Nov 22, 2014

Science Fiction Mystery

I'm a bad boy...I've never read Issac Asimov's science fiction mystery The Caves of Steel. The story was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine. In 1954 it was published as a novel by Doubleday and there have been many subsequent editions published. I'm a fan of Asimov's robot stories and I have no good excuse for never having read this story.

"[John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader — and yet would be a true science-fiction story. The result was The Caves Of Steel." -from Asimov's introduction to the novel.

If the author's name is in larger print than the title then I'm less likely to buy the book.

I have read both The Robots of Dawn as well as Robots and Empire.  In these later novels, Asimov makes reference to the events that took place in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. This was an opportunity for Asimov to entice a reader like me to go back and read the earlier novels, but I've never even been tempted to do so.

As mentioned in this review by Nicki Gerlach, Asimov's vision of a future Earth with everyone living in dystopic urban "caves" can seem like a lame extrapolation into an imagined future from the mid 20th century, possibly telling us more about Asimov's personal psychological quirks than originating from any rational extrapolation or calculated futurism. However, I'm willing to grant Asimov his version of the future. He worked hard to come up with excuses for why Humanity would eventually forget about Earth and establish the amnesic Galactic Empire depicted in his Foundation Saga.

Science Fiction Mystery
I'm not a real fan of mystery stories, particularly when the author tricks readers in a lame attempt to create suspense and a surprise ending. Or when solving the mystery depends on a "sleuth" who has superhuman abilities.

I'm not a fan of police or detective mysteries. My tastes in mystery run more towards the "off-beat mystery" such as those "written by robot CL-123X" in Asimov's story "Cal". Cal is a robot who wants to write mystery stories. This is a problem because Cal is programmed to believe that humans must not be harmed. I'm like Cal: I don't want mystery stories with either crime or punishment.

"I want to be a writer" -Cal
Sadly, Asimov took the story "Cal" in a dark direction. In the end, the robot is re-programmed and goes "spro-o-o-oing". With its positronic circuits damaged, Cal is able to start planning how to murder his owner.

Through the workings of his damaged positronic circuits, Cal has discovered new programing that is even more powerful than the Laws of Robotics: he really wants to be a writer.

Asimov's Mysteries
1969 cover
This collection of stories was published in 1968 and it included two short stories that I've read, "Pâté de Foie Gras" and "I'm in Marsport Without Hilda" (I read the version of this story that was published in Nine Tomorrows).

These two stories could really only have been written by Asimov. In his Foundation Saga, Asimov introduced the idea that an official of the Galactic Empire could be tricked into believing that the  Foundation had the technological means to efficiently transmute elements. In Pâté de Foie Gras, Asimov explores the idea of an animal that can somehow use biological processes transmute oxygen into gold.

Asimov had a travel-related phobia and he often wrote stories that included the idea that space travel might have physiological effects and induce some kind of psychological disruption in space travelers. For his story I'm in Marsport Without Hilda, Asimov makes use of an anti-space sickness drug, called Spaceoline, as a plot element.

Publication of Asimov's Mysteries apparently attracted the notice of the folks at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and he was invited to submit a mystery story for publication in that venue.

Black Widowers
In 1972  Asimov published "The Acquisitive Chuckle", a short mystery story that features a private detective who had once investigated a "crime" that remained unsolved.

The "crime" is rather subtle, and typical of Asimov's mysteries, there is no blood in the story. For "The Chuckle", Asimov invented a group of fictional characters called the Black Widowers. Over the years, Asimov wrote a large number of mystery stories that are set in the background of the Widowers. The fictional Widowers were inspired by a club that Asimov participated in called The Trapdoor Spiders.

Dead Widower Society
I've only ever read the first of the Black Widower mystery stories.

The powerful influence of writing mystery stories led to Asimov eventually turning his Foundation Saga into a sweeping mystery story. The "star performer" in that 20,000-year-long story is Daneel.

Daneel is depicted as using his telepathic powers to further his robotic programming and his fundamental drive to protect Humanity from harm. Over the course of 20,000 years, Daneel brings into existence Galaxia, a galaxy-spanning group mind that can protect Humanity from alien invaders who are expected to arrive from another galaxy. Along the way, Daneel crafts other experimental systems, including the Galactic Empire, the Foundations, and the hermaphroditic Solarians. At the end of Foundation and Earth, Daneel is depicted as planning to undergo a transformation from positronic robot to some sort of new life form with the biological brain of a Solarian.

The Nicotine Mystery
For thousands of years the Overseers were aggressive about removing from Earth anyone who had knowledge of aliens and the role they have played in shaping the human species and civilization on Earth. When I started writing Exode, my intention was have only a short part of the story take place on Earth and keep Earth firmly under the Rules of Intervention.

More recently, I've been exploring the possibility that the Rules of Intervention no longer apply to Earth. Maybe there are now only a few "unauthorized Overseers" who are still trying to enforce the Rules of Intervention without any support from the pek.

Asimov hinted at the transformation of Daneel from robot to biological, but recently Ivory made the transition from her biological form to a new existence as an artificial life form. Now I've begun to contemplate the possibility that I might be able to take control of the nanite swarm within me. Might it be possible for me to cause a new artificial life form to come into existence that would carry a "copy" of my own mind?

Using hints from Ivory, Thomas and Izhiun, I suspect that some chemical substance such as nicotine might facilitate an Earth human's attempt to take control of the nanites that reside within us.

Beverwijck en Nicotiana
I've blogged about the fact that in the Ekcolir Reality, there was a small nation called Beverwijck en Nicotiana. An informant recently told me that within that Reality, research on chemicals isolated from the plant Nicotiana rustica revealed a combination of a potent flavonoid and nicotine that allowed some people to control their nanites.

I've now started experimenting with my  swarm of nanites and my own ability to use pharmacological aids to allow me to exercise control of the nanites that I carry in my brain. The trick seems to be finding a combination of chemicals that allows lethal amounts of nicotine to be ingested. Where Asimov had his "Spaceoline" then maybe we need a "Nanitiana" or "Flavoline".

Related Reading.
2017 Update: I finally read The Caves of Steel.
More book and magazine covers

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