Friday, March 15, 2019

"The Thing Was Out to Kill, in a Deadly, Controlled Manner"

"Insecurity Risk."
By Dan Morgan (1925-2011).
First appearance: New Worlds, January 1959.

Novelette (20 pages).
Online at Archive.org (HERE).

     "Many years ago American author Isaac Asimov instituted the three basic laws of robotics within which it was essential such humanoid-type machines should perform their services to Mankind. Since then those basic laws have been adopted by almost every science fiction writer and Dan Morgan uses them here to good effect in a story which combines mystery and detection."

The Cardington nuclear power station, still under construction, suffers a tragedy, the murder of a crane operator, which is bad enough, but there's also strong circumstantial evidence bolstered by an eyewitness that one of the new humanoid robots working alongside the humans is the killer . . .

Characters:
~ Quinn:

  "Some of them are saying that it's your fault that the robots were allowed in here in the first place, that you talked them into it."
~ Curtis:
  ". . . grinned broadly. 'That's fine—we might have an interesting meeting.'"

~ Fenton:
  "Such unfavourable publicity might do a considerable amount of damage to the project. And to your own reputation if it became known that you have a strike on your hands, added Curtis mentally."
~ Read:
  ". . . there was this robot with a big spanner in its hand, standing over Ed. He was lying there on the floor of the cab, his head all bloody."
~ Vane:

  "'We're convinced that eventually such a [humanoid] robot will be able to do anything a human is capable of, with no limitations.'"
  "'Including murder?'"
  "Vane winced."


Comment: The surprise here isn't who the murderer is but how he managed it, by taking advantage of "the unconscious prejudice of all of us."

Resources:
- For more on Dan Morgan, writer and musician, see Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), and the ISFDb (HERE).
- Curtis asks a pertinent question: "Who are we to create other thinking beings when we can't handle ourselves?" While he's thinking of the possibility of uncontrollable violence in robots, later thinkers proffer even direr predictions:

   "Physicist Stephen Hawking, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk have expressed concerns about the possibility that AI [Artificial Intelligence] could evolve to the point that humans could not con-trol it, with Hawking theorizing that this could be fatal to humanity: 'The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own 
and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete and would be superseded.'"
   — "Artificial Intelligence," Wikipedia

As for robots (embodied AIs) taking away jobs:

   "The relationship between automation and employment is complicated. While automation eliminates old jobs, it also creates new jobs through micro-economic and macro-economic effects. Unlike previous waves of automation, many middle-class jobs may be eliminated by artificial intelligence; The Economist states that 'the worry that AI could do to white-collar jobs what steam power did to blue-collar ones during the Industrial Revolution' is 'worth taking seriously.' Subjective estimates of the risk vary widely; for example, Michael Osborne and Carl Benedikt Frey estimate 47% of U.S. jobs are at 'high risk' of potential automation, while an OECD report classifies only 9% of U.S. jobs as 'high risk.' Jobs at extreme risk range from paralegals to fast food cooks, while job demand is likely to increase for care-related professions ranging from personal healthcare to the clergy. Author Martin Ford and others go further and argue that a large number of jobs are routine, repetitive and (to an AI) predictable; Ford warns that these jobs may be automated in the next couple of decades, and that many of the new jobs may not be 'accessible to people with average capability,' even with retraining. Economists point out that in the past technology has tended to increase rather than reduce total employment, but acknowledge that 'we're in uncharted territory' with AI."
   — "Artificial Intelligence," op cit.


- We keep bumping into robots, don't we? Our latest such encounter was Harry Harrison's "Arm of the Law" (HERE).

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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

"Now All We Have to Figure Out Is Which One of Them Was Really the Intended Victim"

EDWARD D. HOCH's redoubtable trio of persistent police officers becomes involved "in a police procedural that is more straightforward than usual, but as usual has as many dead ends along the way."

"The Woman Without a Past."
By Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008).
First appearance: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, April 22, 1981.

Short story (16 pages).
Online at Archive.org (HERE).

     "He stood looking at her, holding a long-barreled target pistol in his right hand."

The Bard observed, "What's past is prologue," the truth of which a young woman is about to learn the hard way . . .

Characters:
~ Judy Thomas
:
  ". . . has worked at the license bureau for ten months, ever since she moved to the city. Before that her life is a blank."
  "What do you mean?"
  "Just that—she has no past!"
~ Sergeant Connie Trent:
  "She must have a past somewhere. She didn't emerge full-grown from an egg ten months ago."
~ Lieutenant Fletcher:
  "No, I don't think it was robbery. The killer was waiting for them."
~ Genner:
  "He was all in shadows."
~ Carl Forrester:
  ". . . had a case of ether in the closet of his home."
~ Greg Porson:
  "When I heard the news I couldn't believe it! Carl was one of my best salesmen."
~ Max Swann:
  "Those small-caliber pistols are popular with hit men."
~ Rudy Vega:
  "Look, this stuff isn't against the law. Not yet, anyway. Not in this state."
~ Captain Leopold:
  "We're on the same side of the law, aren't we?"


Resources:
- Edward Dentinger Hoch wrote nearly 90 Captain Leopold stories, a half dozen of which appeared in The Saint Magazine (U.K.) under his alter ego alias, Stephen Dentinger (FictionMags data). TV Tropes has a short but informative page about our author (HERE).

- In case you missed J. Madison Davis's tribute to Hoch, we featured it (HERE).
- If you have an interest in the chemistry of ether, see Britannica (HERE) and Wikipedia (HERE).
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Monday, March 11, 2019

"The Thought of Killing Maudie Had Come Often to My Mind"

"Murderer's Chain."
By Wenzell Brown (1911-81).
First appearance: Fantastic Universe, March 1960.

Reprinted in Rulers of Men (1965).
Short short story (6 pages).
Online at SFFAudio (HERE; PDF) and Archive.org (HERE; text faded).

     ". . . it didn't take any great brain to see that Maudie's rapid demise would remove the single obstacle that stood between myself and untold wealth."

. . . and it just so happens the House of Fantastic Jewelry has the very thing to acquire all that untold wealth . . .

Characters:
~ Duff:

  "Everything about Balsavius has been kept strictly hush-hush. Only a handful of 
people have the slightest concept of the value of the new planet's mineral deposits."
~ Maudie (Mrs. Maude Terrain):
  "She was as adamant as ever about parting with the smallest fraction of her vast 
fortune . . ."
~ Isabelle, Maudie's daughter:
  "She's easy-going, pliant, susceptible to flattery and, on Maudie's death, Isabelle 
would inherit her full fortune."
~ Melvin Rosy:
  "I take it you want an extra-special gift. I might say a gift for the departing, even a 
fatal gift."
~ Lieutenant Onsett, Central Homicide:
  "His face wore an official mask of blankness but it was belied by the quirk of his lips."


Typos: "The play seemed to last for about ten light years" [light years measure distance, not time]; "nearly blew the roof of the place".

Resources:
- One of prolific Donald Wenzell Brown's non-SFF stories, "Witness to Murder," was adapted for the Canadian anthology TV series First Person (1960-61); see (HERE) for the scanty information available about it. Brown made quite a few short fiction contributions to the Alfred Hitchcock juggernaut, The Saint magazine, and even some to EQMM (HERE); see also Mystery*File (HERE) and a collection of his paperback covers (HERE).
- Brown's few forays into science fiction/fantasy (SFF) are briefly detailed (HERE) and (HERE).
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Friday, March 8, 2019

"I've Been on the Homicide Detail for Eight Years—I Deserve a Dying Message"

"The Square Root of Dead."
By Michael Kurland (born 1938) and Richard Lupoff (born 1935).
First appearance: Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, September 1976.

Short story (15 pages).
Online at Archive.org (HERE).

     "2198.2113"

The solution to this murder is right there, softly glowing . . .

Characters:
> The victim:
~ Professor James Conrad Harker:

  ". . . had been killed by a single thrust from a narrow, sharp instrument, which penetrated between the third and fourth ribs, severing the thoracic and carotid arteries . . ."
> The suspects:
~ Professor Pyne:

  "Harker was more highly regarded as a mathematician than Pyne. I have it from the rest of the department. Pyne's been jealous of Harker for twenty years. A thing like that can build up."
~ Robert Quipper:
  ". . . had been home brushing up for the calculus course he was a teaching assistant in . . ."
~ Jan Bliss:
  ". . . had been out at a meeting of the Society of the Round Table . . ."
~ Susan Bohle:
  ". . . claimed that she was visiting a boyfriend for the night. But, in a curious reversal of traditional morality, she refused to give his name . . ."

> The law:
~ Lieutenant Loman:
  ". . . stood to one side, his ungloved hands thrust under his arms for warmth, and looked at the body . . ."
~ Sergeant Stametti:
  "I can tell. You've pegged the killer."


Typos: "I wouldn't thing so"; "inconsistant".

Resources:
- Our two authors are long-time specialists in SFF, but they do occasionally stray outside the field. For more on Michael Joseph Kurland see Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), the ISFDb (HERE), and ONTOS (HERE); similarly, info about Richard Allen Lupoff is (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE).
- While he was still with us, our victim's interests included the game of Go (HERE) and computer heuristics (HERE).


The bottom line:

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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

"I Never Thought of That"

"The Alibi Machine."
By Larry Niven (born 1938).
Illustrations by Monte Rogers (HERE).
First appearance: Vertex, June 1973.

Reprints page (HERE).
Short short story (6 pages).
Online at Archive.org starting (HERE) and finishing (HERE).

     "He had had the thought, even then, that it would be untraceable should he ever want to kill somebody."

Establishing an alibi and getting away unscathed are always the problems for criminals, but our killer believes he's found a foolproof way of doing it . . .

Major characters:
~ Lucas Anderson:

  ". . . there was also his love of privacy . . . and distrust of people."
~ McAllister:
  ". . . suddenly his pulse was thundering in his ears. He was afraid."
~ Captain Hennessey:
  ". . . flicked in with the hot summer air of Fresno around him. It puffed out when he opened the door, and he felt the dry chill of the mountains. His ears popped."
~ Lieutenant Richard Donaho:
  "He watched for movement; he watched for footprints. The scenery was both too close and too far down, and it wobbled dizzyingly."
~ The helicopter pilot:
  ". . . I know guys who might try to take a chopper across this. Might break their stupid necks, too."


Resources:
- There really is such a thing as a Gyrojet; see Wikipedia (HERE).

- Traveling without moving sounds paradoxical, doesn't it? Nonetheless, science fiction writers have been using the idea of teleportation ("instantaneous matter transport") as a plot gimmick for well over a century, making it seem plausible even when science has decreed that it's impossible as a practical proposition. It's an exciting notion, certainly, but as our author proves, it can have a dark side. For Larry Niven's thoughts about matter transmission see his forty-year-old—but definitive—article "The Theory and Practice of Teleportation" from Galaxy magazine (HERE; 19 pages).


- Another story by hard-SF master Niven is "The Meddler" (HERE).
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Monday, March 4, 2019

"She Snatched It from Him, Looked at It and Flung It Out of the Open Window"

"The Case of the Distressed Lady."
(a.k.a. "The Cat and the Chestnut").
By Agatha Christie (1890-1976).
First appearance: Cosmopolitan, August 1932 (as "The Pretty Girl Who Wanted a Ring").

Reprinted in Woman’s Pictorial, October 22, 1932 (as "Faked!").
Collected in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934; U.S. title: Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective).

No media adaptations so far.
Short story (15 pages).
Online at Archive.org (HERE; EPUB).

     ". . . I have had a long experience in the compilation of statistics. From that experience I can assure you that in eighty-seven percent of cases dishonesty does not pay. Eighty-seven percent. Think of it!"

In his unflagging effort to make his clients happy, as per his advert, Parker Pyne foils a criminal plot, even though it still earns him an unjustified "You oily old brute!"

Characters:
~ Mr. Parker Pyne:
  An expert at repairing relationships.
~ Daphne St. John:
  A lachrymose lady with a self-inflicted problem.
~ Claude Luttrell and Madeleine de Sara:
  ". . . one of the handsomest specimens of lounge lizard to be found in England" and "the most seductive of vamps."
~ Lady Dortheimer and Sir Reuben:
  Blissfully unaware that they're the designated victims.


Resources:
- Concerning Parker Pyne, consult Wikipedia (HERE), Hercule Poirot Central (HERE), and Wikipedia again (HERE; WARNING! SPOILERS).
- It has been nearly two and a half years since we last dealt with Agatha Christie at any length, "The Plymouth Express Affair" (HERE) being the featured story then.


The bottom line:

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Friday, March 1, 2019

"Why Did You Make Holes in Me?"

"The Meddler."
By Larry Niven (born 1938).
First appearance: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1968.

Reprints page (HERE).
Short story (19 pages).
Online at Archive.org (HERE).
(Parental caution: Mild language and violence.)

     "Something poked me in the side, and I slapped at it and found myself clutching a .45 slug. I plucked another off my cheek."

For your average hard-boiled private eye, staying alive is a daily concern, crossing the wrong people can be fatal and is definitely something to be avoided; but when the wrong people go too far, even a laid-back P.I. has to do something: "Now I begin to understand your attitude," his uninvited and unwelcome visitor tells him. "We, too, try to balance out the amount of power given to individuals . . ."

Major characters:
~ Lester Dunhaven Sinclair, the Third (a.k.a. "Sinc"):

  "When Sinc showed up about three years ago and started taking over the rackets, I stayed out of his way. He was the law's business, I figured. Then he bought the law, and that was okay too. I'm no crusader."
~ Bruce Cheseborough, Jr. (the narrator):

  "I'm a private op. Any minute now I'll have Sinc's boys all over me, and the first one I kill, 
I'll have the cops on me too. Maybe the cops'll come first. I dunno."
~ The "Martian":
  "My major weaknesses are susceptibility to certain organic poisons, and a voracious appetite."
~ Don Domingo:
  "You know, you have the hardest head—"
~ Adler:
  ". . . the one who'd gotten me into this mess . . ."
~ Handel:
  "He stood there in the doorway, while the stars grew old and went out. Nothing, I felt, could have torn his eyes from that twitching, bubbling mass."


Typo: "Sinc' I'll see to that"

Resources:
- Larry Niven stories that we've already featured are "How the Heroes Die" (HERE) and "Dry Run" (HERE).


The bottom line:

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