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It's a crime

There are some interesting structural differences between writing a police procedural novel (that sub-genre of crime that deals with how the police pursue the process of detection) and writing a science fiction thriller. I'm currently elbow-deep in the guts of a pantomine horse of a novel (SF thriller at one end, police procedural at the other) so this is a topic of some interest to me right now.

One of the features of genre crime fiction is closure: the natural order of things is out of kilter (a crime has been committed) and at the end of the story the natural balance is restored (the criminal has been apprehended). There are, of course, variations: an ancient miscarriage of justice must be righted, or the detective is a serial killer or a purple singing dinosaur ... but the essential form is about the restoration of justice, whereas SF has a tendency towards divergence: nothing will ever be the same again.

How do you reconcile the divergent goals of the two media?

One option is to do metafiction: use SF as a lens for examining the process of crime and detection, turning a cold camera eye away from the traditional certainties of method, motive, and opportunity to dwell instead on how criminal behaviour is defined. Aside from the ancient bedrock offenses (killing, assault — sexual or otherwise — and theft) there's a vast spectrum of grey, within which any number of shades clash for our recognition of their severity or innocence. (File sharing: threat or promise? The very wording of legislation governing it would strike a lawmaker of the 18th century as gibberish, in the absence of a crash course in modern technology.)

Another option is to examine the likely policing of things as they might come to pass: is it murder to pull the plug on a computer hosting an artificial general intelligence or a running uploaded copy of a human mind? If a spammer sends a billion emails, each of which cost the recipient on average one second of their life, is it proportionate to deprive them of their liberty for a corresponding time? Hint: that's thirty years.

(And then, there's my approach: flail around happily in a near-future paddling pool full of brightly coloured machine parts ideas, until enough of them jammed together in the right pattern say something interesting.)

An interviewer once asked the elderly Agatha Christie how she got her her puzzle-box murder mysteries to hang together so elegantly. To paraphrase her: "first I write nine-tenths of the book. I put in lots of clues, and many suspects, and hapless detectives. But I don't know who did the deed! When I reach the nine-tenths point, I go back through the manuscript and make notes, until I know who the murderer is. I then go back again and take out all the contradictory clues — except for obvious red herrings — and write the climax, in which the killer is unmasked."

If you substitute "what the crime is" for "who the murderer is", this strikes me as being an approach eminently applicable to police-procedural SF ...

74 Comments

1:

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

...

Sorry, just got finished playing through Assassin's Creed.

2:

I don't think SF and crime fiction are inherently opposed here, simply because not all SF is divergent over the course of the book. Admittedly some of your work wouldn't fit with it too well, but let's consider the Eschaton or Laundry ones: they explore how the world has changed from ours, but at the end of the book, their world is not significantly changed from the start of the book. Indeed, in some sense you could say that they all deal with restoring the "natural state of things", and it's just that the characters have a different value for "natural state" than we do. To some extent, their only real difference from crime fiction is that they focus on how the "injustice" is corrected, rather than how it is detected.

3:

"The Policeman's Daughter" by Will McCarthy is a take on that. The plot driving question: if you make several copies of yourself and one copy tries to delete another, is that murder, eliminating unnecessary duplication, self-maintenance, file-cleaning...?

4:

I've just finished trying to write one as part of the rather mad experience that is 'National Novel Writing Month' (conclusion - a life spent writing Ministerial speeches and legal documents is not good preparation for writing good fiction.) Let's just say it's left me with still greater respect for those, like yourself, who can do it well.

5:

What you mention here are rule sets, that collectively constitute a metastructure.

If the dominant metastructure is a tribe, you kill anybody who's not part of your tribe. You are even free to eat him.

Within the metastructure "humanist society" it's not permitted to kill your neighbour or invade a peaceful country for colonialization and slavery. You can be pretty cruel to pigs, though. And you're definitely free to eat them.

Within the metastructure Buddhism all sentient life is protected. That includes pigs (up to a certain degree) and that is perfectly applicable to AGIs and sentient aliens.

By adhering to one ruleset or another you are acting out the metastructures' fight for survival.

6:

This immediately reminded me of Mieville's The City & The City, which I just finished a few days ago. It was in essentially the same position you are, with a mixture of what I would describe as science fiction (though the applicability of the term could be contested) and a detective story. The first option you mentioned is pretty much exactly the course Mieville took - with order firmly restored at the end, yes, but an order utterly alien to the reader.

It's well worth reading, if you haven't already.

7:

It should be easy for you to write an ending that combines the both scenarios: the criminal is apprehended and punished, but in the process of solving the crime we find (trough the detectives) that the world has changed and will never be the same. The trivial version would be a crime that is committed by an AI that became self-aware without our knowledge of the fact. The very fact that other AI's are surely lurking around and will kill again should be enough of a 'change the world' factor. As an alternative, the other AI's could announce themselves to the world of man, denounce the criminal AI and forcefully take over jurisdiction and prosecution of the criminal AI from our investigators.

8:

Nicholas @6: *adds "The City and the City" to list of books to avoid until current novel is finished*

9:

@4: Congrats, Patrick. I just got through Nanowrimo too. For once, I like what I've written, which is scary, because it's going to take another 100,000 words to finish...Fun science fiction, and (un)fortunately, it parallels a lot of what's been going on in this blog in the last few months.

As far as the police procedural goes, Nicholas has one good idea, which is to return things to the (alien) way they were at the beginning. Possibly it's useful to return things to their proper trajectory of change, rather than the status quo.

Another thing is the society is changing all the time, and the laws are always trying to catch up. This isn't particularly well reflected in most procedurals, but it strikes me that it's a natural medium for near-future science fiction. If your (slightly outdated) sense of right and wrong says that a crime has been committed, and your up-to-date antagonist insists that they did nothing wrong, who's right? How do the good guys win in the end?

Or, if you really want to invert conventions, how about having an up-to-date protagonist insisting that a wrong has been committed, while the slightly out-of-date antagonist insists that no crime has been committed? This is the kind of injustice a lot of us have to deal with right now.

10:

You know, your questions put me in mind of Gattaca and Dark City.

Gattaca I don't like much now because I view it as fundamentally about certain white anxieties with genuine meritocratic, pluralistic, and liberal society. Anyways, and this is also true with Minority Report, the detective aspect reveals that the underpinnings of the society isn't what we thought it was.

In Dark City, the detective story propells the protagonist murderer to make the "nothing will ever be the same" effect.

In both examples, what the plot does is examine the "nature of justice" and use the following plot to make a conclusion about that justice. So if you wanna blaze a new trail, avoid that "les miserables" angle. Anyways, that's my minor take on your attitude...

11:

I like Paul Levinson's SF Mysteries: The Silk Code, The Pixel Eye, and The Consciousness Plague, which all feature forensic detective Phil D'Amato of the NYPD. They're near future, where the crime involves stfnal elements.

12:

My only questions for this is the story what is generally defined as Hard SF, one SF element introduced into what would be a normal world setting. Then seeing the effects of this one change on the normal path of detective novel.

Or General SF a detective novel in a futuristic or Alien world with different Laws, Methods and Punishments from what one would expect from a detective story.

What is the right answer for each option, not 100% sure but would lean Hard SF = Procedural, General SF = Itself.

Would have included examples but don't want to impinge upon the proto-story.

13:

And yet, even in a contemporary-set non-SF mystery, the world never goes back to the same. The fact of the crime itself means that the world has changed and can never be what it was, even if the criminal is caught. Property can be restored, but that feeling of vulnerability is still there. A murder victim is still dead. A sexual assault victim can't be "unraped." The story is about trying to get back to the set state, and perhaps in a police procedural, it is sort of possible, in that the main characters are the police officers who were not themselves the victims of the crime--but when you think about it...it's not, not really. So the dichotomy is perhaps less than you thought it was at the beginning.

Still, the mashing together of pieces of story is a perfectly valid method of creating one...

14:

Algars @7 got to it before I did, but that's the approach I took in the novel I'm attempting - the resolution of the crime is what in fact reveals that nothing will be the same.

And then, of course, the protagonist has to deal with that...

15:

I believe Chandler didn't know who was the real killer in "The Big Sleep" and pretty much tied it up in a similar fashion to Christie.

As to how Crime and SF genres mix, it seems to me that most I have read tend to use the crime genre for plot and the SF for setting. Obvious examples include Asimov's robot mysteries and his much less successful "Wendell Urth" shorts. His juveniles "Lucky Starr and the..." series are similar. Greg Bear's "Quantico" and it's sequel "Mariposa" are both crime based stories with a near future setting and follow the crime genre formula.

I've also lately been rereading Sherlock Holmes shorts by Doyle and it certainly could be viewed that Holmes' methods are almost like an SF construction - "What if you could create logic chains from apparently insignificant evidence in Victorian England"?

16:

Or you can take the Dream Park approach: the murder mystery inside the fantasy inside the science fiction story that's also an industrial espionage thriller. Too bad they didn't get the horror, western, and romance in there as well, but you can't have everything.

As a stunt, I've always admired it.

17:

Heteromeles:

Actually, IIRC, one of the later Dream Park novels (there were several) was a zombie-horror story (as well as all the rest)....

18:

@16: Yup. Read them all. Come to think of it, there were zombies in all of 'em. I guess dead things walking isn't on my list of horrors anymore. Seen too many neo-cons or something.

Basic point is that the "story inside a story" is another framing device. Heck, they even used it on the ST:TNG holo deck: "The Big Goodbye" for example. And, of course, there's the MMORPG setting in Halting State by that Scottish dude...

19:

Change and restoration are both variations on "resolving dissonance", which means they can be unified on the meta level or mixed on orthogonal axes.

An SF take on Police Procedurals would be that change pulls us forward into a future where both alien new species of crime and equally alien new forms of resolution are possible. You did half of that in Halting State - new crime, old-fashioned detective work leading to a resolution.

20:

Now I'm anxious to track down that Agatha Christie interview. Do you remember where you saw it?

21:

And there's John Buchan, in The Three Hostages:

It was a cold night and very pleasant by the fireside, where some scented logs from an old pear-tree were burning. The doctor picked up a detective novel I had been reading, and glanced at the title-page.

'I can read most things,' he said, 'but it beats me how you waste time over such stuff. These shockers are too easy, Dick. You could invent better ones for yourself.'

'Not I. I call that a dashed ingenious yarn. I can't think how the fellow does it.'

'Quite simple. The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it deductively. Do you see what I mean?'

'Not a bit,' I replied.

'Look here. I want to write a shocker, so I begin by fixing on one or two facts which have no sort of obvious connexion.'

'For example?'

'Well, imagine anything you like. Let us take three things a long way apart -, He paused for a second to consider -- 'say, an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard. Not much connexion between the three? You invent a connexion -- simple enough if you have any imagination, and you weave all three into the yam. The reader, who knows nothing about the three at the start, is puzzled and intrigued and, if the story is well arranged, finally satisfied. He is pleased with the ingenuity of the solution, for he doesn't realize that the author fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it.'

'I see,' I said. 'You've gone and taken the gilt off my favourite light reading. I won't be able any more to marvel at the writer's cleverness.'

'I've another objection to the stuff- it's not ingenious enough, or rather it doesn't take account of the infernal complexity of life. It might have been all right twenty years ago, when most people argued and behaved fairly logically. But they don't nowadays. Have you ever realized, Dick, the amount of stark craziness that the War has left in the world?'

Mary, who was sitting sewing under a lamp, raised her head and laughed.

Greenslade's face had become serious. 'I can speak about it frankly here, for you two are almost the only completely sane people I know. Well, as a pathologist, I'm fairly staggered. I hardly meet a soul who hasn't got some slight kink in his brain as a consequence of the last seven years with most people it's rather a pleasant kink -- they're less settled in their grooves, and they see the comic side of things quicker, and are readier for adventure. But with some it's pukka madness, and that means crime. Now, how are you going to write detective stories about that kind of world on the old lines? You can take nothing for granted, as you once could, and your argus-eyed lightning-brained expert has nothing solid with which to build his foundations.'

22:

I don't really see the apprehension of a criminal as the lack of divergence. Almost any good fiction has the main characters changing toward the end. I don't see why police procedurals must be an exception. I'm yet to try writing one, but not long ago I critiqued a manuscript of a paranormal police procedural where the detective has changed dramatically by the end.

I do like the "what the crime is?" approach, though. Neat.

23:

Cowboy Bebop deals with this in a handful of episodes: the bounty hunters of 2071 are frequently stymied by the fact that the offender does not count as a person, meaning the bounty can't be paid -- a rogue satellite, a boy in a coma, etc. But it sounds like what you're getting at here is an entirely separate detective bureau whose goal is to determine whether what transpired is in fact a crime, and if so, what sort. What's neat is that there's already buzz about pre-indemnification regarding future war crimes, so the best leads might be listening to who is protesting the loudest about what they can't possibly be held accountable for. That sounds more like the purview of a prosecuting attorney looking to make quota, though, and not so much a police officer.

None of that woolgathering has to do with the actual doing of the thing, anyhow. Happy paddling! The more I hear about this, the more excited I get.

24:

True that detective stories (including police procedurals) usually end with a restoration of the social order, considerably less true that the essential form is about the restoration of justice. There are an awful lot of stories where the main is that the social order is thoroughly corrupt and that it won't be changed by investigating, even solving, a single crime.

25:

>And, of course, there's the MMORPG setting in Halting State by that Scottish dude...

Does the MMO in Halting State count as a story within a story? I can see it as a world within a world (which is splitting hairs I know) but there's not an actual _story_ the same way as say A Midsummer Night's Dream has the play within the play.

There's certainly plenty of layers within Halting State such as Spooks, the great game within the virtual game.

26:

Interesting question: Walter Benjamin classically argued that in a world where the works that make up our culture can be reproduced, perfectly, as many times as required, by machines, the value of the artwork would migrate away from the object to the concept it embodies. In a sense, it's the hardware/software duality. As a result, we get this, this, and eventually this.

Arguably, in a world where individuals could be recreated technologically - that your mind could be restored from backup, or perhaps just in the "Ladies who Lunch" scenario - Benjamin's logic would hold for your personality. In a world of infinitely multiplying Steve Jobs, it wouldn't only be possible to self-customise yourself into a tiresome conceptualist artwork, but unavoidable if you wanted to maintain any individuality whatsoever.

Basically, imagine the Goldsmiths College graduate show, stamping on a human face forever.

27:

Char;ie & @19
This confirms my opinion that Christie was a SHIT writer.
The opposite approach was taken by a much greater (who actually described how she did it in her last main detective novel) You work out the murder FIRST, then construct it back and forward from that point.
Said author was also very much up on the latest scientific developments, and used them in her stories ...
Two suspects (neither guilty) are shielding each other - and are "unmasked" by the latest technology - the police officers office intercom is left ON, so the detectives can listen in ....
The discrepancy between artificial and natural (L-rotatory) organic compounds... etc.
Who?
Dorothy L. Sayers.

28:

That does explain why I sometimes get to the end of a Christie novel with the feeling of 'where the hell did they come from?' as the murderer is unmasked. Especially some of the later Poirot ones when she was doing it because it sells rather than because she liked the character.

29:

I remember telling my 2nd year (school) English teacher that I was reading Agatha Christie - she pulled a face and told me to read Sayers. I've haven't read a Christie novel since.

30:

Isaac Asimov's Caliban (Roger MacBride Allen) strikes me as a good example, and I guess a lot of the Robot writings qualify. The set up seems like a good one for challenging and/or analysing value sets.

In some ways this becomes the opposite of Charlie's metafiction proposal: use crime as a lens for examining the consequences of a SF speculation.

31:

I find certain crime novels interesting because of the way that the crime is reflected back from the "perpetrator" to the societal roots enabling the crime; a specific traumatic rupture is examined, but is examined within the context of a functioning society where certain types and modalities of injustice are sanctioned at least tacitly. Thus we've got the story of a financial huckster and hir particularly egregious crime/theft/deception, but the space that the detective moves through in order to establish the particulars of the crime reveal a kind of hidden context in which that kind of crime is institutionalized. (Ok, so this is very political, implicating the system as being complicit with the crime.) Science fiction's particular nothing-will-ever-be-the-same can constitute a similar kind of revelation, but generally within more value-neutral categories. (I.E. technology is inexorable in its progression, human organism adapts, wow, isn't that a funny contextualization of changing sexual mores when confronted with telepresence, etc.etc. rather than an indictment of the future. [excluding dystopias plainly meant to distill the fundamental injustice-promoting tendencies of the present into a rich 1984 broth])

I'm bummed that the financial crisis scooped your story, would like very much to have read your take on it. The whole labyrinth of risk concealment and FAST CAPITAL really reminded me of some of the features of Economics 2.0 from Accelerando... especially the removal of lower-order consciousnesses from the playing field by complexity...

32:

I like the newly-awakened-AI-as-perpetrator approach; but then, I'm a lawyer. To commit most crimes - and certainly any of the proper, old-fashioned ones like murder - you need not just to commit the criminal act (killing the victim, say), but to do it with the right (or wrong) state of mind - Google "mens rea". It follows from this that you can't be guilty of a crime unless you have the kind of mind that is capable of forming the necessary intention. For example, there are real difficulties in holding companies guilty of common law crimes, since the company, as an entity, does not have a mind and so cannot have a guilty mind. (In a well known Scottish case, a charge of shameless indecency against a chain of newsagents who sold top-shelf magazines failed because the company, having no mind to experience shame, could not be shameless. Lawyers!) One could not hold an AI criminally responsible without recognising that it was a person - and there is a whole school of criminal law theory based, more or less convincingly, around the idea that being able to be be held criminally responsible for one's actions is an essential mark of the state's recognition of the individual as an autonomous, morally significant individual. So one might have a murdering AI who wants not only to be caught, but to be punished . . . and one might find oneself re-writing "Bicentennial Man". Oops.

More seriously, I can see a real difficulty in prosecuting cases of fraud in which he agent is an AI - or even quite a dumb computer sysem - and no human individual can be identified as having fraudulent intent.

33:

"In a well known Scottish case, a charge of shameless indecency against a chain of newsagents who sold top-shelf magazines failed because the company, having no mind to experience shame, could not be shameless."

I'm surprised that it didn't go the other way: an entity which cannot experience shame must by definition be shameless all the time.

On the general point: strikes me that there are two flavours of SF crime you could deal with. In the first, the crime's recognisable, but the details - and/or the investigation - are SF. It's murder: but with a laser. It's theft: but in a world of ubiquitous surveillance. And so on.
In the second, the SF element is the crime itself. An AI's been destroyed: is it murder? Someone's mindstate has been covertly copied and implemented in hardware: is it kidnapping, invasion of privacy, intellectual property infringement or stalking?

21: I remember that passage well, and it brings home just how strange a place Britain must have been in the 1920s.

34:

I think the only resolution burden placed on the whodunnit is to tell the reader whodunnit. Many are as rigid in form as Greek tragedies, but that is more an artifact of the singular obligation (how many ways can you go about finding something?) that the protagonist proceed from ignorance to gnosis in interesting ways. So I think sci-fi could address that part of the structure -- are there new ways of learning and verifying truth in the near future. That's the big question. Others are sci-fi variations on the basic theme like: 'What if people couldn't lie, could they still deceive?'

35:

Madeline Ashby@23

"...best leads might be listening to who is protesting the loudest about what they can't possibly be held accountable for."

Are you by chance thinking of one Richard Bruce Cheney ?

36:

It strikes me that a policeman makes a brilliant SF protagonist because they tend to resist change. They have this idea of a status quo, which becomes broken, and which it is their job to fix. This sits at odds with a universe in constant flux. Any SF ideas that the author introduces will be effectively explored by the way the protagonist criticises and resists the change inherent in them.

By the end of the novel the protagonist should have achieved closure by solving the crime -- but also by exploring at least one issue and making their peace with it.

Asimov's character Elijah Baley is the perfect example of this sort of protagonist. Life on Mars's Gene Hunt is an interesting tweak on the concept; set in our past rather than future.

(Bonus: note that both these examples are unwillingly partnered with somebody who embraces — in fact embodies — change. The usual two-cop dynamics ensue.)

37:

I'm working through Brat Farrar: that's definitely an unconventional crime novel.

Sometimes the crime is a tool to look at other things. But push that too far and you get people arguing, as they sometimes do over Gaudy Night.

38:

Sometimes the crime is a tool to look at other things.

See, for example, the splendid Gorky Park, in which the investigator himself gives this as his reason for becoming a homicide investigator - because a murder gives you the excuse to look into other people's lives and see how they're lived.

And, of course, "The Wire" embodies this trope, not that that will mean anything to Wir Host.

39:

I'm currently writing GURPS Transhuman Space: Transhuman Mysteries, which is effectively a working handbook of this sort of project, but for game masters rather than novelists. So I've been thinking about this sort of thing. I ran a three-year campaign of mysteries in the Transhuman Space setting, so I've had some experience in coming up with answers in that context.

I think that, in your terms, science fiction is indeed about divergence . . . but there are different ways to reveal the divergence. One old way is to have the divergence take place at the end of the story, as in, oh, Blood Music. But another way is to have it take place at the outset, or even before the outset, and to have the story explore one of its implications. Asimov's classic robot stories worked this way: the robots and the Three Laws of Robotics already existed, and were known, so the big innovation had taken place, but the story would involve some implication of that big divergence.

Subtler methods are possible. In Courtship Rite, Kingsbury starts out with a big divergence, a society and a human race run by the principles of optimization through competitive evolutionary mechanisms, puts the reader down in it, and lets them puzzle out how the society works and why. But then in the course of this the people in the society experience a divergence, a combination of advancing technology and the rediscovery of records of the history and institutions of Earth, a world that for THEM is utterly alien and divergent, and whose rediscovery not merely transforms their world but creates a crisis in which it could be transformed in two different directions, and a decision must be made. And yet this divergence is, ironically, the discovery of what, for the reader, is NOT divergent.

Well, in running a mystery, I tended to come up with a divergence, and then hide it, and challenge the players to discover it. The divergence would have led to a crime or other untoward event, which would cause a problem for someone, who would hire the detectives, who would then thrash about investigating, and eventually figure out not only Who but How and Whydunit. And at that point we would have the sfnal reveal and the mystery reveal at once. At least ideally.

If you think about it, Wells did this in some of his books. Look at The Island of Dr. Moreau, where the narrator keeps coming up with wrong guesses about what the Beast Men are, until finally Moreau tells him the truth.

40:

I think the audiences for the two genres are opposites, as well. Police novels uphold the status quo, punish the deviant, and reinforce society's natural order. I have to think this appeals to conservative readers more than to liberals. (It's certainly never appealed to me -- I always have a lingering question of "Who says the cops are right?")

As you say, science fiction, when it's done right, inverts the status quo, stretches the reader's mind further open than is comfortable, and redefines deviance. What conservative can stomach that?

So maybe your question is, can you write a good story that appeals to both camps?

Recommendation: if you haven't watched Jonathan Haidt's TED talk on the libs' and cons' morality structure recently, give it a re-view.

http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

41:

Reading this thread makes me give even more respect to the GitS SAC shows. Many of the preceding posts talk about things already done in their two seasons.

42:

Another reason for SF police: whether for good or ill, the police are always faced with society's conflicts. If the local neds start wearing Langford's Basilisk T-shirts, you bet the corpses will pile up in the Bridewell (which is of course what happens in the original story).

And change always means conflict of one sort or another.

43:

I always thought mystery-police-murder novelests wrote their books backward, starting with the final scene where the villain is unmasked and then going backward chapter by chapter to the start, adding clues, surprises, and redherrings along the way.

44:

Worth noting that the Larry Niven wrote a number of detective SF stories; some in the "Known Space" universe, some in others. The only title I can remember without googling is "The Patchwork Girl", which is more or less an organ-legging plot, set on the moon. The plot trajectory is more or less standard procedural in that the bad guys are found. There are two SF elements to note; the obvious one is the setting, the other is the "after this, nothing will be the same", move against the death penalty and organ donation which forms part of the bigger story arc of Known Space.

45:

Shah8: On the basis of the episodes I've seen, GITS:SAC is that rare beast, a TV SF show that doesn't suck (conceptually).

46:

#32 "More seriously, I can see a real difficulty in prosecuting cases of fraud in which he agent is an AI - or even quite a dumb computer sysem - and no human individual can be identified as having fraudulent intent"

Yes, in the limited circumstances where the fraud was carried out for no-one's benefit besides that of the AI system itself. Although such an act would be pointing towards having the requisite intention. I'd imagine that in the circumstances in which it would be likely to occur in real life (at least at present), you would simply prosecute the computer system's operator or designer, depending on which had the intention of carrying out the fraud. It gets more interesting when the fraudulent conduct is an accidental emergent property of e.g. an AI trading system. There again, the users of such systems are effectively bound to operate under the applicable laws.

My memory of the "shameless indecency" case (I work in this area) was that it was quite specific to that crime, and that the ruling didn't necessarily have wider implications. I've just finished working on legislation on sexual offences which has specific provision for sex offences committed by bodies corporate so it isn't necessarily an obstacle to prosecution.

47:

ajay@33: I don't know about Scotland, but here in the US we execute dogs that attack people, with no regard for whether or not the dog is capable of feeling guilt about the attack, only regard for whether or not the circumstances of the attack make it likely that the dog will attack another person. Seems like the same legal logic of preventing future harm could be applied to an AI, regardless of recognition of its personhood.

48:

If we're going to lock up that 1B emails spammer for a perfectly fair and reasonable 30 years, could we also fine them somewhere in the $10K-$10M range for the costs of transmission and storage of those messages?

(I think actual cost for 1B reasonable-sized messages now is probably between $100k and $1M; $10K is a reasonable guess at a future cost; $10M would be punitive)

49:

Eric @47: trouble is we don't apply that legal yardstick and penalty to humans -- if we did, there'd be a hell of a lot of dead 16-year-olds (caught kissing a 15 year old, go on the sex offender's register -- this is a real problem right now). Nor do we recognize dogs as people. Is the AI more like a human being or a dog?

This question has the potential to tie courts (and philosophers, not to mention theologians) up in knots for centuries if we ever develop GAI.

50:

This reminds me of Iain Sinclair's novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. At one point the author/narrator states that his intention is to "to reverse the conventions of detective fiction, where a given crime is unravelled, piece by piece, until a murderer is denounced whose act is the starting point of the narration. Our narrative starts everywhere. We want to assemble all the incomplete movements, like cubists, until the point is reached where the crime can commit itself."
Sinclair's interested in the way in which the past - in this case the real events of the Whitechapel murders of the 1880s - has shaped the present, and in order to explore this he turns detective fiction on its head (and narrative structure at the same time).
It'd be really interesting to invert detective fiction another way - what impact do the crimes of the (imagined) future impact on the present?
Though-provoking stuff, Charlie!

51:

@Shah8 & Charlie: WORD. I can't believe I didn't think to mention GITS:SAC last night. (Actually I'm rather ashamed I didn't. It was sort of part of my thesis.) Anyone who hasn't seen it in full really owes it to themselves to give the series another go. It (and Bebop) gave me a crash course in how rigorous SF deals with ideas and consequences, and both involve a procedural storyline about how criminals of all stripes exploit the technology emerging around them. In the case of GITS:SAC, there's also no attempt to forestall divergence -- Section 9 knows that both societal and technological laws change all the time, and do their best just to keep up. Bebop takes the same perspective, but uses it for character development (both Jet and Faye are fighting the passage of time in their own way). But both titles operate on the fundamental philosophy that nostalgia and memory are illusions, and that nothing is permanent. There is no sameness to protect, because it never existed.

Naturally I could go on and on, but I won't. I highly recommend both shows, though, to anyone who loves SF and hates the easy way out of a story.

52:

@40: I don't think the audience for mysteries and SF is necessarily divergent. To use an n=1 example, we had plenty of both in my family, science fiction and fantasy shelved in one room, mysteries shelved in another. From that experience, I can say that we're more interested in particular authors than particular genres. In both genres, there are authors who have strong conservative, liberal, libertarian, even communist leanings, many others who are commercial hacks, for whom money is the primary motivator, and others whose agendas has less to do with politics and more to do with other factors (such as Robert Forward's obsession with propulsion technology, or Arthur Upfield's devotion to rural Australia in his Bony murder mysteries).

You can find whatever you want, and I'm not going to diss anyone's fictional preferences.

53:

@44: A correction -- the crime in "Patchwork Girl" was not organlegging, but more typical remove-person-with-inconvenient-knowledge murder. And in a twist, the person wrongly convicted was unwilling to reveal a valid alibi because at the time of murder she was doing what she thought was a crime (but actually was not).

54:

Eric@47 - I'm not sure it's right to say that in the US killer dogs are "executed", as that implies a trial procedure resulting in a judicial sentence of death. Aren't they just killed (or, as we often hear in the UK press and police jargon, "destroyed") pretty much out of hand, as in this recent story: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/merseyside/8386023.stm

55:

Nicholas@54: Here in San Diego, California the common expression is "put down" or, for those who feel the need of euphemism, "put to sleep." If you want to be formal I think you say "euthanized."

56:

kbob @ 40
There are probably a lot of people like me, who read both.

57:

Now that I'm thinking with the Stross crime novel filter in place, it occurs to me that Lou, the protagonist in The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon is sort of an AI... if not "artificial" then "alternative". As an autistic person, his view of reality, his stimulus processing, and some of his thought processes are decidedly non-normative. The crimes and criminals in this book are obvious to the reader and most of the other characters throughout the book. Only the AI can't see what's going on because he want's to believe in the virtuous side of human nature.

From an SF point of view, the resolution of the crimes serves mostly to provide a platform for describing the alternative "punishment" allowed by new technology. A chip implant in the brain removes the possibility of recidivism while somewhat modifying the personality of the culprit. There's a subtle expose of the wish of law abiding citizens to disregard the de-humanizing aspects of the sentencing.

No question that the presence of an AI provides a foil for examining the effects of tech on the normative humans. And this book provides a compelling take on the power relationships that prop up corporatism.

58:

Police procedural/detective novels worth meeting - Douglas Clark's books about Masters and Green, and Dorothy Simpson's Luke Thanet novels. And Josephine Tey's books.

Also, Laurie R King's Mary Russell stories - pair The Locked Room with The Art of Detection for an interesting weekend of reading.

59:

@ 57
"There's a subtle expose of the wish of law abiding citizens to disregard the de-humanizing aspects of the sentencing."

A Clockwork Orange" for instance?

60:

@59: Yep. And like American society post 9/11. Security over liberty. But when you dance with the devil....

61:

SF police procedural I have liked include Bear's "Queen of Angels" and its sequel, "Slant".

I agree with duckintheface@57 that SF can also explore alternatives to handling criminals, e.g. brain wipes (Clarke's "3001") or reprogramming as already mentioned in "A Clockwork Orange", or crime detection and punishment as in "Minority Report".

One area that has not been explored AFAIK, is the question of murder/abortion using SF. In teh US, as opposed to Europe, this is a highly polarised issue, with each "side" espousing diametrically opposite views, both of which have no basis in science and yet with some SF perspective, could be explored, perhaps as a putative murder case.

62:

It it's police procedural you're after then you seriously need to invest your time in The Wire, as one other person has so far pointed to. Just one?! No SF included obviously but it'll show the endless bureaucracy and sheer laborious police work that has to be done. Fucking fabulous piece of drama for all that too.

63:

Interesting question: Walter Benjamin classically argued that in a world where the works that make up our culture can be reproduced, perfectly, as many times as required, by machines, the value of the artwork would migrate away from the object to the concept it embodies. In a sense, it's the hardware/software duality. As a result, we get this, this, and eventually this.

But those are all of course about the object itself --- even the Hirst is still very very object based. (Saatchi conceptualism isn't very conceptual). And in fact that move from the object never really happened; sure there's Art & Language and all that, but it never really came off, and most art is still unique stuff in galleries.

So you could probably take the opposite tack, that you'll get the aura of the Human as important, even allowing for the oddness on some level of this.

64:

tim @62: "The Wire" is a piece of fiction. I prefer primary sources, thanks.

65:

Well, since much of the contraception/abortion argument in the US is about potential human life, is it murder if you shut down an AI before it achieves sentience?

Theocrime for the Antipope to consider.

66:

The Wire may be a work of fiction but the material comes directly from primary sources, the fiction is merely a container for that. The writers David Simon being a former crime reporter and Ed Burns a former homicide detective with the Baltimore police. Expand your scope and take a look, it really is NOT just another cop show of the week.

67:

tim, It's American.

I am not writing an American crime story. I'm writing a Scottish one. Different organizational culture, different model of policing, different legal system, different types of crime. Scottish policing goals, objectives, and methods differ radically from those you'd expect in Baltimore -- almost certainly far more so than you imagine. Furthermore, the direction in which they're shifting is rather un-American, too.

68:

Fair enough. It was only meant as a perfect example of police procedural, as everyone else has been giving recommendations. I am quite aware that it is not comparable to a Scottish system.

69:

The OP reads:

[The goal of crime fiction is] the restoration of justice, whereas SF has a tendency towards divergence: nothing will ever be the same again.

Well, then how about doing the process backwards? You start with an arbitrary but interesting imaginary world. Then you pick yourself through its various aspects, kind of like a archaeologist, examining the question of what gave rise to all that.

When you're done you turn the whole thing on it's head and hope it won't fall apart in the process of doing so. It will invariably require you to fix the various inconsistencies and your starting point will be unlikely to resemble anything you would have chosen as a starting point (if you did your job well, in an unbiased manner).

But if no fixed starting point is required, this should be a way to create some rather nice and informative stories about the development of various aspects of the world. And in any case, it will be the starting point that has all the loose ends for a change ...

70:

Adding onto tp1024's post a bit (good idea). Preliminary note: I'm not a big believer in the Singularity. However...

One characteristic of the present age is rapid change. One major "what if" is, what happens when the rate of change starts to slow down, when we're past the singularity, heading into a period of technological and scientific stability? A lot of people really will be jockeying for position in this environment, because the advantages that get set into systems as they stabilize might last for a long time, and assuming that we don't see the rapture of the nerds with immortality and plentitude for all, such a long term advantage could motivate an arbitrarily large number of crimes...

A motto for this form of noir might be: "we've seen the future, and it's not good enough."

71:

At the moment, I'm reading Stephensons /Quicksilver/ - and find it resembles something like a thighly woven, intriguate tapestry, with motifs that are reflected later in the book and so on. I'm not sure if I would like every book to be woven so tense, but - and that's the tangent towards the structural view of literary genres - what /Quicksilver/ shows is how one can fit hundreds of more or less interlinked mini-stories and narratives in one book, and still create enough of a meta-narrative to bind the reader to the pages.

72:

What cuisine do woven thighs come from? (okay, okay)

73:

72: it's similar to those traditional Cuban cigars.

"Intriguate" is a great word - and very descriptive of "Quicksilver" which has lots of complicated intrigues going on.

74:

@72: here's your "t".

@73: Even if you like "intriguate" - can I switch it back for the intended "intricate"?

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on December 2, 2009 4:41 PM.

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