02 August 2017
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.
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?