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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov dabbled in mystery and SF, occasionally combining them. Apparently, the first of these, Caves of Steel, is being written as a movie. The BBC made it into a TV movie by in 1964--of which only excerpts exist.

Akiva Goldsman, Oscar winner and screenwriter of I, Robot and Fringe, is slated as the third screenwriter to give it a go for Fox. How many before Fox? It may be difficult to put on the big screen. Another attempt of turning the novel into a "movie"--or, rather, a VCR game:

[Side note: The I-Robot credit will turn off many, but it actually does utilize a number of Asimovian plot turns and verbiage. I, Robot was also a short story, so to fashion a movie out of it is impressive. No, it isn't what Asimov would have written but it keeps and comments on Asimov's ideas--not to mention maintaining Asimov's works in the public eye.  I have only read Ellison's script opening to I, Robot and, though I enjoy the work of both writers, the opening didn't grab me. SF Encyclopedia [John Clute] writes:
"the screenplay itself makes clear how difficult it would have been to translate Asimov's archaic concepts... onto the contemporary screen."
I will try again, later. 
While Goldsman's Batman films and a few others were regrettable, he did a fine job on A Beautiful Mind on other adaptations like I, Legend. Fringe was a romp. Yes, he differs from the original books, but that's okay. They weren't mockeries, but rather interesting deviations. One can always examine the original. One could complain of a Hollywood treatment, but isn't that the point? To sell movie tickets? How many more books were sold because of the movie?]

Earth Detective Elijah Baley is told he must work with a humanoid robot, R. Daneel Olivaw (the "R." stands for Robot) to solve a murder of a Spacer. On Earth, by law, robots don't look like people, but Olivaw does not appear robot-like. This gives Olivaw an advantage (Olivaw threatens violence to Earth citizens) until a rumor circulates that Olivaw is a robot. Baley's own wife hears the rumor which worries her about Baley's safety.

The Medievalists is a society of Earthlings who hearken back to a less technological day of wearing glasses or using windows. They seem benign enough: Baley's boss and his wife are members. But when they make signs to one another at a dining hall where Baley and Olivaw eat and pursue after Baley and Olivaw in a chase scene across slidewalks, they seem a lot less benign.

Though Baley tries to prove his partner, Olivaw, is the true murderer, Baley gets no closer to finding out who did it. In fact, evidence seems to point to Baley himself. The Spacers and Olivaw get what they came for--proof that Earth would have citizens willing to go into space--so that Baley appears to be left to pay for a crime he didn't commit.

However, Baley thinks up a loophole that gives him an hour and a half to solve the crime.

Themes and importance:
Asimov extrapolates a few key speculative ideas:

  1. Overpopulation leads to city overgrowth, to the extent that people fear going outside. Agoraphobia. The works well with the mystery, limiting what characters would and would not do.
  2. Technophobia on Earth leads to Earth's phobia of robots, especially robots that look like humans. 
  3. Technophiles are the few who escape Earth and building colonies. These, the Spacers, are the elite. They do not have disease and comparatively long-lived.
  4. Space colonization is so lovely that Spacers are willing to overlook murder if it can achieve a greater aim.
  5. Being long-lived leads to complacency, which ironically a spacer cannot be. Therefore, the Spacers have to recruit from Earth.

The Caves of Steel has its admirers. James Gunn used it to teach SF--one of the major novels shaping SF. It is one of the first major SF novels to treat robots, overpopulation, and mystery in SF. The theme of the importance of space colonization was common if not ubiquitous.

This last, for me, was the Achilles heel--not because I'm against colonization but because it was above questioning. Spacers (only here, not later) are too benevolent and wonderful. They provide an instant contrast that glorifies colonization and berates those rubes who remain on Earth.

Asimov corrects this in The Naked Sun, creating Spacers with their own foibles, which is the better novel for this and for a mystery that plays a little more fairly. The contrast between societal flaws is fascinating. I'd love this one to become a movie, but it does hinge somewhat The Caves of Steel. So maybe it has to be written first.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Devil's Only Friend by Dan Wells (John Cleaver book 4)

The Devil's Only Friend  
by Dan Wells 
Tor Books 
General Fiction (Adult)

John Wayne Cleaver returns... this time with a posse. Of sorts. He's working with a team of special investigators to uncover serial killers who are actually demons in disguise.

I read this prior to reading the first novel in the first trilogy. Like many series mysteries, the books can be read without prior knowledge of earlier novels although it might be better appreciated as a series.

This is the first in a new trilogy for Mr. Cleaver. He's grown up (or getting there at 17) and working for an organization investigating the supernatural, so they can't reveal themselves to the police. Included are Nathan, genius but not well liked; Kelly, their cop in residence; Diana, security specialist from the USAF; Linda, leader of US's secret war against the supernatural; Brooke, possessed by an ancient demon named Nobody, which knows a lot about the demons or the "Withered" they are pursuing.

Their first test is a Withered kidnapping a girl Another kills children. Who is it? And how is it done? But these Withereds are only warm-up acts for a much more powerful one concealed behind others.

What works for the novel are the speculative eye-kicks. Wells develops these demons and their history in surprising ways. A broader sense of the secret world is slowly peeled back. What's not as strong is the narrative voice. The first novel concentrated on the voice with humorous dark edge. Some of that humor is still here, but far more sparse.

To an extent, this is more of a mystery in whodunnit department than the first novel. However, it's hard to say that the novel is intended to "play fair" as far as giving enough clues that the reader might have guessed.

Can you get by reading this novel without the earlier books? Yes, but I'm not sure you'd want to.

The latest novel in the series is Over your Dead Body. Impoverished, Cleaver and Brooke, with the hundred-thousand personalities that her demon Nobody stole over the millennia, head off on a road trip on the trail of another Withered. They hunt demons. On their own.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Review: I Am Not A Serial Killer (John Cleaver Book 1) by Dan Wells

Recently, I've read a few novels that blend the speculative and mystery genres with mixed success. So I wondered what made a good mystery that also scratches the speculative itch.

When it comes SF, Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun and "The Billiard Ball" both do well--not to omit Larry Niven's Flatlander. Asimov and Niven work the more difficult territories of "whodunnits": displaying a cast of criminals, shifting blame until we land on the criminal at the end. They do not shirk the responsibility of creating speculative societies in the meantime. Niven, if I recall correctly, said he wouldn't write another SF mystery as obeying the two genres was too difficult.

"Howdunnits" explore the criminal's methodology. While you may know who the criminal is, you can't convict him without evidence.

There is also the "whydunnit" which is usually the exploration of a criminal mind--sometimes within the mind of the criminal. A famous example would be Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

When it comes to recent fantasy mysteries,  I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells actually melds a few of these. The narrator, John Wayne Cleaver, is a high school student whose mother is a mortician. He helps embalm the bodies. The first part of the narrative, oddly enough, is a description of how this is done. This is a pretty risky step to take, but Wells successfully surmounts the limitations by creating a narrator buoyant with dark humor--a kid so fascinated by serial killers that he fears he might become one himself. His very name mirrors not only John Wayne (All-American hero) but also John Wayne Gacy (notorious serial killer) and, of course, an infamous murder weapon.

He does his best to look "normal" and fit in with most teenagers, but his mother notices a small part of his fascination and sends him to get psychological help. Later, when he thinks he spies the work of a serial killer in their small town, she excludes him from the joys of embalming since he likes it too much. This exacerbates the problem.

There is an element of whodunnit here since the identity of the killer is not immediately known, but we are not privy to an analysis of suspects. Instead, it is more of a howdunnit and whydunnit. First, Cleaver is a serial killer in the bud, trying to nip it, which makes fascinating reading. Next, he shifts to typical serial killer MO's. Once he finds his suspect, he hones in on the how and why of his suspect and how he might stop the killer from killing again.

The ending itself is potent as Wells manages to make us feel two ways about the killer. The main reason the novel as a mystery succeeds is that it redirects our attention from whodunnit to why/howdunnit. The  If you like mysteries and horror, this is a must-read.

Wells deserved more attention for this novel that he got initially. Perhaps that was a function of the risky opening. Still readers can still remedy that. This one should be one of Wells's longer lived works.