Sherlock Holmes in Orbit

I read the Sherlock Holmes stories in grade school, enjoyed them, and haven’t returned to them sense.

I haven’t felt the need to seek out the many sequels by other others or most of the tv or movie adaptations. (Though I am very fond of the Jeremy Brett series of about 30 years ago.) There’s even a well-regarded series by a local architecture critic and historian, Larry Millett, which bring Holmes to Minnesota.

Still, I have stumbled across a few fantastic additions to the Holmes universe.

Decades ago, I read Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes which reveals Holmes and Moriarty as clone brothers from the future. Geoffrey A. Landis’ “The Singular Habits of Wasps” is an excellent science fiction story though it uses the hero-villain pair-off so many authors do: Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper. I’ve read Peter Cannon’s insertion of Holmes into the Cthulhu Mythos, and you’ll eventually be getting a review of the anthology around that whole theme, Shadows Over Baker Street.

I read this anthology, though, solely for the William Barton collaboration — which did not disappoint.

A retro review from October 5, 2008.

Review: Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, eds. Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg, 1995.Sherlock Holmes in Orbit

Resnick’s introduction talks a bit about the film and literary additions to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes’ canon including some attempts to put the detective in a science fictional or fantasy context. While he says he required each story in this original anthology do that, even that requirement is not honored.

There are tales where Holmes is simply the exemplar of rationalism. Vonda N. McIntyre’s “The Adventure of the Field Theorems” mixes, not for the last time in this anthology, Holmes and Watson up with Arthur Conan Doyle. The most clever thing in this story is the title. The “field theorems” are crop circles which show up in the late 19th century and are, suggests Doyle, an attempt by the spirit world to communicate with us. Holmes as debunker of the supernatural shows up in Frank M. Robinson’s “The Phantom of the Barbary Coast”. It makes good use of a San Francisco location and the tragic circumstances of Irene Adler’s sister, Leona.

There isn’t even alleged paranormal activity in William Barton and Michael Capobianco’s “The Adventure of the Russian Grave”, but it is one of the best tales in the book and makes very good use of Professor Moriarty’s training in astronomy.

A frequent device of science fiction Holmes pastiches is to cross the detective’s path with various Victorian literary characters or historical figures. There are two misbegotten attempts at combining Lewis Carroll with Arthur Conan Doyle. Mark Bourne’s “The Case of the Detective’s Smile” at least has a gentle, whimsical air about it as we discover that Holmes went to Wonderland during his missing three years after Reichenbach Falls. (Reichenbach Falls is mentioned several times in this anthology. The Victoria Falls mentioned on the cover blurb is not. That’s representative of the somewhat slipshod feeling of this book.) Lawrence Schimel’s “Alimentary, My Dear Watson” has a nastier, more uneven tone about it – not the least because it uses the old accusation of pedophilia against Lewis Carroll whose death Holmes is investigating. Mostly, though, the tone of mixing Holmes and Carroll simply doesn’t work no matter how much one tries to intellectualize it as a playful exploration of logic.

An even worse story is Laura Resnick’s “The Adventure of the Missing Coffin”. This story of Holmes crossing paths with a vampire – surprisingly not Dracula though he’s in the story too – is not at all funny though it is clearly trying hard to be.

George Alec Effinger’s “The Musgrave Version” is the most extreme example of these crossovers. Here we get a young Holmes and young Reginald Musgrave (Watson lied about being Holmes only close friend) crossing paths with Fu Manchu, Captain Nemo, and Dr. Moreau. Effinger doesn’t really give us an adventure, just an extreme example of this type of literary crossovers that begin in the mid-1970s with Philip Jose Farmer and continued with some of the works of Alan Moore and Kim Newman.

While Effinger’s story doesn’t use any of the expected plot devices you would expect to bring science fiction to Holmes – time travel, aliens, alternate history, mad scientists, or Holmes simulcras, other stories do.

In the time travel category, we have John DeChancie’s “The Richmond Enigma” mostly effective combining of H. G. Wells’ Time Traveler with Holmes though the story is a bit marred a cute ending. Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes good science fiction mysteries, and the crime in her “Second Fiddle” is interesting. It is one of the few stories in the book not narrated by Watson. Here the narrator is a police detective who resents Holmes being called in on a serial killer case via time travel consultation. The story suffers, though, from being a too neat analogy between the motives of the killer and the feelings of the narrator, and it descends, as some of Rusch’s work does, in to a too easy lesson of self-knowledge and improvement. Ralph Roberts “The Greatest Detective of All Time” is one of the highlights of the book. It has both Holmes and Moriarty consulting with their professional colleagues throughout the future, temporal paradoxes, and cunning traps. “You See But You Do Not Observe” by Robert J. Sawyer is a very clever mixture of Schrodinger’s Cat, Holmes, time travel, the Fermi Paradox, and Reichenbach Falls. It may not quite hold together after contemplating it, but it is another good story.

Two time travel stories seem to be cases of authors recycling earlier works and putting them in a Holmes context. The least successful is Dean Wesley Smith’s “Two Roads, No Choices” which is also an alternate history. Like his novel Laying the Music to Rest (Questar Science Fiction), it deals with time travel and the Titanic. Here Holmes meets time travelers who assert that, unlike what happened in Holmes’ world, the Titanic needs to sink. This story misses the opportunity to deal with the ethics of setting up over a thousand deaths deliberately and also doesn’t earn the emotion it wants from the reader at story’s end. “The Fan Who Molded Himself” by David Gerrold even plays off the title of his novel The Man Who Folded Himself. Here the conceit is that Holmes was a personality cooked up by Watson and a man with access to time travel – which aids in the solution of crimes. This “Holmes” is traveling throughout time to kill anyone who reveals this secret – including the narrator who is Watson’s grandson. However, the story doesn’t really work in making this homicidal Holmes all that threatening.

Aliens show up in, for the most part, straightforward mystery stories. “The Adventure of the Second Scarf” is written by Mark Aronson but could have been written by Isaac Asimov given that the solution hinges on a bit of science. The title “The Case of the Purloined L’isitek” by Josepha Sherman evokes Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”, and Holmes doesn’t even make an appearance. The narrator is one Alwin Watson, an archaeologist, and Holmes is filled in by an alien fascinated by the literary character . The plot is basically that of the Poe story.

Aliens show up in one of the story’s featuring reconstructed Holmes, “The Adventure of the Illegal Alien” by Anthony R. Lewis. It’s a lackluster story which is about the best that can be said for most of the storyies here that use that device. Some are also muddled and pointless. As this one does, they frequently feature Holmes battling Moriarty in cyberspace – or at least thinking he’s in cyberspace. “Holmes Ex Machina” by Susan Casper has Holmes the computer program solving the disappearance of a film. “Moriarty by Modem” by Jack Nimersheim has a Holmes program created to track down a Moriarty reconstruction which has gone feral. “The Sherlock Solution” by Craig Shaw Gardner reverses the formula a bit. It has a Moriarty program creating, just for a challenge, a bunch of Sherlock Holmes via viral genetic engineering. “Dogs, Masques, Love, Death: Flowers” by Barry N. Malzberg has the virtue of being written in a style not at all like the imitation Doyle frequently used by the book’s contributors. It also features a mad, robotic Holmes construct. But the story makes no logical sense and is vague. Has Jack the Ripper also been robotized in this future? Is he the killer or the executioner of the real murderer? As is frequently the case with Malzberg, I suspect his opaque style is used to cover up a paucity of logic and sense.

A mad scientist with access to a matter duplicator shows up in Gary Alan Ruse’s “The Holmes Team Advantage”. The title predictably tips off the story. Byron Tetrick’s “The Future Engine” belongs to that science fiction sub-genre that developed in the 1980s and 1990s: stories featuring Charles Babbage’s attempt to build mechanical computers. Here Moriarty gets his hands on a working model. As with “The Richmond Enigma” this is another story with Holmes playing the role of social guardian in more than just criminal apprehension.

Odds and ends include Brian M. Thomsen’s somewhat humorous “Mouse and Master”. The narrator is one Malcolm Chandler , no accident since he writes like Raymond Chandler. He is a less famous London detective hired by Holmes to help out in a case. We learn Watson is a very unreliable narrator of Holmes’ adventures since Watson is very hard of hearing, and it’s another story with no real fantastical elements. Leah A. Zeldes’ “A Study in Sussex” is a pointless, vague story of transcendence via bee venom, a substance the retired, bee keeping Holmes is experimenting with. “Illusions” by Janni Lee Simner features Doyle and not Holmes as the main character. Events at a séance Doyle attends contribute to the history of Holmes the character.

Editor Resnick divides the anthology into four parts: Holmes in the past, Holmes in the present, Holmes in the future, and Holmes after death. Resnick’s own “The Adventure of the Pearly Gate” is a delightful capstone on the book. Here, after Reichenbach Falls, Holmes is in Heaven and bored, denied even the solace of cocaine. St. Peter comes to him with a job. Resnick manages to nicely explain the workings of Heaven and Purgatory in a short space and explain why Jack the Ripper (another inevitable meeting of the two figures) has gone undetected in Heaven. Resnick nicely fits his story and speculations into the Doyle canon.

There are a lot of lackluster stories in this anthology but enough good ones exist to make it worth your while, especially if you’re a big Sherlock Holmes fan.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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