Short Story Review: INHUMAN GARBAGE, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

32597254This novella was part of a collection, the 2016 edition of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas, edited by Paula Guran – the one containing Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” that I previously reviewed.  As far as shorter stories go, not many of them worked out well for my tastes, Binti being the only one to stand out and truly shine, in my opinion.

Inhuman Garbage starts out in a very intriguing way, being a mix between science fiction and a police procedural: the police is alerted about a body being found in a garbage dumpster, which sounds like a far from unusual beginning, but the great difference comes from the fact that the dumpster belongs to a recycling plant based in the Armstrong dome, on Luna.  Stories about human colonization of our Solar System, and of the way these settlements develop and grow, always exerted a strong pull on my imagination, so I was immediately drawn in: the detective called on the scene, the young and upward-moving Noelle DeRicci, launches herself in the investigation moved both by her strong sense of duty and the need to overcome some deep-seated phobias.

In a close environment such as a dome on an inhospitable planet, recycling is one of the most important factors: every bit of organic waste in Armstrong is sent to the Growing Pits, from where Luna-grown foodstuffs come from, and while DeRicci is aware of this fact, just like everyone else, she tries not to think too closely about it and what it implies.  The fact that a body might end up in the compost heap that will promote food growth is not something she is ready to face: despite the fail-safes built in the system, a strong suspicion starts to insinuate itself in her mind, that this might not be the first time this happened, and that other bodies might have passed unnoticed into the system.

As the investigation progresses, we learn a great deal about what it means to live on the Moon, to build a viable outpost there and what kinds of problems humanity can take with it once it leaves the planet of its birth. At the same time, DeRicci’s character takes on substance and shape, and while she does not come across as totally likable, her dogged pursuit of the truth – as opposed to a more laissez-fare attitude from some of her co-workers – shows how some things never change, even when the environment is radically different from that of mother Earth.

The involvement of former mob boss Deshin in DeRicci’s investigation, and the discovery of the true nature of the body found in the dumpster, add further points of interest: Deshin’s desire to try and go legitimate – at least on the surface – comes from having adopted an abandoned child he and his wife are raising on their own. Both of them come from dysfunctional backgrounds, and the possibility of giving this child the kind of life they did not have opens new possibilities for them: Deshin is an interesting character, and I would have liked to see more of him and the kind of organization he runs, both on the legitimate and the less savory side of it.

Furthermore, we learn about the existence of clones, and the quite intriguing detail about their status in this future society: they are not considered persons, but rather property. Any harm visited on a clone is not labeled as a crime, but rather as damage to property: killing a clone is tantamount as denting someone’s car – the perpetrator pays a fine and that’s that.

With all of this on the table, I expected a different kind of story, even taking into account the shorter medium it was told in: unfortunately, there were many tantalizing hints that could have worked far better in a novel-sized format and were instead barely outlined here.  What’s worse, the ending appeared rushed, switching from the organic storytelling of the beginning to a “tell-vs- show” progression in the last part of the novella. I had the definite impression that the author realized she had put a great deal on the table, and didn’t know what to do with it as the constraints of the format closed on in, so that what had started as a fascinating story fizzled out in a very disappointing way.

A missed opportunity that deserved much better, indeed.

My Rating:


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Posted on February 7, 2017, in Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. “Unfortunately, there were many tantalizing hints that could have worked far better in a novel-sized format…” – this here is the issue I often find myself having with novellas and the short fiction format. What a shame, because the premise sounds amazing! Seems like a novella bursting with ideas but maybe not enough “oomph” in the story though.

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    • More often than not the problem does not lie with the length of the story itself, but rather with the author (IMHO), because there are those who know how to make the shorter space work anyway. These days I’m reading (and in some cases re-reading) Mira Grant’s collection of short stories set in her Newsflesh scenario, and she always manages to get to the point, no matter how brief the tale.
      But I admit being just a tiny bit biased toward this author… 🙂

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  2. SF/F mixed with a police procedural is a combination that almost always works for me (must be my love of crime shows), but this one doesn’t really sound my speed. I think novellas are one of the hardest storytelling formats to pull off, and sadly not every writer out there can do them justice in the same way…sigh. Not everyone can be Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant. 😉

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    • You’re right, McGuire/Grant can perform admirably even with a shorter format – I was never disappointed with her short stories or novellas. In this particular case, however, I had the distinct feeling that Rusch needed to tie off quickly her narrative threads, or had too many of them to deal with them as they deserved. Or both…

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  3. I certainly do love some of McGuire’s shorter novels such as Every Heart a Doorway – she’s very talented and seems to be able to pull anything off! (for me anyway, as you know I don’t usually enjoy short stories).
    Lynn 😀

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  4. Well, at least you got Binti out of the collection, I guess! I haven’t read that one, yet, but I’ve heard so much good stuff about it…anyway, I’m sorry to hear that this one petered out, esp with a good premise and setting. So lame when that happens!

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    • That’s the kind of “danger” we encounter with shorter works: a book might have more room to expand and to find its right track, but the constraints of a short story can go against an author’s need to say what they need to say…

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      • Yes, I wish authors would just toss the format and go where the story demands! It’s hard when you need to meet a deadline or when you’ve revised the story within an inch of its life, but I think anything is better than disappointing your readers. Perhaps, as a reader, I’m a bit biased though ;D

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        • When authors accept to write stories tailored for anthologies, and therefore with certain sets of parameters, they probably never know where their inspiration will take them, and this seems one of those cases – probably, having more time and space, Ms. Rusch would have written a novel, or a novella, with more “meat” on its “bones”…

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