There is a fundamental implausibility to easy crewed interstellar (or even interplanetary) space travel that nonetheless remains a seductive idea even in our wiser and more cynical and weary 21st century. The future may indeed be robots all the way down for major travel beyond low earth orbit. Space is just too hazardous and difficult on a variety of axes not appreciated by science fiction writers or visionaries for a long time, to make it an experience that will be common, or pleasant, for a very long time, if ever.
And yet there is a romance to that, a hankering to extend the ideas and delights of experiences here on Earth. Take, for example, the concept of a cruise. In the days before the most recent global pandemic (Covid), even with recent challenges and issues cruises have had, cruises were enormously popular. Taking your accommodations with you as you stop at various ports, or even as you just cross a long distance, is an incredibly seductive idea, if the cruise liner itself is adequately equipped. A home away from home as it takes you to a new destination, with distractions aplenty to keep you occupied. In the age of the most recent pandemic, the allure is somewhat tarnished but the basic appeal is there.
One more strand, patient reader, and that is the subgenre that, most often gets mixed into mainline science fiction. No, not romance, even though romance as a genre surpasses in sales and size all of its non-mimetic rivals. No, I am talking about mysteries. Mysteries have been a subgenre of science fiction since the early 1950s. Writing a mystery is hard – making it a fair puzzle, putting on restrictions to narrow things for the writer and the reader. Writing a science fiction mystery is difficult, though, to make it a fair puzzle that doesn’t cheat the reader and gives them a chance to anticipate the author is a very ambitious high wire act. A murder mystery on a cruise liner, well, that’s as old as Agatha Christie, at least. But a murder mystery in a science fiction setting on a cruise liner … that’s a new idea.
However, now we do have what feels like to me the definitively interstellar cruise liner novel. A novel that is complete with a murder mystery, compelling characters, and solid worldbuilding. And now, patient reader, it is time to talk directly about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare Man.
Some decades (perhaps a century and change) from now, with a Martian colony a going concern, Luna a burgeoning colony, and of course good old Earth, the solar system is becoming humankind’s oyster. Interplanetary travel can be for the masses – if they are wealthy enough. And so cruise liners like the I.S.S Lindgren make trips from the Moon to Mars. Big, well equipped liners, of which I will speak more anon. This is why Artesia Zuraw and Mishal Husband are taking their well deserved honeymoon on a cruise to Mars. They seem like an ordinary rich couple, albeit one with, unusually enough, a service dog, a Westie named Gimlet (who frankly steals every scene she is in).
But there is a wrinkle here. Artesia is really Tesla Crane, famous engineer and inventor. And her new husband is Shal Steward, a famous private detective, now retired. And when Shal is framed for a murder that happens just outside their rooms, both Tesla and Shal are going to have give up their anonymous identities and move to solve the murder themselves.
And therein hangs a tale.
The Spare Man, for all that it seems to be a relatively light and frothy “Thin Man in Spaaaace!” sort of SF mystery affair, does a lot of things, and nearly all of them very well. The mystery itself (and it is a mild spoiler to note that the death that Shal is framed for is not the only murder on the ship) falls into place piece by piece. In hindsight having finished the novel, I can see how the author set up a lot of the pieces very skillfully, leaving clues for the careful reader to pick up. I am not a well versed mystery reader by history or inclination, and so I do not even try to play the “guess the murderer” sort of game that really seasoned readers of the genre DO like to engage in. But looking back, I can see the clues laid out for a reader to pick up what is really going on, and then follow who the real culprit is and why they are doing it.
In retrospect, it all makes a lot of sense, and it is to me a fair and well developed puzzle. It is, mind you, a science fiction based puzzle, this being a science fiction novel, and the author does set up and introduce aspects of the technology of the setting that apply and factor in to the murder, so that the puzzle can be plausibly deciphered by a seasoned reader. But all of that technology brings me to the next thing that the novel does really well, and that is worldbuilding.
As I mentioned above, a trip to Mars is not likely ever to be a possibility. But if you are going to do so, why not do it in style, with all the trimmings and fixings? The I.S.S. Lindgren, our cruise liner, is one of the best realized original space craft in modern science fiction literature. It is an amazing multi-ring spacecraft with three different rings for three different gravity environments (Moon, Mars, Terra). The author isn’t interested in how the ship is propelled; this is not that kind of novel. All of the physical aspects that are described, including the varying gravity, do turn out to be plot relevant. The amenities on the ship, from bars to karaoke to the pool, are very well described and are immersively detailed.
There are subtleties to the worldbuilding, too, beyond the grand design of a interplanetary cruise liner, ranging from the technology of surveillance and the arms race of devices and gadgets to defeat it, to social evolutions as well. In Kowal’s world, everyone gets the Mx. title, regardless of gender, and it is a well established social practice to introduce yourself with your pronouns, or if in discussing someone else, to add their pronouns to the discussion up front. Or if pronouns are not known, to ask what they are. The times that this is not done are considered social faux pas of a rather rude sort. There are also subtle references sprinkled into the text here and there that lightly touch on the state of Earth. The focus here is very much on the world beyond Earth, as it should be.
Finally, let’s talk about the characters, the leads and others. The novel focuses on the binary star system that is the newlywed couple of Tesla and Shal, and they are dynamically drawn, flawed, engaging protagonists that come as alive as, say, Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man. The author has said that this was her model, but she puts her own spin on it. As mentioned above, the couple are traveling under false identities, so at first they don’t have their money and power to help extricate them. Their dog Gimlet is perhaps one of the best in genre fiction. But instead of just being a pet like The Thin Man‘s Asta, Gimlet is a working dog, for she is a service dog for Tesla, who is suffering PTSD and physical disability following an accident. The nature of that accident and what it means for the character gets revealed in the narrative, and the details, large and small are important from both a character and a plot perspective.
Shal, as mentioned before, is a retired private detective (again, like Nick Charles) who winds up getting roped into a case, here, despite himself. The history of his private detective efforts, too, become plot and character relevant. And together, they are a very human couple on their honeymoon trying to enjoy it, incognito, despite the best efforts of the universe to pull them otherwise.
There are a cloud of secondary characters around Tesla and Shal, but the most interesting one, the one that will delight a spectrum of readers (or intimidate them, as she did me) is Fantine. Fantine is the lawyer for the couple and of course when Shal is accused of murder, she is on the case immediately. Or at least as immediately as lightspeed lag, going ever greater as the ship heads toward Mars, will allow. The lightspeed lag allows for Fantine’s messages and her delayed responses to what Tesla and Shal get up to be truly comedic. And Fantine’s sense of insults and words of choice just accentuates her comedic aspect. She never appears in the flesh, but she is the most memorable of characters besides the main three themselves.
I think that The Spare Man hits its marks and firmly takes its place as the best, most complete, most well rounded novel Kowal has written to date. Fresh off the strengths of her Lady Astronaut novels, The Spare Man is a standalone triumph. It’s a world she entices the reader to visit, with interesting and witty characters that have snappy dialogue, strong character arcs and revelations, and an engaging mystery on a cruise liner … in Spaaaace!
(Tor Books, 2022)