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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

February 06, 2006

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Buried Deep (Retrieval Artist Novels, No. 4)

For the 4th of the Retrieval Artist space Opera Mysteries Kristine Kathryn Rusch returns to the initial premise of the series, which is the convoluted and difficult legal system that surrounds human-alien relations.

The Disty are an alien race who are horrified by death, to the point where any contact with a dead body is considered a contamination that needs to be cleansed by ritual. They have hundreds of rituals, depending on circumstance. Any ground where a body is discovered is unclean, and those involved in the discovery need to be cleansed by ritual, too.

Depending on how close the unclean person is to the dead person, the ritual can be more or less invasive and destructive. If no family member can be found, the ritual is essentially the same as a death penalty.

Worst of all, the Disty have occupied Mars (a brilliant stroke by Rusch - all other Mars colonies I've ever read about were created by humans, and the idea that a planet in our own solar system can be under a completely alien system of government gives you the same chills you'd get if people in our society really could be [legally] executed for drawing cartoons.), which means that they live in close proximity to humans, who must tie themselves in knots in order to avoid contravening Disty law.

When humans fall foul of the Disty, the only realistic option is to disappear - witness protection (or Rushdie) style - to avoid the inevitable violent end.

Buried Deep opens with the discovery of a dead body, which - to the aliens' horror - appears to have been buried underneath a Disty housing settlement for at least 30 years. The human female's lost family need to be found for the cleansing ritual, or else the other humans involved (police, pathologist, anthropologist) will face a fate worse than (and including) death.

Unfortunately, the woman was not what she seemed, and finding her family looks to be an impossible task. Things go from bad to worse when a further 100 mummified human bodies are found in the same area.

This parable of extreme cultural relativism is at heart a mystery that needs to be solved, both to reveal an unwritten history (how did 100 bodies end up there?) and - perhaps - save the unwitting humans who stumbled upon a serious problem in the course of doing their jobs. Like all the best SF, it throws the world in which we live into a sharp perspective, exaggerating our own difficulties in rubbing along with religionist nutters of various persuasions to page-turning effect.


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