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Book cover art by Greg Bridges.
Review © 2003 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Good cop/detective stories are hard to come by in SF. It's particularly hard to come by one that doesn't take every single last one of its cues from Blade Runner. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has managed to pull off a fairly original take on the SF cop story that also speculates — in a jarringly cynical way, I might add — upon the sorts of political relationships humans and aliens might have in a future where they interact frequently, and where clashes of cultures would lead to new laws and rules of ethics that are abhorrent to a modern sensibility. Though there is the seed of a really good story here, Rusch lets too many plum opportunities slip through her fingers.

Set a few centuries into the future, The Disappeared starts from the premise that humanity has contacted numerous advanced alien races, and that both immigration and emigration are routine. In order to maintain harmony among such disparate civilizations, all of whom have customs and traditions that are truly alien to one another, a strict policy of tolerance towards the laws of other species is in place. And some of these other species have markedly different ideas about crime and punishment. Offend the Wygnin, and they are entitled to your firstborn; offend the Rev, and it's life in one of their hard-labor camps. In what is Rusch's most cynical touch, she depicts the governments of the human race — whom we are led to believe are similar to the ones we have today, though she doesn't really go into detail about them; we're told that present day nations like the U.S. and Canada are still around — as having weakly capitulated to all of this, even though it's impossible to imagine any human authority today even giving token approval to the idea that a child should be punished for the crimes of his parent.

Miles Finch is a cop in the lunar colony of Armstrong Dome who has just been promoted to detective. He is called in to investigate a case where some Wygnin have been stopped with human children in their possession for whom they do not have valid warrants. While this is underway, a space yacht bearing a single frightened woman makes an emergency landing, and her story is more than a little suspicious. She claims the Rev attacked her ship, something they would never do without legal cause. In no time it is revealed that the frightened woman is using a false name, and that she is one of the Disappeared, a person who has violated alien law and used a professional — and highly illegal — protection service to buy a new identity and be hidden away from their draconian punishments.

But the Disappearance service the woman is using is running a nasty double-cross, selling out their charges to the very aliens hunting them down. The irony here is that by doing so, the service is actually on the right side of the law. But the law is becoming more and more repugnant to Finch the more he investigates the cases before him. And when the woman makes a desperate getaway from Finch's partner, the prospect of having severely angry alien authorities on his hands is a bit too much to bear.

Rusch writes all of this, more or less, as a straightforward suspenser. It works okay, but I thought her book could have had a great deal more depth if she had used her genuinely intriguing premise to explore the notions of right and wrong and the way in which the very concepts of morality and justice might take wildly divergent forms in cultures alien to ours. Rusch eschews philosophical and moral examinations in favor of withering commentary on petty authority. Finch and his unpopular partner, DeRicci, get this case mainly so that if it all blows up, the lunar government can claim plausible deniability. It shows a healthy cynicism, but then, attacking impersonal government bureaucracies is not exactly going out on a thematic limb.

Flint's character arc is pretty inevitable, too, and the novel's resolution as tidy and pat as any Hollywood screenplay. It's a shame that The Disappeared couldn't have been more than an acceptable paperback diversion, given the intellectual potential of its premise. After all, we can relate to Finch's opinion that the laws he's called on to enforce are insane. But Rusch ought to have addressed why it is such laws were adopted by her various alien races in the first place, and why they think they are in the right. Sadly, the only aliens we see are just more faceless authority figures. None is given the role of an actual character in the story. Why not have one of the aliens as a major supporting character? How interesting it would've been for Rusch to have made one of the Wygnin a real player, and actually had it argue for the morality of their practice of taking children. Alas, it remains a tantalizing might-have-been in a story that is ultimately upmarket escapism.

Whatever The Disappeared's shortcomings, there is entertainment here, and a solid foundation upon which Rusch can bring the series to its full potential in future sequels, should she choose to be as daring as I think this series cries out to be.

Followed by Extremes.