of incident, intrigue, interesting aliens, and, well, improbability. In the end, the mysteries are resolved (the chief villain, it should be said, is a bit obvious) and some of the really weird happenings, such as Mallory's magnetism for murder, are explained in a reasonably plausible fashion. The nature of the aliens, of human relations to them, and the future resolution to all these issues is well enough arranged -- and, yes, future books in the series seem to be coming.

That said, I did have some issues, primarily with the sheer absurdity of some of the science, and the implausibility of some of the events and motivations. In the end, I'm willing to give much of the scientific implausibility a bit of a pass on the grounds that perhaps for a certain sort of SF -- indeed, I was reminded of James Alan Gardner's similarly entertaining and difficult to believe League of Peoples novels -- it's OK to let go of logic to allow the telling of a fun story and the description of involving aliens. And, yes, Mallory's improbable back story gets something of an explanation. But things like the movie Phineas was making that he had to abandon for family issues becoming an Oscar winner stretched my credibility far enough it snapped ... and that was a needless elaboration. Beyond that, as with so many novels these days, I thought some judicious cutting was in order. The digressions detailing the back story of all the major characters tried my patience a bit, though Lafferty's auctorial voice has enough verve that my interest was held -- which isn't to deny that less might have been more. 

Anyway, I found this book a good deal of fun, if not wholly successful. It's got plenty of SFnal brio, at times to a fault maybe. The mystery is set up intriguingly, if the resolution is just a tad flat. But I'm happy I read it, and I'll be there for Midsolar Murders 2.

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