Hugo Awards: Best Novella (1st contender)

First in the novella category is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Kiss Me Twice,” a futuristic police procedural, from Asimov’s. Read it here.

Detective Scott Huang is investigating the murder of Neil Patterson, a developer, found dead on the roof of one of his buildings, his body lying near a table set for tea. Huang is assisted by the police department AI, called Metta, physically located in a chassis at headquarters, but present simultaneously with all the police officers wearing communications electronics: an earbud for hearing Metta’s communications, some unspecified means that allows an officer to “subvocalize” to Metta, and glasses that are a means of seeing a persona that Metta creates. In Huang’s case, Metta presents herself as Mae West.

A second mystery is introduced during the first scene: while Huang is investigating the murder scene, Metta gives an alarm that there are intruders in the police station, two officers have been shot, and the assailants have entered Metta’s chassis room. Then communications from Metta cease: the chassis has been disconnected and taken from headquarters, the three assailants having made a successful retreat with their prize.

The two mysteries, of course, turn out to be related: the same party is responsible for both crimes.

I have to wonder if some people are better at reading mysteries than I am. Although I enjoy them, I usually end up muddled by the final third of the story, having lost track of some of the suspects and investigatory threads. In any case, I suspect that many readers, like me, are successfully carried along by other aspects of the story — suspense, of course, but also interesting characters and their personal problems.

In “Kiss Me Twice” what’s going on outside the crime investigation storyline is a conflict, in society at large and on a smaller scale within the police department, about whether AIs are “living.” This problem is a popular SF notion, but it can be a challenge to breathe life into. Take, for example, the android Data on Star Trek: Next Generation. A number of fine episodes were devoted to asking and answering questions about Data’s rights and humanity. And the episodes succeeded in being convincing in large part, I think, because Data was an android being dramatically portrayed by a human being. Of course he garnered our sympathy. On the page, it’s a lot tougher. Kowal tries to elicit the reader’s sympathy by having Huang feel resentment on Metta’s behalf if she is referred to as a machine, or insist that the AI was “kidnapped” rather than “stolen.” The effect is more to make Huang a niggler than to make Metta alive. Kowal misses her best opportunity when, at Huang’s house, Metta has a girl-to-girl conversation with his Chinese-speaking mother:

She gestured at his bathrobe. “Have guest in house. Show respect.” She looked back at Metta and smiled, “Besides, we still have much to talk about.”

Huang chuckled and headed for the bathroom. He paused in the doorway and looked back at his mother. She was having an animated conversation in Mandarin with Metta.

What are they talking about? I cannot imagine. But I would have liked to have known, because that conversation would have gone much farther in making Metta seem like a real being than any number of Mae West guises and looks of fear on her computer-generated faces.

I will mention one other weakness — an awful writerly tic of having characters chew their lips to show thought or indecision. How many times in one story? Once is enough, two should be the limit, but I lost count… I think it happens at least six times, maybe more.

There are some good things here, and the unveiling of the murderer is simply wonderful: he appears in a form you would never imagine, both funny and menacing. I wasn’t converted to the AI IS LIFE camp, but I did get a kick out of the mystery’s solution, and a satisfying conclusion is worth the price of entry.

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