02 August 2017

The Uncanny Valley of the Kings

I have been thinking a lot about the uncanny valley this year.  As I understand it, the concept was first described by Masahiro Mori in 1970, though it took a while to work its way into English.

Here's the idea, as I understand it: If something looks sort of human we tend to like it more until it looks too much  like a human and then we register it as creepy.  That creepy zone is the uncanny valley.  I suppose the evolutionary psychology explanation would be that there is an advantage to being turned off by someone a little too biologically far away to produce  successful offspring with.

Early this year I saw Rogue One,  the new Star Wars film.  There are two characters in it who appeared in the earliest films and have been reproduced here through computer imagery.  The first one I thought was a complete success; I felt totally convinced.  (On the other hand, a teenager who was with me said she "wasn't sure he was human."  So obviously not everyone bought it.)  And speaking of not buying it, the second CGI-built character, well.  To me, that one was the definition of the Uncanny Valley.  Unconvincing and just plain creepy.

A few months ago someone, I don't recall who, described Robert Goldsborough's novels about Rex Stout's character Nero Wolfe as occupying "the uncanny valley of literature."  In other words, they are recognizably not the real thing, but close enough to make a reader uncomfortable.

I bring all this up because July saw the release of The Painted Queen, Elizabeth Peters' last novel about Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  If you aren't familiar with these charming books, hop to it.  Peters covered several decades in the adventures of Peabody's family.  When she finished her main storyline she started filling in "missing years" in the saga.

And this book does that, exploring the circumstances of the discovery (and mysterious disappearance and resurfacing) of a magnificent bust of Nefertiti.  Naturally, all the odd historical events turn out to be related to the actions of the Peabody/Emerson clan.

And what does this have to do with my main topic, you may ask?  Elizabeth Peters died before the novel was finished.  We have it because her estate asked Joan Hess  to finish the book.  It certainly made sense; Hess is a talented mystery writer with a sardonic wit not unlike Peters, and they had been friends for three decades.  They had even discussed the plot.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so is this dish a banquet or a case of too many cooks?  (And that metaphor is a bit uncanny too.) I will start by saying  that if you are a fan of Peters you should read it.

 But to my mind, the uncanny valley is definitely visible.  I may be completely wrong but I felt like I knew to the very page when Hess took over the pen.  One of the characters just jumped, uh, out of character, and never jumped back.

It disturbed me for a while.  All I could notice were what I saw as false notes.

But eventually, I got used to it.  I found that if I concentrated on the plot and not the character details I could still enjoy the book.  It felt something like watching a movie based on a familiar book: a similar experience, but not the same.

I am not criticizing Joan Hess for honoring her friend in this way.  (You might argue she also did it to make money.  I would reply: Good; I hope she does.  And I imagine Elizabeth Peters would agree with me.)  But I hope no one feels the need  to write more in the series.

By the way, the book takes place mostly in Amarna, not the Valley of the Kings, but you can't expect me to resist a title like that, can you?


  1. I’ve been criticized for criticizing pastiches, which is probably fair. I expect a high standard and often it’s not met. I very much liked the Amelia Peabody novel and I suppose I’ve read the first half dozen. I highly recommend reading them in order. One set during the World War had me on tenterhooks worrying… but Ramses turned out fine. The bad guy is cartoonish in a way that gives the impression Peters fell a bit in love with him. So yes, I must catch up, Rob.

    I saw Rogue One, but it’s been so long I couldn’t identify the cryptic references. Could you elucidate?

  2. Leigh, I dithered as to whether to name the characters, since the media certainly did at the time, but eventually I chose to go with no spoilers. However: the two returnees are Grand Moff Tarkin (originally Peter Cushing) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Leia was the one who struck me as a grotesque cartoon.

  3. Thanks for this post, Rob. I read two or three Amelia Peabody novels, but it was many years ago. You've reminded me of how much I enjoyed them, and of why I should go back and read or reread all the novels. And, like you, I'm uncomfortable with the whole idea of an author taking over another author's characters. I love Lord Peter Wimsey but haven't read any of the non-Sayers Wimsey novels and don't intend to. The same goes for the new Poirot novels, novels featuring characters by Austen and other classic authors--something about it just doesn't feel right.

  4. Thanks, Rob. Pastiches are kittle, quoth Shakespeare. For me, they range from Michael Kurland's flawless additions to Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy ficton, down to the dregs of Harry Potter fanfic. Somewhere in the middle are the worlds where the originator creates a rulebook and a whole bunch of more-or-less pros generate books. Ellery Queen comes to mind. Pretty much every Xanth book after the first few has that kind of feeling, whether or not Piers Anthony did all of the writing.
    Two more: I dearly love Heron Carvic's small set of Miss Seeton cozy mysteries, and abominate the additions. And I kind of like Michael Kurland's Professor Moriarty stories, which make no attempt to be mistaken for long-lost Doyles.

  5. I think the creepy zone is often easier to recognize in visual art than in writing: my husband and I went to a Duane Hanson exhibit once. His specialty was lifesize, lifelike resin sculptures of everyday people doing everyday things. You see one in a gallery, and it's intriguing, perhaps admirable. You see a whole gallery of them, and, after a while, all you want to do is get the hell out of there, because it's too... creepy.

    BK, I've read the Jill Paton Walsh sequels to Dorothy Sayers, and I enjoy them - they're different enough in style that I know they're a carry-on.


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