Friday, January 11, 2019

Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel

There have been some discussions on some of the vintage crime blogs that I frequent (such as The Invisible Event, Beneath the Stains of Time and also Ho-Ling’s blog) on the subject of mystery/science fiction crossovers. A title that always comes up in these discussions is Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. Although I used to consider myself to be a science fiction fan I’ve read very little of Asimov’s work. It seemed like a good time to check out The Caves of Steel.

Science fiction of course deals with possible futures. Some of these futures are more possible, or more likely, than others. The actual future will probably bear little resemblance to these science fictional possible futures but the fact that these futures seem at least to be possible is important. One of the intriguing things about vintage science fiction is that it offers glimpses of futures that seemed quite possible at the time but that turned out to be wildly off base.

In The Caves of Steel Asimov gets some of his predictions of the future spectacularly wrong, although in fairness to him he was no more spectacularly wrong than most other science fiction writers. In 1954 when this novel was published it seemed obvious that population growth would continue indefinitely at the extremely high levels of the preceding couple of centuries. The cities of the future would therefore be gigantic and horrifically overcrowded. It seemed just as obvious that we would face extreme shortages of just about everything, including food and water. In the Cities of Asimov’s future world the inhabitants would live on ghastly synthetic food that would be strictly rationed. Having your own bathroom would be a luxury that even very high status people could only dream about. People would live very much like battery hens. The possibility that overpopulation might simply not happen did not occur to Asimov in 1954.

On the other hand he did quite accurately predict a future in which the entire Earth has become a single bland monoculture and society has become a kind of soft totalitarianism in which anything other than absolute conformity is simply unthinkable. We’re well on the way to both of those futures. This is one of the elements that seems to get overlooked regarding this book - it is actually a rather subtle dystopian novel.

The Earth in this particular future had gone through a period of space colonisation but that was a very long time ago. The so-called Outer Worlds have long since achieved complete independence. In fact more than that, they have achieved military and political dominance over the Earth. There are fifty Outer Worlds but no new colonies have been established for centuries, if not millennia.

Robots are an accepted part of life in the Outer Worlds but not on Earth. On Earth they are regarded with suspicion and loathing. Now the Spacers (as the inhabitants of the Outer World are known) are trying to force Earth to embrace robots. Why they are doing this is one of the mysteries that has to be solved.

A Spacer has been murdered and it seems clear that he was murdered by a City Dweller (all of the inhabitants of Earth live in vast Cities are are known as City Dwellers). C-class policeman Elijah Baley, a human and a City Dweller, is assigned to investigate the murder. Much to his horror he is assigned a Spacer as his partner. But it’s worse than that - R. Daneel Olivaw is not just a Spacer but a robot.

Asimov was considered to be a major pioneer in dealing with the subject of robotics in science fiction. He was also generally regarded as being a writer of hard science fiction. What I find interesting about The Caves of Steel is that he appears to have no interest in the hard science fiction side of robotics. He doesn’t seem interested in the scientific and technological aspects. The positronic brain is kind of like a magical device. What Asimov is interested in is the social and psychological effects of a robotics revolution. What happens when robots start to take people’s jobs? What happens when people have to take orders from robots (Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics notwithstanding there is no question that the robot cop in this novel expects humans to obey him without question). What happens when people start to realise they cannot compete with robots? How will robots make society worse, and how might they make things better? Most importantly, how will people feel about robots?

I must say I’m rather intrigued by this whole Laws of Robotics thing of Asimov’s. The First Law says that a robot cannot injure a human being and the Second Law says that a robot must obey orders from humans. But one of the protagonists of The Caves of Steel is a robot cop and he immediately takes actions that appear to break all three of the Laws of Robotics. How is Asimov going to get out of the corner he seems to have painted himself into?

I’m quite impressed by the discipline of Asimov’s writing. He has a story to tell and anything that does not contribute to the story is ruthlessly eliminated. How were the Outer Worlds settled? Did humanity invent some kind of faster-than-light drive? How do the Spacers who live in Spacetown on the outskirts of New York communicate with their compatriots on the Outer Worlds? What kinds of technologies do the Spacers have that allow them to dominate Earth? How and why, and when, were the positronic brains that make the robots possible developed? How does a positronic brain work? For any science fiction author the temptation to include lengthy infodumps explaining these things would have been overwhelming but for the purposes of the story we do not need to know these things so Asimov tells us nothing about any of these questions. He tells us what we need to know, no more and no less. I rather admire that.

It’s a dystopian novel but it doesn’t see this dystopian future as inescapable. Whether you will actually accept Asimov’s hopeful alternative as wildly impractical or totally plausible is a matter for your judgment. What is interesting is that Asimov doesn’t just offer an alternative - he explores the psychological underpinnings of his alternative, and he accepts that it can only work if people can be persuaded to want it to work.

How does it stand up as a mystery novel? Remarkably well actually. There are lots of red herrings and false leads and before he discovers the real solution Elijah Baley comes up with several very ingenious solutions that turn out to be completely wrong. There are plenty of clues provided and the clever thing is that they’re effective mystery novel clues but they also relate to the science fictional themes of the novel. And most importantly Asimov does not cheat. He explains how his future society works, he explains how the people of this society behave and he explains how his robots behave, and having laid down the ground rules he sticks to them. Which doesn’t stop him from pulling off some very effective misdirection.

So this is a novel that deals with interesting science fiction themes with surprising subtlety and it’s a novel that works very satisfyingly as a detective story. It’s an unqualified double success. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Black Camel by Earl Derr Biggers

The Black Camel, published in 1929, was the fifth of the six Charlie Chan mysteries written by Earl Derr Biggers.

Movie star Shelah Fane’s career is fading rapidly but she either won’t or can’t see the writing on the wall. On her way to Hawaii to film some scenes for her latest movie she meets handsome (and very rich) Englishman Alan Jaynes. Since they’re both madly in love and her career is on the skids it would obviously be a very good idea to marry him. But Shelah will not take any important step without consulting fortune-teller Tarneverro.

Tarneverro has already had an encounter with Inspector Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department who warned him, very politely, that fortune-telling is frowned upon by the authorities in Hawaii.

Shelah Fane has rented a luxury house in Honolulu and the party she throws there attracts lots of Hollywood types and some Hawaiian high society as well. And it ends in murder.

When Charlie Chan gets to the scene he finds that one of the few certain things about the crime is the time at which it occurred. But Inspector Chan will discover that nothing in this case can be taken for granted. Airtight alibis vanish like mist while new alibis spring up in their place. There are some very fine clues but they turn out to be treacherous. They may be false, or simply mean the opposite to what they appear to mean. There are suspects with apparently strong motives but the various likely motives for the murder may be mere illusions.

This is the most elaborately (and effectively) plotted of the four Chan novels I’ve read so far. Biggers uses misdirection with consummate skill - like a good stage magician he can successfully misdirect you even when you know he is doing it.

This is one of the two Chan novels set in Hawaii. Hawaii still has a certain glamour and exoticism but the Hawaii of the late 1920s is wildly exotic. We get to see both the glamorous and the squalid sides of Honolulu. Yes, even tropical paradises have their seedy underworlds.

And it’s Charlie Chan’s home and we get some interesting glimpses into Charlie’s interior world. One moment that I found to be rather affecting was Chan’s reflections on his vanishing heritage. He is profoundly saddened that his children are so thoroughly americanised and have no interest in their own culture or traditions. Chan can see his sense of identity slipping away from him. It’s not that he dislikes America. Not at all. He just wishes that his children could be Chinese as well as American.

In a good golden age puzzle-plot detective story you don’t want the characters (apart from the detective) to have too much depth. The plot is what such stories are all about and in-depth characterisation is a distraction and it slows things down. On the other hand you do want the characters to be more than just ciphers. If they have no personality at all then you’re not going to care who committed the murder or who gets charged with it. It’s a balancing act and Biggers does it pretty well here. The personalities are sketched with quick and broad brush-strokes but they’re vivid and colourful sketches.

There are occasional moments of sly wit. Charlie Chan takes his job very seriously but he does not lack a sense of humour.

There is a certain stylishness to this novel. I suspect that the Hawaiian setting inspired Biggers to really work on giving this story a distinctive flavour. There are some interesting little nuances that you don’t necessarily expect in a detective novel. Hawaii is an earthly paradise but it’s not good for everyone. It has a very bad effect on some people, a demoralising effect. For some people Hawaii is the end of the line.

There is just no way I could have failed to enjoy this book. I love theatrical/movie world murder mysteries. I love murder mysteries involving stage magic or phoney occultism and the Tarneverro character provides pleasing dashes of both these qualities. And I adore stories set in the tropics or in what we used to call (in less politically correct days) the Mysterious Orient. So this novel provides everything on my wish list. Plus it has a wonderfully constructed plot and we get a clearer understanding of what makes Charlie Chan tick. I’m not sure what else you could possibly ask for. Very highly recommended.

The 1931 20th Century-Fox adaptation of The Black Camel was arguably the best of all the Charlie Chan films.

You might also be interested to read my reviews of the earlier Chan novels The House Without a Key, The Chinese Parrot and Behind That Curtain.