Larry Niven’s 1975 novella A.R.M. is decidedly of the sub-genre of science fiction called puzzle stories (the cover telling the rest of the story). A locked door murder mystery with a conceit of science at the nexus, it oozes the familiarity of a police procedural yet integrate theories of physics to form a story the mainstream sci-fi community will enjoy.
Gil Hamilton is a detective for A.R.M., a branch of the United Nations chartered with investigating organ theft (via murder), enforcing the fertility laws (regulating motherhood), and lastly (for purposes which suit the story only), monitoring technology which could create new weapons affecting world economy or the balance of political power in the world. Called to a crime scene at the beginning of the story, a man carrying a fishing pole is only the beginning of the weirdness which awaits Gil inside the penthouse of the rich and reclusive scientist Raymond Sinclair. A strangely shaped machine hovering over a perfect circle of burned grass in the living room, a partially mummified man lying inside, Gil’s investigation does not kickoff on standard terms to say the least. The fact the mummified man’s watch is spinning backwards at 7 seconds per minute is, however, what turns it bizarre.
Niven taking a fact of science and spinning it into a science fiction story, A.R.M. is another hard science fiction story from one of sci-fi’s cult writers. The extreme organ theft and control of childbirth rights may be speculative extrapolations on society, all else, however, is standard murder mystery plot activity. False leads, finding clues, interviewing suspects, and the meandering path to the murderer—including the classic showdown and revelatory scene, are there. Comfort food, the novella is tap water flavored with a sci-fi motif, nothing new or challenging about the backbone storyline. That Niven’s writing style is mundane does not help push the novella beyond mediocre. But for those whom this type of story is their bread and butter, figuring out the puzzle—how the science fits the murder scene—certainly will be enjoyable.