Oh, no: we’re not talking about laying out on the beach here, noses buried in the latest action-packed political thriller to bombard the airport bookshelves. Nope, here in the Secret Laboratory “holiday reading” means packing up the snow shovel and burrowing (physically) into a pile of warm anythings while burrowing (mentally) into a few hundred pages of Something Else. Holiday reading is serious business.
Though that doesn’t preclude comedy.
The Empire City (also known as Technotopia) of The Automatic Detective is a place in which the cheerful exuberance of the retro future all came true, sort of, in ways that were a bit unexpected. So, yes, we’ve all got a shot at a flying car, but in practice the gadabouts of Empire City are not exactly standardized and the many models are each plagued by niggling problems like, for example, the Buzzbugs: you’d call them ornithopters, except that their plastic wings and their beelike bodies are based on insects rather than birds. They’re a swell idea, but they have this habit of stalling, which is not your optimal behavior in a flying car. Opting out of the Buzzbug, you might try a Hoverskid, unless you were quick enough to ask yourself what the “Skid” part of their name was all about. In fact there’s only one model in all of Empire City that rolls on wheels, or more accurately, on wheel: that would be the Unipod.
Every one of these vehicles is fatally flawed in a unique and inventive way. And that tells you a lot about Empire City. The City’s a victim of almost random invention. Yesterday’s advances get recycled and today’s ill-advised replacements show up to crash, burn, mince, and mangle all over again. The question of why, exactly, that is, is rarely asked. Until we meet Mack Megaton.
Mack is not an automatic detective. Mack is a cab driver, although originally he was an unusual (and unusually dangerous) robot built by a mad scientist intent on (you guessed it!) dominating the world. For one reason or another, though, Mack decided that he’d rather not go in for world domination – which led to his creator’s imprisonment in a place I really, really wish I’d made up myself. It’s the Moriarty Asylum for the Criminally Inventive.
Mack is better now. He’s in therapy. But folks are still just a little bit worried about what would happen if his original programming were to kick back in.
And that’s where we begin. The Automatic Detective invites us on a hard boiled adventure through this dysfunctional World of Tomorrow where we meet all sorts of characters we didn’t quite meet in Raymond Chandler’s stories – like Jung, the intelligent gorilla, who’s Mack’s best friend, and like small, green and sinister scientists, and like Lucia: a swell dame, maybe. And, you know, maybe not.
The real journey here is Mack’s passage toward something like humanity. The story’s propelled by his decision at the beginning to break into a domestic disturbance at his neighbor’s apartment and that, as mundane as it sounds, is the first step in both the mystery of what the heck made Empire City what it is, and Mack’s growth as a sentient, if mechanical, being.
An Automatic Detective, in fact. Just picture Philip Marlowe. But paint him red, add few hundred pounds of near-indestructible shell, and don’t forget a buried inner drive to Destroy All Humans.