Friday, July 11, 2014

The Mistake of the Machine

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Nobody likes people who cut in line, but I decided to move this review forward in the schedule because it's a recent release (it released on June 20th). I actually have enough reviews written and standing by to last me until well into October at the moment...

Machina looks and sounds precisely like you'd expect from a high school girl with long black hair. Except, she isn't one. In fact, she isn't even human. Machina is one of a small group of detective robots made by professor Sakamaki with superior analytic and investigative skills. The professor has kept his inventions a secret for most of the world, but he occasionally sends his robots out on investigations for friends and fellow scientists. His grandson Masayuki is one of the people who knows about the robots. One day however, three of the detective robots go haywire and escape from the laboratory. Machina and Masayuki have to retrieve the robots and figure out what the bugs are in their AI brains in Morikawa Tomoki's Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken ("The Undefined Adventures of Semiconductor Detective Machina").

And while you might think of Blade Runner, the cover kinda gives away this is not a gritty science fiction thriller about ethics of living beings and all. It's just a cute story.

Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken was released not long after Morikawa Tomoki won the 2014 Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize with Snow White. I loved the wonderful fantasy-filled, yet undeniable orthodox mystery novel and I've been reading his books since. And for those who have been following Morikawa's detectives along with me, must have noticed that all of his novels are heavily influenced by fantasy and/or science fiction elements, but are yet always completely fair mystery novels. Snow White gave the detectives a magic mirror that could tell the answer to any question, and yet it gave enough room for the reader to interact with the story at a deductive level. Shapeshifting cats or all mighty golems? It's still as fair as anything Christie or Queen wrote. So I wasn't too worried when I heard that Morikawa's newest book featured detective robots.

Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken's premise of a hunt for, not a crime, not a criminal and not even the truth, but detectives is quite interesting, even though the fundamental dynamics don't seem to change much from most of Morikawa's novels. In all of his novels until now, the reader was confronted with multiple parties who try to outsmart each other (some in possession of magical, but predefined powers): you'd be fed conclusions of such battles of the brain, which might seem unbelievable at first, but when it is explained why or how something came to be, you realize that everything was fairly hinted at. In Cat Food for example, shapeshifting cats kept trying to outsmart each other in the hopes of saving / killing a group of humans and it was always possible to logically deduce how actions the other party would take based on the given information.

Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken does bring something new here, because this time the antagonist robot detectives aren't acting logically per se. That is, they do act according to logic, but that logic has an inherent flaw, because of the bugs in their programming. Each of the robots has a different fault in his/her AI brain, and it is up to Machina, Masayuki and the reader to deduce what that bug precisely is, based on the actions of the robots. Reverse engeneering of logic.

The book reminds me most of those scenes where Watson and his literary descendents wonder what the heck the detective is talking about / doing now now. The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime? Beating a dead pig? These events may seem mysterious and strange, but there is always a certain logic behind these actions. Usually, this logic is something that we all share (even if we don't realize it immediately), but in Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken, the logic of the detective robots is flawed. But it is always possible to deduce what that flaw precisely is, and that's what makes this book a fun read: it shifts the focus from an event to be detected, to the brains of the detectives themselves as focus of detection.

And on the whole, I'd say that  Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken is another fun, lighthearted mystery that shows Morikawa's love for the 'great detective' trope. For some, it might feel a bit too lighthearted and the execution of its premise, while good, never reaches the great heights it did with Snow White, but I had a lot of fun reading this. And that's the most important, right?

Oh, for those interested, these are the reviews on this blog of other Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize winners: Otsuichi's GOTH (2003), Norizuki Rintarou's Nakakubi ni Kiitemiro (2005), Higashino Keigo's Yougisha X no Kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X) (2006), Arisugawa Alice's Jooukoku no Shiro (2008), Ooyama Seichirou's Misshitsu Shuushuuka (2013) and Snow White - Meitantei Sanzunokawa Kotowari to Shoujo no Kagami wa Sen no Me wo Motsu (2014).

Original Japanese title(s): 森川智喜 『半導体探偵マキナの未定義な冒険』


  1. This really sounds very interesting. It reminds me of the stories in Asimov's I, Robot and his other robot stories where the story is about the use of robo-psychology to figure out what is wrong with defective, or seemingly defective, robots. The idea of a robot detective is not new either. See, for instance, "Adam Link, Robot Detective," by Eando Binder (Amazing Stories, May 1940), not to mention Asimov's R. Daneel Olivaw. But I think there is still a lot more that can be done with the concept, especially since the world in fact is becoming increasingly roboticized. Glad to see the Japanese are working on it.

    1. I really should continue with the Daneel novels one of these days...

      I loved SONODA Shuuichirou's "And That's Why There Were None" (, an "And Then There Were None" scenario (obviously) set at a space colony, where investigators on Earth had to deduce who the android in the (dead) party was based on a diary and video material.