Saturday, 4 May 2019

Knox Machine

From the "detective story" and "science fiction" labels I've added to the post, you might guess thatノックス・マシン (Knox Machine, 2013) by NORIZUKI Rintarou (法月綸太郎) is a science fiction detective story. In fact it is a collection of pure science fiction stories, which don't contain a proper mystery, but have golden age detective stories as their subject matter.

The title story ノックス・マシン ("Knox Machine", 2008) takes its inspiration from the ten commandments for detective stories that Ronald Knox wrote as part of the introduction to an anthology. In the mid twenty first century, computer creation of satisfying literature has become possible. Chin Loo, a Chinese researcher attempting to create new golden age style mysteries, uses Knox's rules as a central part of his modelling of the pattern of the story. The choice is politically questionable, because of the fifth law "no Chinaman shall figure in the story". Persevering despite disapproval Chin Loo succeeds in generating new puzzle mysteries; but it seems that his choice has condemned him to a life without career advancement, when he is unexpectedly and alarmingly summoned by senior figures in a government research program. Their interest, it turns out, lies in the fact that the time when Knox wrote his laws seems to be tied in to the possibility of time travel.

The second 引き立て役倶楽部の陰謀 ("The Supporting Characters' Club Conspiracy", 2009). Captain Hastings narrates how in 1939 a letter from Doctor Watson, the president of the Supporting Characters' Club, summoned him and other members to discuss what action needs to be taken in the light of a new affront to the honour of the society offered by Agatha Christie's forthcoming mystery. Their last intervention, following her publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, had gone as far as kidnapping. Now Watson seems ready to countenance even more extreme measures.

The third バベルの牢獄 ("The Jail of Babel" 2010) is not so directly concerned with detective stories, but again has a metafictional aspect.

The last, ("Knox Machine 2" 2013) is a sequel to "Knox Machine", this time centred on Ellery Queen's The Siamese Twin Mystery and The Chinese Orange Mystery and the presence or absence of Queen's famous "challenge to the reader". The electronic library of the world's texts, managed by a powerful American corporation, is being attacked by sudden fires, and the source seems to be The Siamese Twin Mystery. Terrorists, it seems, have manipulated the text, creating an instability that spreads through the neighbouring books. The only solution seems to be a new kind of time travel, back into the book.

I have to admit that I didn't enjoy this much. I like a lot of science fiction and I like classic detective stories, but the mix did not work well for me. One problem is that the exposition overwhelms the story to a greater or lesser extent in all four stories, most of all in the title story and its sequel. The exposition of detective story history (on Knox, Christie and Queen) is readable enough, although I knew much of it already. The physics reads less well. It feels as though having invested so much effort in creating a scientific justification for the story, the author is treating his invention with too much respect. For detective story fans the second story is likely to be of more interest, demonstrating a surprisingly thorough knowledge of early and golden age detective stories, and offering a reflection on the way the genre changed in its choice of plot.

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