Monday, December 2, 2013

The Cosmic Turnabout

Wishing on a dream that seems far off
Hoping it will come today.
Into the starlit night,
Foolish dreamers turn their gaze,
Waiting on a shooting star
"Lunar Silver Star Story"

Oh, I had forgotten to mention it, this month will probably consist of reviews of mostly Western detective fiction, because of coincidence and the prolonged procrastination of writing reviews.

I had already heard James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars, the first novel in the Giant series, described as a science fiction mystery novel, but still, I was quite surprised when I discovered it had ranked in the Tozai Mystery Best 100, beating titles like The Egyptian Cross Mystery and Le Mystère de la chambre jaune. So why not, I thought when I saw the book going for almost nothing at a second hand bookstore. It's the actually-not-that-far-off-anymore year of 2027: man has conquered the moon. Bases are built all over the surface and commercial flights are available. But the moon still has a big surprise in store for mankind. One day, the corpse of a man dressed in a spacesuit is found on the moon. But nobody on the moon has been reported missing, and with no idea where the unknown corpse dubbed Charlie came from, carbon dating is done on the body and his equipment. Results: the corpse is over 50.000 years old! Physicist Victor Hunt is asked by the United Nations Space Arm to help in figuring out where Charlie comes from and what he was doing on the moon.

Like I noted in my review of Asimov's The Caves of Steel, I have read only one or two science fiction mysteries, and they were always written as fair play mysteries. Like with fantasy mystery fiction, as long you know 'the rules' of the world, you know what's possible, then making a fair play mystery is possible in any kind of background, whether it is a world where witchcraft exists, or a future with humanoid robots (or both). But they were all clearly written as classic mystery novels.

Inherit the Stars on the other hand is first of all a hard science fiction novel, and secondly a mystery novel. The two themes are strongly intertwined, but Inherit the Stars with its grand scale investigation into the history of Charlie, with specialists from all fields of science, from mathematicians to linguisticians and biologists, with theories about disappearing species and space travelling is relatively heavy. Don't expect a simple, personal murder or an alibi trick in Inherit the Stars, Charlie's mystery serves to talk about human kind and its future.

But that doesn't make the mystery of Charlie less captivating. Now that I think about it, there are alibi tricks in Inherit the Stars, as how can Charlie and his space suit have existed in a time when humans weren't fully evolved yet? The solution to it all is quite memorable too, especially considering the scale of it all, but once again it feels closer towards science fiction than a fair play mystery (though it is definitely able to arrive at the solution based on the hints). I guess that The Caves of Steel did the same, but Inherit the Stars goes a bit deeper into science fiction fields than The Caves of Steel, I think.

Inherit the Stars isn't exactly my kind of detective novel, but the mystery of 50.000 year old Charlie is indeed very interesting, and the solution, while a bit 'different' from what you'd expect, makes quite the impression.


  1. I too have wanted to read the novel since I saw it on that list. Thanks for the review.

    1. Thanks for reading. The book isn't in print anymore AFAIK, but it shouldn't be hard getting a copy of it.

  2. I have to admit, the premise sounds intriguing and the cover gives the impression that the answer for Charlie is somewhere between the Piltdown hoax and the Cold War myth of lost Soviet astronauts, but I assume the solution is more iventive. Added to the wishlist!

    1. I can assure you, the solution is nothing like those hoaxes :P It shouldn't be too hard to get either, I mean, I found my second hand copy here in the Netherlands for a mere two euro. :)