Polar City Blues: re-visiting an old favourite

Book cover: Polar City Blues - Katharine Kerr (a space port in shades of misty blue)When a Confederation diplomat shows up dead in Polar City, police chief Al Bates must race against the clock to solve the crime if he is to avoid 3 governments landing troops to ‘keep the peace’. Only Bobbie Lacey, ex-spacer, comp jockey and trader in information has access to all the sources to start putting the pieces together. But will a ghetto girl work with the cops?

Polar City Blues is a fast-paced thriller set on a desert planet that is part of the tiny human Republic, perched uncomfortably between two much larger, more powerful galactic neighbours (the Confederation and the Alliance). When it first came out, I was desperately disappointed (how dare Katharine Kerr write scifi instead of another Deverry book?) – until I read it. It’s had a perch on my shelf ever since, and gained Kerr’s other scifi outings for company.

The world-building is clever in its supporting detail and light on exposition. It feels like more than the sum of the parts, with broader implications falling naturally into place on the lightweight structure sketched in to support them. The finer details are often minor but evocative – Polar City comes alive at night, when the aurora dances across the sky. Holofountains and suncloaks make sense on a world with a scorching sun and limited water supplies. Lacey’s fruit and vegetable business is a source of luxuries.

Like the night skies, the characters are also vibrant. Kerr does a great job in conveying a sense of individual natures and the complexities of their relationships – Polar City isn’t that big, and everyone is connected one way or another. Bates is a careful, plodding cop with a good heart. He’s got the job because he understands the politics, not because he’s a stellar investigator, but he means to do the best he can. By contrast, Lacey is smart, cool-tempered and competent, with a chequered past and a fierce sense of loyalty. Mulligan, the scruffy young psychic Bates ropes in to help, is just a mess – hopelessly in love with Lacey, and lacking the confidence to earn her respect.

On top of our human protagonists, we get 5 alien races, psychics, space travel and artificial intelligence (although the AIs are getting creaky – even Buddy has to think a bit hard sometimes). But with Hagar a low-tech world and most of the action taking place in the slums, there’s very little tech on display. This is a story interested in relationships, politics and first contact, which puts it right up my street.

On the one hand, this is a crime thriller that gallops along at an intense pace: while the good guys try to trace the killer and figure out quite how embarrassing the whole affair is for the Confederation, we get occasional peeks into the killer’s mind. It’s not pretty – and the inner turmoil strongly suggests things are going to escalate. When they do, it’s an opportunity for the Confederation to step up the political pressure; soon the Alliance are also threatening to muscle in.

With the streets buzzing with rumours of an alien artifact, a mysterious disease and rumours of the Devil himself, there are enough elements to bedazzle the reader and confuse the police, but Kerr does a good job of juggling her plots to stop them running away with her. Lacey’s investigation takes us from the mean streets of Porttown to the even less salubrious Rat Yard, as Mulligan struggles with whether to fully embrace his psychic talents to lend a hand.

This is a thoroughly entertaining read, but it’s not without its issues. On the cosmetic side, some may find the faux SoCal dialect grating. On a more serious note, it’s a novel that sets out to play with expectations: in the Republic, Los Blancos are the white trash of Porttown, while people of colour hold all the privileges. But because our protagonists are from Porttown, people of colour remained backgrounded by the action, restricted to supporting roles. Consequently the social reversal is a nice bit of world-building, but a missed opportunity.

It’s not the only reversal in play. In a flip of standard gender roles, Lacey is a well-rejuvenated December being pursued by Mulligan’s awkward young May. Lacey has also achieved status and wealth that Mulligan lacks, and I’m no more comfortable with this relationship imbalance than I would be if they were the more usual older rich man and younger ‘special’ woman.

However, these points provided unexpected food for thought rather than detracting from my enjoyment of this action-packed sci-fi crime caper. This may have been helped by a healthy dollop of nostalgic fairy dust – but I’m happy to say I still love it.