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Women in SF&F Month continues today with a guest post by Malka Older! She is a Campbell Award finalist and the author of the Locus and Neukom Award–nominated novel Infomocracy, as well as the other two cyberpunk political thrillers in the Hugo Award–nominated series The Centenal Cycle. Her work also includes the collection …and Other Disasters and writing for Orphan Black: The Next Chapter. The Mimicking of Known Successes, her latest science fiction novel and the first book in the series The Investigations of Mossa and Pleiti, is described as “a cozy Holmesian murder mystery and sapphic romance, set on Jupiter”—and I’m thrilled she is here today to share how Watership Down had an influence on some of its themes!

Cover of The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

Rereading Watership Down as an adult, I was firstly struck by how well it held up to the love I had for it as a child. The characters still felt vital and real, their lapine culture incredibly rich, their adventures thrilling. But I was also struck by the descriptions of the world that surrounds the story, depicted in loving detail — most of it utterly lost on me. I could not picture ragwort or kingcups; I did not have a mental recording of the songs of yellowhammers or greenfinches; when I read that “a cockchafer droned past,” I didn’t know whether the improbably named beastie was a bird or an insect.

As a child this didn’t bother me much, because I was constantly reading references to things that I didn’t understand, whether one of Anne Shirley’s quotations or a comparison to a historical event I hadn’t learned about yet or simply a mundane object that had either disappeared or been renamed, like a snood or a looking glass. Indeed, that’s part of the power of old books, their capacity to serve as measuring sticks for how much we’ve changed; the allure of drawing us into another time combined with the opacity of unknown words or concepts.

As an adult living in an era of environmental crisis, however, the blank details from Watership Down felt weightier, laden with a strange kind of nostalgia; a bit pathetic, perhaps a bit prophetic. Were we, as a species, going to lose more and more of our environmental literacy? Were we going to lose more and more of those species? And what, of the things I wrote about, would be utterly incomprehensible without research to future readers?

These ideas became the kernel for the academic system in my new book, The Mimicking of Known Successes. Set on (around) Jupiter several centuries after the end of the world — that is, after environmental catastrophe forced the evacuation of Earth — it depicts a society fascinated by what was lost and frustrated by the incompleteness of our understanding of Earth’s ecosystems. One of the main characters, Pleiti, is a classical scholar, using books including Watership Down to fill in some of those gaps, tabulating and cross-referencing animal species in an attempt to gauge ratios and relationships.

For me, this idea lets me explore several different, linked themes. One cluster is temporalities: the way we will be seen in the future; our own fetishization of the past. Another is the potential of fiction as a source of understanding the past (or, in the case of science-fiction, the future): since writers reflect the assumptions of their own time, even when a story isn’t factually accurate its backdrop tells us fundamental, often otherwise forgotten things about its era. It also, not incidentally, lets me both enjoy and poke fun at academia as a setting — particularly potent for a murder mystery, with the parallels of searching for information.

In the universities of my imagined Jupiter, however, the classics faculty, while the most prestigious, is only one of three. There is also a modern field of study — dedicated to Jupiter itself and human life there — and a speculative one, prizing invention and imagination. I’m looking forward to delving more into those in the sequels.

Photo of Malka Older Malka Older is a writer, aid worker, and sociologist. Her science-fiction political thriller Infomocracy was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus ReviewsBook Riot, and The Washington Post. She is the creator of the serial Ninth Step Station, currently running on Realm, and her short story collection And Other Disasters came out in November 2019. She is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and teaches in the genre fiction MFA at Western Colorado University. Her opinions can be found in The New York TimesThe Nation, and Foreign Policy, among others.