Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Robots of Death

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
The Three Laws of Robotics

Yes. It has finally happened. I've reviewed more English-language works than Japanese works this month. (The Japanese audio drama of Christie's The ABC Murders is a special case though). But actually having discussed more non-Japanese works than Japanese works feels.... really weird. Almost disturbing. Shouldn't do this too often.

Anyway, earlier this week I took a look at the classic in the science-fiction mystery subgenre: Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel. I doubt Asimov needs any introduction (or else I refer to wiki). The story of The Caves of Steel is set in a faraway future, where space-travel has been perfected and planets near Earth have been colonised by mankind. The descendants of these colonists, Spacers, are rich and make extensive use of robot labor on their planets. Earth itself is having troubles with overpopulation and man has started to live in so-called Cities, gigantic building complexes covered by metal that are barely able to economically sustain the millions of inhabitants inside it. Spacers have taken a rather imperialistic stance towards Earth, while Earthmen in return don't like Spacers.

The story starts with the murder on a Spacer ambassador / scientist in the Spacer outpost on Earth. The Spacers think it was someone outside their outpost (i.e. a non-Spacer) who killed their man and low-level Earth cop Elijah Baley is charged with the job. Elijah is forced to work with the Spacer robot R. Daneel Olivaw (R. stands for Robot) to solve the murder, all to prevent a gigantic diplomatic incident. Yes, it's a buddy cop story.

There is a locked room element to the murder of the Spacer, but I feel that it is hard to describe it without making it all too obvious what the solution is. Which makes it seem like a very obvious solution, but I have to admit that Asimov wrote a very satisfying mystery set in the future. Yes, this is definitely SF, with Asimov describing his future Earth in great detail, adding in speculations about the way human society is going to evolve and technical advancements, but we also have a very competent mystery plot. The hinting, a locked room situation, it even features false solutions. It's a very competent novel that is exactly what it was intended to be: a science-fiction mystery that is fair and fun to read.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the 2001 movie Metropolis (loosely based on Tezuka Osamu's manga) borrowed some its plot-elements (especially concerning robotics) from The Caves of Steel. Then again, The Caves of Steel is apparently a science-fiction classic, so that's not really surprising, I guess.... (hey, I really know nothing about science fiction).

The only science fiction mysteries I've read are The Caves of Steel and Sonada Shuuichirou's Dakara Dare Mo Inaku Natta ("And That Is Why There Were None"), but I have to admit that I like the latter better. The latter is purely a puzzle plot built on the Three Laws of Robotics, a compact thing that never feels too big to me. It was definitely set in the future with robots and all, but they were clearly just part of the mystery story. Just the three rules. The Caves of Steel is fun and there is no mind-boggling technobabble in it, but the extensive attention to the future world, to the future society do give the book a distinct 'future' feeling, something I am not too  familiar with and is thus a bit distracting at times.

But I do like the way Asimov clearly indicated what was possible in his future world and what was not. It seems there is always a need to make very, very clear what the rules are for the mystery. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics as they are used in The Caves of Steel are a clear example, but Mitsuhara Yuri's fantasy story Hana Chiru Yoru ni ("On the Night the Flowers Scattered") also went out its way to describe the workings of the Devil Fruit in detail. The use of these non-meta rules (as opposed to the meta-rules by Knox and Van Dine) to create clearly definied mystery that still manages to surprise is something I have enjoyed for a long time. Take a look for example at the usage / interpretation of rules in the popular manga Death Note and Liar Game.

And yes, my reviews of non-Japanese works are always written this badly. Should work on that, actually. Hmm...


  1. The best part about this book, and its successor, The Naked Sun, is that it demonstrated that the advent of technology does not negate clever plotting – which is an argument that is sometimes slung at the traditionally constructed detective story.

    If Asimov can do it, employing futuristic, made-up technology, such as mind probes and humanoid robots, than it should also be possible with contemporary technology – like DNA.

  2. Have you read Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Feet of Clay? It features a pretty interesting locked room (attempt at) murder, which might sound surprising for the fantasy series. And the City Watch novels are always fun to read :)