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Lost Voices 15: The Man Responsible by Stephen Robinett

The Man Responsible

By Stephen Robinett 

3 May, 2000

Lost Voices


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The Man Responsible

Stephen Robinett

Ace Books [1978]

245 pages

Synopsis: Harry Penny is a lawyer. He gets involved in two cases simultaneously: One involves a Mrs. Crawley, a wealthy widow who has invested $160.00 in a planned city deal in South America and who has good reason to think that the city is not being built, having visited the site. The other case involves a Mr. Marshall Pierce, who has been accused of assault and battery. As it turns out the two cases are connected: the man Pierce allegedly tried to hit, Vargas is a business associate of Dr. Sterling, the investment genius whose city Mrs. Crowley's $160.00 is tied up in. A third potential client comes in, who also has money tied up in Sterling's project but Harry turns him down, because of the potential conflict of interest with Mrs. Crawley, even though this man, Church, has lot more invested and is in dire financial straits.

Penny does some digging around. Part of the problem with Mrs. Crawley's complaint is that the entire American economy has been centralised and integrated into one huge computer-run system [run on a whopping mainframe, it seems] and the computer reports that the project is proceeding as planned. It can even show photos of the city site. He finds out a number of other things: that Mrs. Sterling is an old girlfriend of his, that Vargas has leftist connection but has not been shot by the government of his home nation, Argentina, because Vargas' father-in-law is too powerful, that Vargas and Mrs. Sterling are having an affair and that 10 years ago, Sterling had a massive heart attack and started a foundation which was funding odd research projects until about six months ago.

Despite day to distractions like restarting his old love affair with Nora Sterling, Harry eventually deduces that Vargas [a computer whiz] has subverted the Ecom system, that the Doctor Sterling one gets when one phones is a computer simulation, possibly of human intelligence, and that the entire building project is a scam by Vargas to get money to fund a revolution back home. Further, he finds out that Sterling is dead but knowing his death was imminent, he arranged to have his body given to a doctor who is researching extracting the chemical basis for skills from the brains of cadavers.

Knowing that the personality is being transferred as well, he has arranged for a dupe, Mr. Pierce of the A&B charges, to take the RNA pills under the impression that they are for his migraines. The attacks on Vargas are not by Pierce, but Sterling's simulacrum when it is in control of Pierce's body.

Penny talks to the Sterling in Pierce's body and convinces him that he is bad copy, that significant aspects of him were left behind in the RNA memory transfer process, possibly due to chemical break- down in the pills. He manages to get enough evidence that he will be able to show what has been done to Pierce. Penny then talks to the AI simulation of Sterling, proving to it that it is the patsy for when Vargas' scheme falls apart, as it is beginning to. It is somewhat displeased by this and when Penny asks it to delay Vargas, who has run off to the airport, planning to return to Argentina with his wife and 200 million US dollars, the AI agrees. Penny catches up with Vargas, has a discussion with him, collects Mrs. Crawley's money in cash and lets Vargas go, idly wonder what he would have done if his client had been Mr. Church [who keeps calling Penny throughout the book].

Penny has a final meeting with Nora, explaining that Vargas is not going to leave his wife for her. and asking her to stay with him. She opts to follow Vargas, although she may or may not be back.

This is in my opinion a flawed SF mystery, not that that was Robinett's only goal: the subversion of Ecom is blindingly obvious from the start. The coincidence of Nora Sterling being one of Penny's exes is a stretch as well, although within the norms of mysteries. As I recall, you could not throw a cat in a Ross MacDonald story without maiming a lost illegitimate child, a spurned and plotting ex-lover or some Creeping Freudian Unknown slithering through the undergrowth. Penny does his homework and finds all the pieces but an alert reader will be able to figure out what is happening faster then he does, if they pay attention.

Robinett wanted to paint a picture of a particular sort of fellow and he managed that just fine. I'm not sure that Penny is supposed to be unlikable calculating bastard. Not the unlikable part, anyway; he is supposed to be calculating. By the end of the book, he has thawed slightly, enough to start sleeping with Nora but had Vargas shot him down at the airport, it wouldn't have been such a loss.

OT Rant: what is it with people in stories like this getting romantically entangled with suspects or people who might be suspects? It is damned unprofessional and was the reason why I couldn't take either version of The Thomas Crown Affair seriously.

Oh, and I did wonder why Church didn't find another lawyer. I hear the US has them in quantity.

Stephen Robinett popped up in SF with possibly the ugliest pseudonym in history: Tak Hallus, which is apparently Persian for pseudonym. His stories were competent, and enjoyable, if not brilliant and SF eventually lost him to more mundane mystery writing. Mystery writing may have lost him as well: I see no recent books from him. His other books included Projections , a collection of his short stories, and Stargate 1, about aninterstellar teleport system. His mysteries, also competent butnot brilliant, were Final Option and Unfinished Business.

Next: Silverlock, John Myers Myers

1: By the way, I notice that Clute's description of Stargatecontains an amazing number of errors for a single sentence. I strongly think he may never have read Pohl's Gateway , because he seems to think it also involves instantaneous interstellar transport. He also credits Stargate [no relation to the movie] with Gateway for "establishing the commercial stargate [...] as an essential instrument of modern sf." In this case, stargate = interstellar teleporters of various kinds. Uh, my mileage varies on this.


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