Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Nanoreview: The Electric Detective by Peter Ward

An intricate game of double agendas and deceptive clues

Here's an unusual question: How do you pull off the perfect crime when you're up against an incorruptible investigator made of the latest in logical circuits?

Now here's an unusual answer: If you like making your life more complicated than it needs to be, you can use an administrator backdoor to install an additional set of instructions so that your positronic enemy may continue working with the police, but may not let any suspicions fall on you.

So now here's a more unusual question: How do you do your job as the ultimate logical detective when you're programmed to name the true killer but also programmed to not name the true killer?

Peter Ward's novel The Electric Detective is the unbelievably more unusual answer.

After the CEO of a leading robotics manufacturer is murdered in his ultra-secure office with no clues as to how the killer fled the scene, the company provides the police with Penelope, an especially produced robot that soon becomes the key piece in solving the mystery. Penelope is equipped with an impeccable moral compass, access to every reference database, and superhuman senses to never miss a clue. Plus she has her own personal assistant living in her head, monitoring her systems and inserting comedic advice. There's no way she won't crack this case.

However, as soon as she solves it, her programming is hijacked by the killer, and here's where the actual thrill of the book begins: can she find a logical loophole for a command that unambiguously means "don't rat me out"? During her mission to accomplish justice, Penelope will have to come up with desperate, last-minute workarounds for seemingly impossible conundrums that will put her reasoning skills in overdrive. There are few delights that are so unique to science fiction as watching the steps of the thought process that saves the hero at the last second, and Penelope's mind is a fascinating place to explore.

Not all the pieces of this case fit perfectly, though. There's one scene where a character is eavesdropping on a conversation and later makes choices as if they didn't know what they evidently were able to hear. The big villain's master plan has an impractically large number of moving parts, and somehow all of them go exactly as intended, which diminishes our heroine's protagonism because too many of her choices were what the villain wanted all along. The exposition doesn't trust the reader to conclude things on their own. And there's a quick section with excessive commentary on Penelope's superhuman hotness, which is never mentioned again and has no impact on the plot.

The Electric Detective isn't the kind of book one goes to for meditations on the dignity of artificial life under perpetual surveillance. This is simply a clever thought experiment dressed up in a science fiction costume. Expect that, and you'll be rewarded appropriately.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Ward, Peter. The Electric Detective [Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency, 2022].