Monday, November 30, 2015

Robots Can't Lie: SF Mysteries Before Asimov [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Isaac Asimov claims that the science fiction story was never truly married with the mystery story before 1953. Some authors tried, while others danced around the problem, like Anthony Boucher who wrote the mystery novel, Rocket to the Morgue in 1942, about science fiction fans, rather than being science fiction itself. It was Asimov who took this challenge most seriously. In his book Asimov's Mysteries (1968) he wrote of his quest:
But talk is cheap, so I put my typewriter where my mouth was, and in 1953 wrote a science fiction mystery novel called The Caves of Steel (published, 1954). It was accepted by the critics as a good science fiction novel and a good mystery and after it appeared I never heard anyone say that science fiction mysteries were impossible to write. I even wrote a sequel called The Naked Sun (published, 1957) just to show that the first book wasn't an accident. Between and after these novels, moreover, I also wrote several short stories intended to prove that science fiction mysteries could be written in all lengths.
The Caves of Steel and its sequels feature murders that involve robots. Was this an original idea? Hardly. Eando Binder had made robots famous as early as 1939 with his stories of Adam Link, a robot that is accused of murder and faces trial. Asimov's interest is not to turn robots into protagonists, but to explore his Three Laws of Robots (and how a clever murderer might get around them.)

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across "Robots Can't Lie" by Robert Leslie Bellem in a copy of Fantastic Adventures, July 1941. This murder mystery has a man, Tim Kermit, framed for murder by a robot that identifies him as the killer. Because of the way robots record what they see, they are considered infallible witnesses. Tim's only chance of avoiding the Lethal Chamber is to escape and repair another robot that was found broken at the murder scene. In the end the escape and repair are a trick that brings out the real killer.

Bellem tells the tale in his usual loose, noir style with Q-rays replacing .38s and gliders replacing cars. What the author lacks in style he makes up for in pace. Editor Ray Palmer interrupts in Hugo Gernsback fashion (with footnotes) to explain the SF trappings such as the Q-bolt used in the murder weapon, the viso lens of the robot, and the personal radio wave of the autorad, all in pseudo-scientific gooblygook that does nothing to further the story.

Now to go back to Asimov. He never said that no one ever tried to do it, only that it had never succeeded. What strikes me first off, is how similar the mystery ideas are between "Robots Can't Lie" and his Lije Bailey novels. I doubt Bellem was familiar with Adam Link (though he may have been), but Ray Palmer certainly was aware of his competition. Isaac Asimov was also fully aware of the Binders. He had permission to use the title I, Robot from the brother duo who had used it earlier. Was Asimov familiar with "Robots Can't Lie"? He was a bit of an Astounding/John W Campbell snob, so would he have read anything as pulpy as Fantastic Adventures? Unlikely, but his interest in robot stories may have superseded his snobbery.

Does "Robots Can't Lie" work as an SF-Mystery? Better than Asimov might have liked to admit. The robot-witness idea certainly could not happen in a regular mystery. This is one of Asimov's key criteria: a good SF-Mystery can't work as a regular mystery, nor is it simply SF. I'm not going to say you couldn't rewrite this story without SF trappings or robots. Replace the robots with human witnesses and it would work. (There is even a chance Bellem's story was largely rewritten by Palmer, though I have no proof of this.) Bellem was a high production writer, pumping out millions of words a year, and his ploy of trapping the villain is hardly novel. Asimov's novels by comparison could not be rewritten in this fashion. Even if Asimov wasn't the first, he certainly was the best at creating such SF Mysteries.

The other thing that makes me giggle is the 1980s adoration of how William Gibson brought a Raymond Chandler style to Cyberpunk. You want full-bore noir SF, here it is, the real thing from one of noir's cheesier hacks, back when Gibson's father was still reading Thrilling Wonder Stories.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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