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Queer Novella Reimagines Sherlock Holmes and Watson As College Ex-Girlfriends

One of the queer writers I recommend the most is Becky Chambers, particularly her recent Monk and Robot series, which are a pair of soothing science fiction novellas. Those books are hopeful yet realistic, queernormative, and utopian, yet still interesting in both narrative and character. There always seem to be people asking me for fiction (and science fiction in particular) that is LGBTQ+ and gentle, not focused on coming out or struggle. Sometimes queer readers just need a hug in book form, you know? Inevitably, whomever I recommended Chambers’ work to asks, “What are some other queer science fiction books like that?!” Then I have to tell them: “Sadly, not many.”

I am delighted to finally have a new book — and an excellent one at that — in my arsenal to add to the growing subgenre of cozy queer science fiction, and it’s The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older. A novella that more than lives up to the idea of cozy, it takes the literary connotations of that word further by creating a delightful mashup of science fiction and cozy mystery, with a delicious side of sapphic romance.

The Mimicking of Known Successes isn’t any old mystery; it’s an ode to the classic 19th century characters Sherlock Holmes and Watson, who have often been read as variations of queer. In this version, Older has reimagined them as two queer women who are college ex-girlfriends. As in Conan Doyle’s original stories, Watson narrates the enigmatic Holmes’s detective work. Here, Watson is Pleiti, a Classics scholar at the university. Holmes is Mossa, an Investigator, an official detective of sorts.

Before you get too far in imaging the setting of a university and Holmes detecting with a giant eyeglass pointed at a stained glass window at Oxford, let me remind you this is a science fiction story. The mystery and romance at hand are set on the planet Jupiter, at some unspecified time in the distant future. Humanity has had to flee Earth, which they have made unlivable. “On” the planet Jupiter is a bit of a stretch, because of course Jupiter is a planet made of gases, and there is no solid surface on which to live. Pleiti and Mossa’s lives take place on platforms, some of which are the sizes of cities. These platforms are connected via railroads that orbit the planet, which human inhabitants aptly call “Giant” colloquially throughout the book.

Older doesn’t waste any time jumping right into the mystery at hand as soon as the novella opens. Short chapters clip along at a brisk pace. The narrative opens with Mossa being called to a case of apparent suicide at a remote outpost platform. When she learns the man who supposedly vanished off the platform into the gases of Jupiter was an academic at Valdegeld, the planet’s university city, she heads directly there. She, incidentally, heads right for her former girlfriend and current scholar Pleiti, who is immediately swept up in the mystery. Also, although she’s loath to admit it at first, Pleiti is equally taken with her old lover Mossa.

There are subtle hints about discord and conflict at the university as it is described through Pleiti’s eyes. She is a Classics scholar, but not in our 21st century Earth sense. “Classics” at Valdegeld refers to the department which studies Earth and humanity’s existence there. Its grand project is humankind’s return to a revitalized Earth. In contrast, we have the university’s modern contingent, a maligned and defensive assortment of academics who study the humans of today and their current place of residence, Giant. As the mystery plot unfolds, the tiny details we’ve been given about the inner workings of academia begin to appear more and more relevant.

Humanity’s exile on a landless giant planet brimming with radiation, confined to small living quarters and sustaining themselves in artificial atmospheres, is a quiet and melancholic backdrop to the mystery tale. When Pleiti swears, she says, “Radiation and recombinant!” It sounds both quaint and futuristic, which is an apt description of the novella as a whole. The Mimicking of Known Successes manages to have a nostalgic tone while still feeling distinctly science fictional. The gas lamps that light the stormy streets full of Jupiter’s nasty weather give the book a noir-ish and cozy atmosphere. The ubiquitous presence of comfort food also adds greatly to the coziness. Mossa and Pleiti are constantly drinking tea, eating scones and biscuits, and stopping by restaurants to eat herbed soups and tarts, sipping on some delicious-sounding drink called “cedar-infused fermented sorrel liquor.”

Like the hints about academic discord and the setting, the romance in The Mimicking of Known Successes is similarly subtle and understated. Both characters’ uncertainty about the other’s feelings makes for a tentative but moving rekindling of their relationship. Mossa’s miss-it-if-you-blink casual Holmesian phrase “My dear Pleiti” has a big impact on Pleiti, but only if the reader pays close attention to her restrained response. Pleiti’s downplayed declaration of “I’m very fond of you” appears light and offhand, but it’s anything but. When Pleiti helps to support Mossa after she is injured on the detective trail, Pleiti tells us “My fingertips fizzed at the touch as though she were the frozen planetside faces of a platform.” It’s a lovely world-specific phrasing that brilliantly communicates the depth of feeling Pleiti has for Mossa.

Both Mossa and Pleiti are lovable oddball characters. As with the original and other incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, there’s definitely room here to interpret the character as neurodivergent. But “her marvellous brain” as Pleiti calls it is never used as a cheap plot device or an obstacle for either the mystery or the romance plots. Mossa is obviously a brilliant detective whom the other Investigators look up to. Pleiti’s loyalty to and trust in Mossa speaks to her loving and open character, but it’s also clearly justified by Mossa’s genius.

There’s only one quibble I have with this novella that gives me pause, and it’s in relation to Mossa’s job as an Investigator. The original Holmes is characterized as a “consulting detective” who sometimes helps in police investigations but is not a police officer. In today’s language, Holmes is a kind of private eye. The Investigator position Mossa occupies in The Mimicking of Known Successes is more official; she’s a part of an organization that performs at least some of the functions of Earth’s police forces.

I was happy to see that Mossa doesn’t read as or behave like a cop … until one unfortunate scene late in the mystery plot where she kicks a captured and more than adequately restrained villain: “She [Mossa] tipped Bolien up into a sitting position until he had stopped choking, then kicked him down to the rug again.” Sigh. Not only does this unnecessary violence mar Mossa’s characterization as intellectually astute and logical, it makes her feel like a cop and disturbs the coziness of the narrative. It’s a one sentence detail that I wish I could erase from the book. No copaganda in my cozy sapphic science fiction please!

The story ends in an unexpected and thought-provoking way. Mossa and Pleiti solve the mystery, of course, but everything is far from alright at the close of the book. It feels fitting with the complicated position which the main characters and humanity are in. The infinitely complex and daunting project of repairing and returning to Earth looms large. Mossa muses, in relation to the venture: “Attempting to approximate an idealized past is most certainly both futile and foolish, but individually disrupting what absolutely must be a collective endeavor is no better, and selfish as well.”

It’s here near the very end where the strange title of the novella comes into play. Pleiti and Mossa discuss the concept of thinking otherwise, of transgressing traditional disciplinary lines and epistemologies, in order to create a new future. Mossa deduces there must be another way to thrive and survive “rather than the literal mimicking of known successes.” This hopeful yet somber conclusion is a perfect ode to the novella’s ethos and it’s a fitting culmination of its impeccable odd combination of comfort and coziness with action and adventure.

The Mimicking of Known Successes is out now.

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Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer, librarian, and new parent. She writes for Book Riot and Autostraddle about queer and/or bookish stuff. Ask her about cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer books, drinking tea, and her baby. Her website is Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. Find her on Twitter, Litsy, Storygraph Goodreads and Instagram.

Casey has written 126 articles for us.


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