#143: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Cross-Dressing the Genre in Inherit the Stars (1977) by James P. Hogan

tnbs-costume

Our theme is Crime in Costume for the TNBs this month, and I’m interpreting that laterally and looking at James P. Hogan’s unabashedly scientific debut which is essentially a good old-fashioned impossible crime decorated and disguised in SF trappings.

I love a good crossover mystery — one of these days I really must get round to writing a post on why Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians is quite simply the single-finest example of genre-straddling ever achieved (yes, better even than Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel) — but I’d like to make it clear that Hogan isn’t writing that kind of book at all.  His puzzle, involving a 50,000 year-old corpse of a fully-developed human found on the Moon and wearing a spacesuit, is instead as diamond-hard SF as you’re going to get: what follows is one of the most astonishingly technical and scientifically rigorous pieces of fiction surely ever written.  If the problem-solving delights of Andy Weir’s recent deserved smash hit The Martian fancied your tickle, then this is the book for you, because holy hell isn’t it ever grounded in some amazing scientific fact and a brilliant stir of seamless speculation.

inherit-the-starsSo, no, it’s not a crossover mystery because there’s no crime as such.  But like TomCat, who brought this to my attention a little while ago via Ho-Ling’s own review, I’m keen to appropriate this for we fans of detection and deduction because it not only ticks just about every single box that we want to see filled but does so with a Mont Blanc pen filled with ink made from unicorn tears.  As TC put it so perfectly in the comments of that post, this book is “definitely worth a shot for seasoned mystery readers who’ve read tons of mysteries of every possible shape and stripe, because it’s something very, very different that still can be considered a detective story.”  And this is the beauty of our chosen genre, because it has that adaptability to be turned into something that perfectly fulfils the requirements of another set of expectations, and so is able to keep two sets of rabid, highly-strung, demanding nerds happy at the same time.

The empyreal connotations of Hogan’s story potentially lend themselves to a lot of navel-gazing, but thankfully he’s not too bothered about that.  Instead, a collection of brilliant scientists descend — our detective analogs — and some of the most sublime speculation on real science ground begins in earnest.  It is a little dry at times, but if you’re a detail nerd you’ll be in heaven: this is Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, John Dickson Carr’s locked-room lecture from The Hollow Man, Monsignor Ronald Knox’s Decalogue, S.S.van Dine’s 20 Rules for Writing Detective Fiction, and Freeman Wills Crofts on a particularly insistent day all being cut up and rearranged by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke while Frederik Pohl glances over their shoulders and puts in the occasional suggestion.  There’s a brief moment when it is posited that some information about the planet Charlie (that’s what they call the body) came from can be deduced by looking at the crystalline structure of the glass that formed the faceplate on his spacesuit, as differing gravities would have caused different arrangements and shapes of the liquid form as it cooled…thanfully you’re saved a further lecture or a needlessly drawn out explanation, the suggestion is simply put out there and the referred to later, but this is the level of detail Hogan puts into everything.  And it’s amazing.

Fundamentally, it’s an alibi problem: where the hell was Charlie at the crucial time (which, er, just happens to be 500 centuries ago)?  If his height and the composition of his bones mean that he can’t have come from a planet with a density greater than x and the symbols in his pocket-book imply that the planet had a year with y days in it, then it must have been distance z from the Sun moving at speed a and therefore would have crashed with Venus.  Hmm, try again.  If he came from Earth and so the year had 365 days then these symbols mean it was divided up into different durations from our hours, but then those same symbols found elsewhere would imply that he’s more than 50,000 years old and we know that’s correct because of the carbon-dating.  Hmm, try again.  If Lady Phyllis was seen outside the Chameleon Club at 4am by her stalker who was then hit by a taxi as he raced across the road before she saw him, the taxi driver (who waited with him for the ambulance to arrive) can’t have also left his fingerprints on the ladder up to the roof of the hotel opposite when a shot was fired from there at 4:07 into the apartment of the mob witness who was killed by that bullet while simultaneously having been drowned in the East River three hours previously.  Hmm, try again…

The setup is patently impossible — 50,000 years ago man was drawing on cave walls with sticks of charcoal, the notion of rainfall was doubtless a complete mystery, and any medical requirement more serious than a toothache was probably remedied by a slow and painful death or a club to the head.  Rest assured: Hogan is not claiming that neolithic Man strapped on a rocket pack and went for a grand day out on the Moon during his summer holidays.  In this context, the Moon is the ultimate hermetically-sealed room, and the caveman in the spacesuit is simply a delightful flourish akin to the unbroken field of snow across which he must have walked to gain entrance.  In this regard, I was reminded of the Jonathan Creek episode ‘The Omega Man’ in which the body of an alien being is uncovered in the desert, but then vanishes from a locked crate in the back of a locked truck while in transit to a military base.  Both are rife with SF lore and potential, and both shimmy effortlessly around the potential pitfalls of trying too hard to find something clever and therefore reaching for something stupid instead — though the Creek is more in the field of impossible crimes than this come its final revelations.

s3ep3_omegaman

It’s…alive?

Best of all — and, truly, this is no mean feat — Hogan’s solution is both fairly clued and pure hard SF.  No “oh, it turns out we got the carbon dating wrong and it’s out mate Jeff who went missing on that mission to the Moon three years ago — c’mon, you must remember Jeff, he brought in cupcakes every third Thursday” nonsense, and there’s a slim chance that anyone new to the genre might find it a little unsatisfying, but it’s a brave and wonderfully smart solution that accounts for all the clues and puts all the suspects in the right place at the right time for good reasons.  Best of all, if you put in a little time, it’s available in secondhand in paperback for not-ridiculous amounts of money (though there’s some idiot trying to sell it for £118.99 on Amazon, as always), so hopefully — while most definitely out of print — this shouldn’t cause too great a fiscal burden if you decide to check it out.

And now the key question is: are there any more like this?  Because I am hooked….

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36 thoughts on “#143: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Cross-Dressing the Genre in Inherit the Stars (1977) by James P. Hogan

  1. Thanks for the mention, JJ! Glad to read you found it as fascinating as I did. Our fellow mystery enthusiasts, from Japan, were very perceptive when they decided to appropriate this gem from the SF genre. It’s ours now!

    Concerning your key question: I’ve no idea. The easy answer would be Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel or The Naked Sun, but I suspect you were not referring to the obvious genre-hybrids. However, I would love to read your take on Devil’s Planet by Manly Wade Wellman.

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    • And on a sidenote, The Omega Man has one of the most mind-numbing explanations of the entire series. The plot-material, setup and core explanation are fascinating enough, but do we have to believe that Creek, who invents stage illusions for a living, overlooked the holes in the platform of the crate? It should’ve aroused his immediate suspicion!

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        • The Black Canary, Jack in the Box and Danse Macabre are the obvious suspects for favorites, but also loved the impossible situation from The Reconstituted Corpse: an empty wardrobe is carried up a narrow staircase and is found to contain a body at the top.

          Not as obvious as candidates are Angel’s Hair (deserved a better written episode) and The Tailor’s Dummy, which has a genuine original impossible situation with a satisfying solution.

          An honorable mention for the vanishing mystery from Satan’s Chimney? However, the locked room shooting in that one was rubbish.

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          • Yeah, ‘Corpse’ is a good one, but the timings don’t work for me, and I can’t work out if the chinmey disappearance in ‘Satan’s Chimney’ is clever or not — there’s an obvious problem with the ladder that they fail to address…

            Forgot the “crossword answers in a bottle” from ‘Seer of the Sands’, too, and in fact the whole scheme of that episode — exceptionally clever and seamlessly constructed.

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    • I already have the Wellman down on my TBB following your review, and shall definitely get to it…well, at some point. I’m sure there are other pure SF mysteries out there, I just wonder how much crud one must wade through in order to find them! I do, however, massively appreciate you bringing this straight to my door, so to speak — it really was a belter.

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  2. I’m not sure this one is my cup of tea, but watching you jump up and down in extremis is a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I found the Garrett in my local library just sitting there, not being read, and I’m tempted, I tell you! I’m sorely tempted!

    By the way, I received a Mont Blanc pen filled with ink made from unicorn tears on my last birthday. It pees all over the paper every time . . .

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    • Also, what the Garrett does so well is blend the aspects of fantasy and locked room mystery so perfectly in giving a solution that requires both in equal measure. It’s even fairly-clued in both regards, which takes some doing!

      The writing, however, is pretty horrible. I couldn’t finish al the Lord Darcy short stories just because the way Garrett wrote was so…clunky. Does anyone know if Michael Kurland’s follow-ups were any good? He’s a very entertaining writer, and I can believe he’d do good things with Darcy and Master Sean…

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      • Too Many Magicians is one of the most overrated and horrendously written books in both the mystery and fantasy genre! As JJ said, the writing is clunky (at best). You get bogged down in all the my lords, my ladies and good fellows, which makes reaching the final chapter feel like wading through a swamp with lead shoes on.

        And the only payoff is utter disappointment waiting in the last couple of chapters. Yes, Garrett played fair with the reader, but the explanation for the locked room is a slight variation on a trick from a famous Carter Dickson novel. So I never bothered with any of the short stories, novellas or pastiches.

        Garrett’s only accomplishment was how he actually managed to make a story about an alternative reality, locked rooms, wizard detectives, sword fighting specters and a cloaked cameo for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin soul crushingly dull and boring.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks! I was sitting here mystified by reference to Too Many Magicians as “simply the single-finest example of genre-straddling ever achieved” because all I could remember of it was being bored out of my tiny.

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          • This…I mean…you guys are…you’re kidding, right? This is Rupert Penny all over again, where I’m like “Rupert Penny’s amazing!” and everyone’s like “No, he’s terrible!” and I’m all “Whaaaatt?!” and then people are like “Oh, hey, actually, no, he’s pretty good after all”. I mean, okay, I think Jonathan was the only one to come with me on that, but he’s a discerning and intelligent fellow — look at the blogs he hangs out on, after all.

            So does no-one else like Too many Magicians? No-one?!!!

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      • Great post, JJ! This definitely sounds like a winner to me. And I actually enjoyed Garrett’s short story collection “Murder & Magic”–it didn’t send me into raptures, but I did think he mixed fantasy and detection pretty well. I’ve still got “Too Many Magicians” on my long TBF (to be found) list.

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        • Huzzah! Someone coming in on Garrett’s side — thank-you, Bev! He’s not the best of writers, he’s downright bloody awful at times, but he can do a good locked room (I think the story I’m thinking of is ‘A Matter of Gravity’) even though he’s also guilty of some absolute stinkers (‘The Eyes Have It’ — ugh). If you’re able to stand the leaden prose (I can’t deny TC has a point there) TMM does more than enough to straddle the genres in a perfectly entertaining way; hope you find it one day!

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          • I came across Garrett first because he and Robert Silverberg wrote a couple of science fantasies together as Robert Randall; they’re probably my favorite works by either writer, as if each brought out the best in the other. Mind you, that’s what I thought in my teens and early 20s — gawd knows what I might think of them now.

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          • Garrett and Silverberg sounds like a very compelling team-up, though — hadn’t heard of this before, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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      • The one Kurland-written Lord Darcy novel I read (TEN LITTLE WIZARDS) was hardly an improvement on the original. Kurland made the history parts much easier to understand and he isn’t as loose with the magical laws as Garrett (who invented them!). Read my review for my take on the first one. I found a copy of the second (A STUDY IN SORCERY) but have not the patience to attempt to read it.

        Like TomCat I loathe TOO MANY MAGICIANS and agree with him that it’s overrated and lavished with underserved praise. But I have read the stories and I think a handful of the Lord Darcy novellas — they’re too long to be called short stories — are very well done. I found the novel dull and boring with a sadly anticlimactic solution that left me thoroughly unimpressed. I didn’t find any of the political subplots to be interesting in the least. In fact, it was all so badly described I hadn’t a clue who was who or what was going on. At least Kurland is much clearer in writing those parts of his version of the Lord Darcy universe.

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        • Criminy, I don’t remember any of the political subplots in TMM. I mean, they were prety muchalways there in the short(er) stories, so Garrett was undeniably a fan of cramming in as much confusing politicking as possible, but the novel itself is — in my memory — remarkably free of that kind of thing.

          This is making me think that I should revisit it…of maybe I should steer clear and keep hold of the happy memories! Thanks for the thoughts on Kurland, too — he’s a slightly problematic writer, but I enjoy the spirit of fun he injects into what he does. I have a feeling his Darcy books are available reasonably affordably on Kindle, so I might check the first one out and see how I fare.

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  3. Thanks, JJ! I’ve posted it in the Golden Age Group on Facebook. Now to go read it.

    Bev

    On Tue, Oct 4, 2016 at 6:27 AM, The Invisible Event wrote:

    > JJ posted: ” Our theme is Crime in Costume for the TNBs this month, and > I’m interpreting that laterally and looking at James P. Hogan’s unabashedly > scientific debut which is essentially a good old-fashioned impossible crime > decorated and disguised in SF trappings. I ” >

    Like

  4. Pingback: Tuesday Night Bloggers: Crime in Costume – Week 1 | crossexaminingcrime

  5. You could consider a companion piece to this novel (pre-empting one of its crucial ponts) to be “The Ultimate Crime” from More Tales of the Black Widowers by Mr. Asimov — and this surely one of the cleverest of those stories (which is saying something).

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    • I still haven’t read any of the Black Widowers stories, part of my brain just keeps forgetting about them. But if there’s reason enough to compare them, however slightly, with this then I’ll definitely make a more concerted effort to track them down — thanks for the tip and the motivation!

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  6. I have started reading the book.
    Now let me find out the mystery behind the discovery on the moon of a 50,000 year old corpse of a human in a spacesuit !

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  7. What a treat to find this on a mystery blog! I got to know James P. Hogan a little bit some 20 years ago when he was Author Guest of Honor at a small science fiction/fantasy con I used to go to. It was so small that GoHs always got to hang out with the students (it was at a college) and fans. The story behind this book is fun: he was an early computer science expert, and after the movie 2001 came out, he wasn’t impressed. He boasted around the office that he could do better, so one of his co-workers bet him (some nice amount, maybe 75 quid), he couldn’t. So, he did, and got it published fairly quickly, too. And that started his SF writing career! I remember he was quite polite – they dragged him along to a karaoke bar and he was so desperate for some Guinness that he sat stoically all through the caterwauling. I was sad to hear when he died (2010). The guy knew how to have fun! And I really liked his books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, that’s really cool! The Clarke influence is undeniable, it’s wonderful to see someone come good on a promise like that…and it’s such a well-explored idea.

      And anyone who will politely tolerate karaoke with a group of fans must surely be a nice guy…!

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  8. I have read the book by James Hogan.
    I generally avoid Science Fiction, but this was a pleasant surprise. It is quite good and I enjoyed reading it. I give it a 4 star rating.
    A note of caution. It is often heavy reading with many scientific terms and jargons. Not for everyone !

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