Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Not sci-fi, my dear Watson

Sherlock Holmes - not sci-fi but writing that seems to appeal to me in the same way, probably as Holmes' approach to solving mysteries is so scientific. As I keep being reminded by trivia buffs: Holmes never actually used the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson" although I think in chapter 4 of "Hound of the Baskervilles" he does say "Beam me up Scotty."

Two modern-day series I've enjoyed, both strongly inspired by Holmes:

The Liebermann Papers (three novels: Mortal Mischief, Vienna Blood, Fatal Lies) by Frank Tallis, is crime fiction relating to an old branch of science - psychoanalysis. Including it as sci-fi is therefore contrived but I want to review this briefly anyway - these are highly enjoyable whodunnits set in Vienna around the time Freud was developing his theories and the forces of nationalism were just beginning to emerge. The protagonist is a psychiatrist and disciple of Freud who is drawn into assisting a police detective friend with murder investigations. Max Liebermann makes Sherlock Holmes style deductions using Freudian analysis, e.g. interpreting behaviours, psychosomatic symptoms, slips of the tongue and occasionally dreams; the result is joyful and fascinating. Tallis is an experienced clinical psychologist and is able to give a sound, if highly optimistic description of the analysis; the setting is also visualised right down to detailed description of the pastries available in Viennese cafes.

Sherlock Holmes is also the inspiration for the TV series House, one of the few medical programmes I can watch without intense irritation. The links with Holmes were obvious once they were pointed out to me, I really kicked myself - the name, the focus on the logic and the deductive process, the "honest buffoon" sidekick, the addiction to painkillers, etc. Luckily, this series does not make the mistake of becoming a murder mystery -the focus remains medical rather than criminal; each episode resolves around an extremely rare and difficult diagnosis, complicated by equally unusual circumstances. House is not science fiction. While these unlikely presentations often require apparently bizarre treatments, everything's more or less real and the show is extremely well researched. To House the diagnostic puzzle trumps all, and ethics and morals are routinely challenged - his juniors routinely break into their patients' houses to look for clues; they lie to relatives, organ transplant panels etc. and misuse medical procedures (in one example an MRI scan is hijacked to use as a lie detector) House meanwhile hates and avoids contact with patients as he believes they all lie. House asks the question directly in one episode - which is better, a doctor who holds your hand while you die, or one who ignores you while you live? (adding that of course it would suck to have one who ignored you while you died).

I wonder if there's room in the schedules for a science-fiction hospital series. I enjoyed the BBC's Casualty 1907/1908 where real hospital records from a century ago were dramatized. Perhaps there could also be a Casualty 2108.

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