"Identity Theft" by Robert J. Sawyer
"They used to say it couldn’t be done, that no once could blend the mystery story with the science fiction story," says Mike Resnick
in his introduction to Down these Dark Spaceways
. He cites such great novels as Alfred Bester
’s The Demolished Man
and Isaac Asimov
’s The Caves of Steel
as examples that disproved this sentiment over fifty years ago. In this anthology made available through the Science Fiction Book Club
, Resnick presents six novellas synthesizing these two literary genres. These are not in the vein of the classic British mystery or today’s "cozy" mystery; he uses the Black Mask
school as his jumping-off point, with protagonists more in the style of Dashiell Hammett
’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler
’s Philip Marlowe than Arthur Conan Doyle
’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie
’s Hercule Poirot.
The first offering is from Resnick himself. "Guardian Angel" begins with private detective Jake Masters on the planet Odysseus in the Iliad system. Masters is sitting in his office when a stunning woman of affluence, Beatrice Vanderwycke, enters. Her nineteen-year-old son is missing, and she wants Masters to find him. Accepting the case, he goes to see the boy’s father, Hatchet Ben Jeffries, the kingpin of the Corvus system and a despicable gangster with much to hide. What follows is Masters’s adventurous chase across the galaxy to locate the boy and return him to his mother.
I have to admit that for the first half of this novella I was dismayed by how bad I thought it was. This wasn’t science fiction at all. This was a Mars Western using the hard-boiled detective story instead of a "horse opera" template. There was nothing unique here, and it certainly violated Ben Bova’s definition of science fiction: if the science or speculative element is removed from a story and the story falls apart there’s no story. I was baffled as to why Resnick wouldn’t try something more ambitious. Surely he’s more clever than that. And yes, I’m happy to report, he is.
"Guardian Angel" is a literary pastiche combining both mystery and classic space opera genres. While there are no new ideas presented as the characters zoom across the galaxy with the ease of a present-day commuter hopping from New York to London, Resnick is paying homage to not only two genres, but to the era they hailed from: the 1930s. And he manages to wink at Bester’s The Demolished Man by incorporating telepathy and an incident involving a young child being witness to a murder into the plot. Also, toward the end of the story, two humans and their alien associate go into a coffee shop, but because this is a human-based planet, the alien has to sit in the alien section. Segregation in the mid-1950s is a delicate subject, yet Resnick managed to elicit a chuckle with his aliens-to-the-back-of-the-bus scenario. What I initially thought to be a dull fusion of "sci-fi" and the classic hard-boiled mystery is a thoughtful send up and celebration of both. The cumulative effect of the story’s elements leads to the reader’s epiphany and the joy of watching the author wink at the bygone era of pulps. No, this is not good "science fiction." It is a good mystery story that plays with the motifs of space opera from the Golden Age. And the ending brought a tear to my jaded eye, which was the last thing I’d expected.
"In the Quake Zone" by David Gerrold
is the longest of these novellas, and at over forty thousand words, it’s nearly a novel unto itself. Told in first person by a Vietnam veteran, Mike, it takes place in three "time zones." The first is 1958 where Mike goes into the office of the "time agency" he works for to gets his next assignment. He then rides a time quake to the Summer of Love (1967) where his task is to discover who is abducting young men in the gay district of West Los Angeles. There, Mike takes in one of them, Matty, whom Mike, though basically heterosexual, begins to have feelings for. Mike is then propelled into the twenty-first century where the purpose of all is revealed. I can’t tell you what the mystery is—that would violate the reviewer’s no-spoiler credo—but the ending is either its greatest strength or its biggest weakness, depending on your point of view. But the mystery aspect of this story does take a turn I wasn’t expecting, one I wasn’t especially thrilled with.
This is an odd story, told using an unconventional structure. The first third is conveyed in a beat-style reminiscent of Jack Kerouac. It rambles, it digresses, it plays with conventional narrative, barely advancing the plot. Then, after about thirteen thousand words, the narrative becomes much more orthodox and reads like any other story. Does this work? Yes and no. This is, in many ways, the standout story in this anthology. It’s bold, daring, original, and, in places, full of human compassion. But I don’t see what Gerrold was up to by not having the narrative style more evenly distributed. As much as I enjoyed the opening third with all its quirkiness, I did wonder where it was leading before the story finally took off. Subsequently, I found the style rather flat compared to the opening. The last third, though stylistically similar to the second, is only tangentially connected to the middle. As a whole, it lacks continuity. The fact that Gardner Dozois chose to include this novella in his The Year’s Best Science Fiction does say much, especially considering its length. But I can’t help but look at it as a brilliant failure on a couple levels. At best, it’s a minor masterpiece with a few noticeable flaws.
"The City of Cries" by Catherine Asaro
is a first-rate galactic mystery set in the far future. Former military officer Major Bhaajan is called upon by the royal Majda family to find one of their missing princes. Since this is a matriarchal society, retaining the services of a female private eye is a given, and though Bhaajan is one tough operative, her feminine side is never in doubt.
I was impressed by how Asaro gave Bhaajan a stake in the story beyond solving the case for financial gain. Within this closed royal society, if Bhaajan doesn’t tread carefully, she could very well end up dead. This overcomes much of the difficulties inherent in typical detective novels; if the hired investigator is not threatened or at risk, no matter how clever the mystery puzzle, the story lacks suspense. Yet suspense this forty-thousand-word novella has. Toward the end, when perhaps the laser battle scene could have dragged, Asaro handles it with great skill, playing it to maximum effect. There’s also some excellent worldbuilding here, with a few clever devices no futuristic detective should be without.
Readers who enjoyed Robert Reed’s novel, Morrow, will likely delight in his novella, "Camouflage." Multiple races exist and thrive on a mammoth vessel, The Great Ship, large enough to contain several worlds. Pamir, the former Master Captain, has been living incognito for many, many years, having changed his face and identity sixty-three times. He is approached by Miocene, the current Master Captain’s First Chair, and persuaded to look into the murder of a J’Jal male. The deceased is one of eleven husbands of a human woman, Sorrel, who is a member of the Faith of the Many Joinings, an onboard religion that practices polygamy. Someone is killing all Sorrel’s husbands, and it’s up to Pamir to get to the bottom of it.
"Camouflage" is a good title for this densely packed novella. Reed pulls out all the stops, displaying his fecund imagination and his prowess at creating suspense. I did find it a little difficult to follow at times, but the world he builds is so fascinating that it alone was enough to hold my interest. And while all the other novellas in this anthology were written in first person—most in a tough-guy P.I. cant—I found "Camouflage"’s third person refreshing. Reed avoids many Chandleresque clichés in this manner and lets the reader concentrate on his invention, undistracted by narrative style.
Jack McDevitt’s "The Big Downtown" is a straight-ahead detective story set in the twenty-third century where galactic travel is finally a reality. Kristi Walker is a P.I. who works out of Washington D.C., and her newest client has asked her to investigate the supposedly accidental death of his fiancée at sea during a recent hurricane. The fiancée was a nude model for the artist and boat owner, declared dead when his body washed ashore. But her body hasn’t been found. The client wants to know, "Was it her on the boat?" Kristi’s investigations take her into the art world and down exotic and dangerous avenues.
One of the more fascinating aspects of this story is an alien edifice discovered on the moon of a distant gas giant in another solar system. Known as The Retreat, it is a dwelling designed to accommodate aliens twice human size and has been disassembled and transported back to Earth. A portrait is on display inside, "The Stranger," possibly a self-portrait of one of these titanic creatures. This portrait, the dead artist, and the various parties involved blend together nicely to create the mystery.
The story’s title comes from what explorers in the future call Earth, "The Big Downtown," because space is so desolate and lonely they long to be among the crowded ranks of humankind again. Though not necessarily the best science fiction story in the collection, I found it to be the best mystery. Kristi Walker is a well-drawn detective—no Samantha Spade here—and this future is thoroughly believable and brilliantly realized. The alien painting adds an aspect to this tale that elevates it above the standard mystery, leaving the reader with an odd resonance and a taste of the unknown. And finally, the suspense kept me hooked till the very end.
Last is Robert J. Sawyer’s "Identity Theft." On Mars of the future, a beautiful woman enters the office of private investigator Alex Lomax, wanting him to find her missing husband. Like her husband, she is a transfer, a human who has had her mind moved into a mechanical body in a bid for eternal life. Both husband and wife own the local New You boutique which not only sells the customized bodies, but performs the mind transfers as well. There, Lomax finds the woman’s husband in the basement where he’s purportedly committed suicide. Or was he murdered? Or has anyone died at all?
While not bad as a mystery—the narrative did pull me along—this one left me a little cold as an SF story. Where Resnick playfully mixes the two genres in "Guardian Angel," winking at the clichéd motifs of the past, Sawyer’s story lacks the cleverness to work as a satire. Not only does Lomax mentally undress his beautiful client via prose straight out of some cheap detective novel of yore, but his stale banter with his copshop buddy is even more dated. To wit: the cop asks Lomax if he’s still carrying his Smith & Wesson, warning him that a bullet won’t stop a human in a transfer body. I have a hard time believing that handguns will be allowed on Mars in a future distant enough to have developed mind transfer technology. With regard to the mind transfer element, this was a trope of pulp ’50s SF or space opera. Dan Simmons
, a la Hyperion,
could pull this off, and Philip K. Dick
wrote many similarly subject-mattered stories back in the ’60s, although his genius lay in a different direction than technological verisimilitude. Actually, the way Sawyer portrays this technology in "Identity Theft" is reminiscent of Total Recall,
the movie version of Dick’s short story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." But while that was a good vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, I found it disappointing in a literary medium.
Mike Resnick opens this anthology with, "They used to say it couldn’t be done." Having read the stories in Down These Dark Spaceways, I’m not so sure it has been. While there are some fine stories here, Resnick’s "Guardian Angel" is pure space opera, and Catherine Asaro’s "The City of Cries" and Jack McDevitt’s "The Big Downtown," while excellent mystery/suspense stories, don’t fit the bill either. All three are replete with FTL and other amazing technologies, but they could have been presented as straight mysteries set on Earth during the 20th century. David Gerrold’s "In the Quake Zone" is a solid science fiction story, employing time travel as its chief speculative feature, but the mystery aspect is perhaps negated by the finale. Robert Reed’s novella, "Camouflage," might be the only one that successfully fuses the two genres; it certainly contains aspects of both detective story and science fiction. But at times, it seemed in danger of collapsing under its own weight. And finally, while Robert Sawyer’s "Identity Theft" functions as both a mystery and a science fiction story, I found so much about it I didn’t like—the detective was cliché unto being a sexist bore—that I can’t recommend it.
I was expecting more from this anthology; I was hoping for a tale or two that would redefine the Sam Spade-type character and combine him (or her or it) with speculative elements that pushed this odd amalgam of literary forms forward. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I didn’t see it here. However, as far as entertainment goes, this anthology delivers that in Spades. (Pun intended.)