8.0 (out of 10)
K.R. Richardson’s Blood Orbit is an ambitious, cinematic sci-fi police procedural set on a long established human colony planet in the far future. While one usually associates Blade Runner with this kind of genre hybrid, Blood Orbit is a bit more Michael Mann than Ridley Scott, and with its labyrinthine cycles of corruption and injustice permeating every level of the society it depicts, Blood Orbit recalls such classic film noir crime sagas as The Big Heat and Crossfire. The fact that the “security and investigation services” on the corporate-owned planet of Gattis are little more than a protection racket for the company’s interests lends even greater emphasis to the atmosphere of alienation and cynicism that simmers throughout the novel.
In Gattis’ capital city of Angra Dastrelas, rookie cop Eric Matheson works in the Dreihleat, home to one of the city’s economically-depressed ethnic minorities. While walking the beat with his training officer, Matheson comes across a scene of mass murder that immediately casts suspicion on the Ohba, another minority group the Dreihle have a long history of conflict with. The investigator assigned to the case is J.P. Dillal, himself half-Ohba and half-Dreihle (and an outcast among both groups), as well as the first officer to be fitted with cybernetic implants that can process forensic evidence at the scene of the crime. Dillal conscripts the young security officer as his partner on the investigation, for reasons not immediately clear to Matheson (or the reader). Their bosses want the case closed quickly, but Dillal refuses to accept that it is a clear-cut case of ethnically motivated violence, as much as the department would like it to be.
Blood Orbit definitely puts the procedure in procedural. We follow Dillal and Matheson as they walk and talk through every evidentiary discovery, every possible theory of motive and means, and every interview and interaction with a documentary-like intensiveness. Luckily, Dillal and Matheson are interesting and intricately drawn characters, even before we learn that there is more to Dillal than his starchy Joe Friday façade, and that Matheson isn’t as green-bellied as he wants everyone to believe. Richardson has a strong grasp of their inner lives and is brave enough to venture out and show us how they interact with the world at large. This is why, despite the meticulous way the story unfolds, it never feels too arid or impliable, as procedurals often do. There are strong emotional, even impassioned, currents moving through the novel, because the characters’ motives run deeper than mere professionalism. Gattis itself is a triumph of fleshy, imaginative worldbuilding, and Richardson’s prose is so entangled with the sensual components and minutia of its surroundings that the reader can almost taste the acrid air the characters are breathing. Occasionally, the steely cop-show dialogue and deliberative plotting can get a little too hefty for its own good, but our investment in the characters and their goals remain constant and urgent from the opening page to the last.
Sci-fi detective noir may be nothing new, but Blood Orbit still manages to feel distinct, familiar without being too derivative, which is (or should be) the goal of genre writing. It should please fans of classic, detail-oriented sci-fi, as well as those who prefer the more social variety.