Polar City Blues, Katharine Kerr (1990)
Review by admiral ironbombs
The universe is dominated by two gigantic factions, the Interstellar Confederation and the Coreward Alliance. Humans from Earth have created a small Republic, which finds itself – as its citizens like to joke – caught between the Cons and the ‘Lies, a pawn in the game of interstellar politics fighting to keep its independence. Polar City is also something of a joke, a provincial colony of the Republic on an isolated desert planet, its corrupt and bribable government playing host to embassies of the Republic’s neighbors. When one of the alien embassy staff is found dead, police chief Al Bates finds himself caught in the intrigues of the two great powers. When he makes use of local psychic Mulligan, only for Mulligan to suffer some psychic backlash that knocks him into an amnesic state after he tries to investigate the crime scene.
Bates is forced to turn to Bobbie Lacey, formerly a hotshot pilot with the Republic Navy and now the Polar City underworld’s best fixer – an information broker, hacker, and general jack-of-all-trades when it comes to criminal enterprises. Lacey begins her own investigation, with an advanced AI and her friend Mulligan in tow, going where the police can’t. And in the course of her search, she finds a lot more than she signed up for. A political assassin is in town, offing any potential witnesses before moving on to priority targets. A strange bacteria is unearthed, a deadly contagion which eats away skin and hair and may not have a cure. And Mulligan begins picking up psychic communication from a mysterious alien race, potentially the cause of the assassinations and political machinations…
I’ve read that Kerr wrote Polar City Blues as a tribute to the SF she read as a teenager, and there’s certainly a lot of SF elements shared with earlier works – I have to wonder if The Demolished Man was one, given the similarities between the two (SF crime novels with strong psychic/psionic elements). Given its place in time, it shouldn’t be surprising that it looks at first like cyberpunk, with the mystery-crime elements, the whores and pimps and gritty port-town atmosphere that would fit well in Gibson’s Chiba City. But aside from a few AIs, it doesn’t have many hard-edged cyberpunk gadgets or themes; psiberpunk, perhaps? Instead of the faux-code that some cyberpunk novels use to represent cyberspace, Polar City Blues uses a similar style to represent psychic mind-speak, complete with emotion tags:
Big brother >need me?
>Need talk Lacey> BUT| >cop goes away.
Okay\ BUT| >cop goes, Lacey goes>>
[aggravation] She can wait\not wait?
Not wait. Big brother, woman Sally name/Lacey friend\ real danger [fear] >>throat slashed open. >Lacey find/must find\ before then.
Other elements, though, flip the traditional narratives on their heads. Kerr’s future is one where Caucasians are a small minority within the Republic’s populace, where “black” characters are both the majority and the ruling class. It’s reflected by the snippets of Spanish and references to Islam that pepper the text, elements of a melting-pot culture with a heavy Latino influences. Most of the characters use a lower-class slang full of Spanish phrases—Merrkan, by way of ‘Murican I assume—which has the bad tendency of replacing more complex contractions (“don’t,” “won’t”) with “no,” making everyone sound uncomfortably close to a bad Latino stereotype: “I no go any closer. I no can,” “I no mean that,” etc. It’s also a bit odd examining racism through the eyes of Mulligan in the white minority, especially as he’s branded as a psychic in a world that’s somewhat suspicious of mental powers.
Meanwhile, the story takes the basic “damsel in distress” plot and inverts it. The scrawny Mulligan as the “damsel”, wishing he wasn’t psychic so he could fulfill of dream of playing pro baseball, while the tough-as-nails Lacey is the heroine coming in for the rescue. And it somewhat inverts the old space operas written during the Cold War: instead of making the humans one of the two dominant factions, the human Republic instead plays the part of the Non-Aligned Movement, jammed between two powerful factions, keeping its freedom by cunning and dirty tricks.
Polar City Blues blends a rip-roaring space opera with an SF detective novel; while it has its quirks, overall it’s pretty good entertainment, a compelling, very readable novel. Kerr develops a slew of interesting characters, keeps the plot moving along at a fast clip, and she handles the mystery elements very well. The way that Kerr uses social commentary that makes the novel something more than just a science-fiction adventure; she touches on themes of class, prejudice, race, and gender, giving the novel additional depth without making the characters any less approachable or sympathetic. It’s a fast-paced, action-packed novel, but one with quite a few thought-provoking elements.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.