Back in July, I reviewed the 3rd volume in the Q.E.D. series, created by Motohiro Katou, which comprised of two excellent, well-balanced novella-length stories that fleshed out some of main-characters and gave the reader a classic, puzzle-oriented detective story – set in an abandoned star observatory on a lonely, snow-capped mountain peak. I ended my review with the half-promise to read the next two volumes in the weeks ahead, but, as you probably noticed, it's 2020 now. And no further reviews have materialized over the past six months.
So, as my belated New Year's resolution, I intend to get as close to volume 10 as possible before end of the year, because I really like Q.E.D. Even though I can't quite put my finger on what exactly intrigues me about series.
The fourth volume of Q.E.D. opens with "1st, April, 1999," a story demonstrating the difference between Q.E.D. and Case Closed, Detective Academy Q or The Kindaichi Case Files, focusing on a scam coinciding with an April Fool's Lying Tournament. Curiously, the scam has a slight hint of Ruritania!
Sou Touma is the 16-year-old protagonist, a boy genius and former MIT graduate student, who won the 1998 April Fool Club's annual contest "to see who can tell the best lie or pull the best prank," but now he has to participate again to defend his title – or else "everyone will be mad." Particularly, the club member who came in second, Miss Gria Elenoar. A second plot-thread is introduced when Touma meets an old acquaintance from his days as an MIT student, Cliff Bhaum, who's Vice-Minister, of Foreign Affairs, of a developing nation, the Kingdom of Clavius. Bhaum is in Japan to entice a group of greedy businessman, who have preyed on his country before, to reinvest a big sum of money and resources into Clavius. But this time, the offer is actually a baited trap. Touma's energetic, plucky school friend, Kana Mizuhara, convinces him to help Bhaum.
Bhaum approaches the group of businessmen, representing D Corporation, with an unappealing, hardly profitable offer to invest in the development of an iron ore mine, but a simple remark gave them second thoughts. When the meeting ended, Bhaum regrettably remarked that "the Japanese are not willing to research "The Fossil" together."
The fossil in question is a tiny, magnetic stone that only has a southern pole. A compass placed on any side of the stone will always "point towards the south direction," which means the stone is made up of monopole particles that, until now, had been purely hypothetical and referred to as fossil particles – as they are considered "a remnant of the beginning of the universe." A discovery that would grant humanity access to "large amounts of energy" and "fame and fortune to the one who finds it."
So you can probably see where this story is going. It's classic con/scam story in which greedy people want to get something for practically nothing and are given practically nothing for something, but don't expect any rug-pulling or surprising reversals that cast the story in an entirely different late. What you see, is what you get. "1st, April, 1999," is a minor, but amusing, story that handily brought two very different plot-threads together in a satisfactory way. The ending was a nice, gentle touch to the characterization of Touma and Mizuhara.
A note for the curious: Mizuhara gives the businessman a demonstration of the monopole stone with a magnet, which you can classify as a quasi-impossible problem, but I can already feel JJ judging me.
The second story, "Jacob's Ladder," sees the return of two characters, Eva and Loki, who previously appeared in "Breakthrough" from the third volume, but what makes this story an interesting curiosity is that it's basically a techno-thriller with hints of a locked room mystery inside a computer-rendered environment! The story is obviously a product of its time.
Touma and Mizuhara are in the downtown area of Tokyo when all of the traffic lights go haywire, paralyzing part of the city with "large-scale traffic jams and train delays" due "to accidents," which ended with 58 injuries and no clear explanation given – suggesting to Touma that "the government is just trying to hush things up." A suspicion that is confirmed when Loki returns to Japan with the news that Eva has been arrested by the CIA in connection with the incident in downtown Tokyo.
Eva is the manager of the Artificial Life lab, at MIT, where they were researching "Artificial Life in computers" and the crash of the traffic control systems was caused by her A.I. But how did it get out? The computers in MIT's laboratory are separated from external connections by "a barrier called a firewall." So how did the A.I. bypass the firewall and ended up on a Japanese server, where it connected with the internet, to wreak havoc on the traffic control system? A second incident shows the threat is spreading with the potential to "crash all the computers in the world." A potential crisis that was on everyone's mind at the time the story was published.
This volume was originally published in September 10, 1999, when many people feared the "Millennium Bug," or Y2K, would crash the computerized world upon the rollover from '99 to '00, which makes the year 2000 indistinguishable from 1900 to computers – potentially setting humanity back to the pre-industrialist age. Touma, Mizuhara and Loki have to try to prevent this in order to clear Eva's, which provides the story with a technically fascinating, possibly unique problem. What makes a "clan" of artificially intelligent units tick? Why did this stable, harmonious and peaceful artificially-rendered world ended in an all-out war of aggression? Can an answer be found in one of the four core commands that the units have to obey, no matter what? A set of rules comparable Isaac Asimov's The Three Laws of Robotics. Just not used as fairly as in Asimov's masterpiece, The Caves of Steel (1954).
"Jacob's Ladder" is a techno-thriller mystery story with a ton of plot exposition, explaining all the technical background details to the reader, but the story has a surprisingly depressing ending that humanized "computer programs bound by a set of rules" – steeped in biblical imagery. So, a story with an interesting and even original idea, but the temptation to relay on the "secret passages" (hacking) of detective stories/plot-threads centering on computers killed it as a fair play mystery. Sadly, the reason why the blocked-by-firewall mystery didn't turn into a one-of-a-kind impossible crime. I still sort of liked it though.
On a whole, I don't think the fourth volume was as strong as the previous one with two stories that had better premises than solutions, but, in spite of their imperfections, I quite enjoyed reading them. So you can expect a review of the next volume by springtime (let's start slowly).