The Great Detective • 2016 • Steampunk novelette by Delia Sherman


It’s a Steampunky version of Mr Holmes‘ London of November 1880, where intelligent robots based on pure mechanical functions help in everyday life, like autonomous taxis, or guardians. Those self-aware robots – here termed „mechanicals“ – are on the verge of achieving human rights. In the case of Mr Holmes, it is a robot which (or should I write „who“?) can theorize about the suspects of a theft and access and search background materials like newspapers. The subject of the robbery is a „Illogic Engine“, an invention by Arthur Cwmlech who was introduced in the short story “The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor,” together with his companions Angharad – a ghost embedded in a doll-like puppet – and Tacey, his female mechanical apprentice. The Illogic Engine is „designed to endow mechanicals with those aspects of human intelligence that exist independent of reason“, e.g. emotions.

The novelette reflects the contemporary futuristic discussion of human rights and artificial intelligence – of course, our current A.I. systems are not self-aware, yet, and this problem is as far away as wondering about overpopulation of Mars. One miss in the story is that it doesn’t touch Robot ethics, i.e. the risks coming along with robots, at all: Everything about mechanics is happy sunshine and working absurdely perfect.  That is another problem with the story that I have: I didn’t buy into the steampunk logic at all, as the pure technological background is so far away from believability that I only could consider it as pure fantasy.

The scenery and atmosphere was beautifully described. Characters remain distant, and do some behavioural jumps which I simply didn’t understand, e.g. Tacy’s love story. The logic of the detective story was somewhat far-fetched and has some holes.

Meta: isfdb. Appeared February 2016 at Read in Best SFF 11.

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