The Unlikely Utopia: Review of The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

E.G. Condé

Under Review:
The Mimicking of Known Successes. Malka Older. Tordotcom, March 2023.

“Perhaps there’s a discipline, or trans-discipline, of flexibility and reactiveness, or a calculation of the principles involved in ecosystem survival rather than the litera­l mimicking of known successes.”

Imagine a humanity exiled from the Earth they once called home, confined to live in a captivity of their own making, in shielded platforms set along a network of orbital rings crisscrossing the storm-streaked surface of Giant, their name for cloudy Jupiter. Imagine a humanity racked with the “epigenetic ache” to return to a world they evolved to live on but have never known, a world irrevocably ravaged by the greed and sins of their ancestors. This is the setting of Malka Older’s breathtaking science fiction novella, The Mimicking of Known Successes, a genre-hybrid about navigating the incommensurability of vanished pasts and precarious presents.

Mimicking stars Older’s answer to Sherlock Holmes; a cunning, lasso-wielding badass named Mossa, whose task as an Investigator is to solve the mystery of a man’s disappearance. The trail leads her through dimly-lit paths soughed by Jovian wind and colorful fog, transporting readers to a noirish, neo-Victorian future flaring with gas lamps and steamy railcars; an aesthetic choice that amplifies the novella’s theme of temporal nostalgia.

The trail of the disappeared man, Bolien Trewl, leads Mossa to Valdegeld, home of Giant’s most esteemed university and an old flame, the scholar Pleiti. With her knowledge of the university and its many personalities and politics, Pleiti proves to be a valuable asset to Mossa’s investigation. Their first stop is the enigmatic Preservation Institute, known colloquially as a “mauzooleum”. Within its walls reside reanimated flora and fauna from extinct Earth, experiments in ecosystem design and equilibrium aimed at resurrecting a disappeared world. This is the purview of the Classicists like Pleiti, scholars who study the Terran past rather than the Jovian present, the intellectual province of the opposing Modernists.

After many scones, cozy fireside chats, roundhouse kicks, and aggravating almost-affections, Mossa and Pleiti work to resolve this interplanetary whodunit, unraveling a plot to prematurely rekindle a lost world, even as their own relationship reignites. Along the way, readers glimpse a world between, not the sparkling interstellar future of your standard space opera, but something clunkier, reminiscent of steampunk, only gassier. In this decidedly “gaspunk” reality, where the severe conditions of the Jovian atmosphere make conventional telecommunications impossible, information is ferried by way of telegram or porters who hand-deliver messages. Rather than cast technological progress as an exponential, absolute curve towards increasing complexity, Older’s universe is one weathered by lessons of its destructive past, misadventures on Mars and elsewhere that made the seemingly unlikely Jupiter the only viable home for a humanity that exhausted its habitat. Remarking on Giant’s early history as a gas mine for a resource-hungry Earth, Pleiti describes an abandoned gas processing facility as a “monument of wasted resources”, a reminder of a pernicious, extractive ideology that resulted in ecosystem collapse.

While the shadow of dystopic calamity looms large over the story,  Mimicking reads nothing like a post-apocalyptic tale. For readers, the swirling gases of the “Mighty Tempest” and the fierce winds that flicker over the atmospheric shielding of the platforms might seem alarming, but to the Giant-born settlers the story portrays, this milieu is one of comfort and constancy. Amid gardens teeming with reanimated pigeons and bioengineered hybrids called goshawks, or the lavish home or “rooms” of Pleiti and others, there is little sense of dread or impending doom. Instead, we are invited to consider an unfamiliar image of utopia, in containerized habitats, where the carceral state has shrunk into an investigative force more interested in maintaining harmony than inflicting terror on its citizenry.

There is much to praise about Older’s genre-defying prose: its wry humor and witty panache; its tender dialogue and deep philosophical musings; its sumptuous descriptions of scones; and its careful sprinklings of techno-babble that will slake the appetite of readers who yearn for “hard science fiction” without compromising on literary cachet or romantic tone. Like Older’s mind-blowing Centenal Cycle series, the world of Mimicking is a cosmopolitan, multicultural meshwork as evidenced by diverse place-names and references made by the characters. For instance, Pleiti uses the word “comemierdería” (“full of shit”) to refer to one of the insufferable, pompous men she calls a colleague, suggesting that she is Latina/e/x. Neurodiversity is also hinted at, with Mossa’s brain being variously described by Pleiti as both a “marvel” and a source of frustration within neurotypical expectations of what intimacy and affection look like.

I close by returning to the quote I opened with:

“Perhaps there’s a discipline, or trans-discipline, of flexibility and reactiveness, or a calculation of the principles involved in ecosystem survival rather than the litera­l mimicking of known successes.”

The monologue above, spoken by Mossa to Pleiti at the novella’s climax, is the inspiration for the novella’s title but also the pronouncement of its most radical thesis: Nature was never natural. The tediously researched biomes and ecosystems that the novella’s Classicists seek to remake are just as much an artifice as the platforms and orbital rings of the Modernists’ Giant. Like Giant, Earth is a result of terraforming, albeit an unsustainable variety. Hence Mossa’s call for a new way forward that rejects purity, neither Classical nor Modern, a “discipline…of flexibility and reactiveness”, to steer humanity toward a new paradigm of balance to overcome their calamitous inheritance and uncertain future.

The Mimicking of Known Successes is a quiet masterpiece; an intimate character study, a tender queer romance, a satisfying mystery, and a unique take on many genre clichés in a short form. For me, its principal flaw is that it has an ending. Thankfully, there is a sequel on the cloud-mottled horizon.

E.G. Condé (he/him/Él) is a queer diasporic Boricua writer of speculative fiction and fantasy. Condé is one of the creators of “Taínofuturism”, an emerging artistic genre that imagines a future of indigenous renewal and decolonial liberation for Borikén (Puerto Rico) and the archipelagos of the Caribbean. Condé (he/him/Él) is the author of Sordidez, a climate fiction novella set in the Yucatán peninsula and the Caribbean sea, forthcoming with Stelliform Press in July 2023. His short fiction appears in Anthropology & Humanism, If There’s Anyone Left, Reckoning, EASST Review, Tree and Stone, Sword & Sorcery, Solarpunk Magazine. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Transparency Statement

This article was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review; the author and editors had no prior relationship. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Dan Stephensen. The review author received an ARC from Malka Older following a reading from the book prior to its publication.

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