The Automatic Detective, A. Lee Martinez

Tor, 2008, 317 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-7653-1834-3

One of the most interesting things about our genre-saturated entertainment culture is that everyone has at least some basic understanding of the specialized protocols that drive, say, mysteries or Science Fiction. We’ve caught enough TV shows rehashing the same plots, seen enough movies riffing off past ideas, read enough genre books that some useful fiction plot devices have become ingrained in our imagination. Talk about a robot, and everyone will picture a humanoid hulk of metal. Mention a Private Investigator, and everyone will see a smoke-filled office, a middle-aged guy in a trench-coat and a beautiful blonde asking for a simple favor.

For a satirist like A. Lee Martinez, it’s a natural vein to exploit. Why not combine the clichés on SF and hard-boiled mystery fiction to create a parody of both genres? Martinez’s novels so far, starting with Gil’s All-Fright Diner, have been amusing take-offs on popular segments of genre fantasy and horror. The Automatic Detective is his first look at SF clichés, but the same instincts that have served him so well on previous books are once more displayed here.

Mack Megaton is the hero of the story: a big, red robot designed to destroy but now trying to fit into normal society. Mack’s got anger issues, and his job as a taxi driver isn’t helping much. So when bad things happen to his neighbors and even worse things threaten Empire City, he opts for a career re-alignment and decides to do a little private investigation.

The Automatic Detective is not meant to be serious Science Fiction. Empire City and its citizen are straight out of Pulp SF clichés, with easy jokes, silly world-building and the obvious use of familiar tropes. The narration itself is pure hard-boiled machismo made metal, with Megaton and friends worrying about oil changes, electrical charges and rusting plates. Mutants, aliens and fancy technology all make appearances, highlighting the deeper truth that this is surface SF, maybe even science-fantasy, playing with quasi-outdated SF gadgets not because they make sense, but because they’re familiar to everyone. (There’s an intriguing comparison to be made here between this book and Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children, which attempts to re-cast familiar SF archetypes in a plausible modern world-view.)

This sounds like a criticism of Martinez’s approach and it isn’t: From the way he piles up more and more of these references, it’s obvious that he doesn’t mean to pass this off as contemporary SF with deeper meaning: he’s out to write a romp, and he manages to reach his objective. The Automatic Detective is a good read, one that makes good use of its initial premises. Mack is a sympathetic character, and it’s not tough to cheer for him as his investigation continues. Martinez knows how to plot, and the book holds together well once the reader’s usual hard-SF nitpicking circuits are deactivated.

In lesser hands, this could have been a mess of surface SF, with gadgets used nilly-wily without any attention to plausibility. Here, there is some rigor and a sense that Martinez’ voluntarily pulpish milieu is tied into the conceptual framework of his jokes. It’s also a fast read, which helps smooth out some of the background inconsistencies that arise when blending together so many SF devices. Purely and simply, it’s a romp and it should make a number of readers smile regardless of whether they can quote chapter and verse from Asimov and Chandler.

For Martinez, it’s another solid hit that should solidify and broaden his reputation as one of SF&F’s most entertaining satirist. It’s not enough to have jokes: he’s able to beef up amusing premises with solid plotting, good characters and smooth writing. Best of all, his books should be accessible to a wider public who’s already familiar with the genres being parodied, whether they realize it or not.

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