Monday, April 14, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke's "Crime on Mars" aka "Trouble With Time" (short story, science fiction): A thief gets caught due to unusual circumstances

Among the forgettable stories of Clarke.

Story summary.

Main plot involves a foiled theft attempt of a valuable museum piece in the generally crime free human colony on Mars. Thief wanted to take "Siren Godess" from the Museum in Meridian City on Mars.

This Siren Godess is sort of an enigma. It's the "head of a young woman, with slightly oriental features, elongated earlobes, hair curled in tight ringlets close to the scalp, lips half parted in an expression of pleasure or surprise". It's "eight or nine inches high". It was "discovered in the Mare Sirenium by the Third Expedition, AD 2012 (AM 23)." Baffling aspect - thing that makes it so valuable - is that it's very old & of Martian origins!!

Punchline of the story is the reason thief, Danny Weaver, gets caught. It's curious, but I had difficulty buying it. You see - he thought he had all night after Saturday closing & all of Sunday to do the stealing; museum is empty during this period, & city deserted.

Now this Meridian City "gets its name because it's exactly on the longitude one hundred & eighty degrees" - this line sort of divides the city into East & West. And the administrators of this city, in their infinite wisdom, have allowed the little covered city to have two time zones - across this diving line! OK, crazy, but I'll accept it. So the time difference between the two halves should be 30 minutes or at most 1 hour. But we are told the difference is an entire day! When it's morning Sunday in one half, it's only Saturday morning in the other half!
Update, 15 August 2008: An anonymous guest clarifies in this comment how the two sides can be on different days - 7 am in the eastern half, & 6:30 am the previous day in the western half. Thanks friend.

It's this confusion that made the thief - a visitor from earth - get caught. On the day of theft, if was a Sunday in his hotel & only Saturday in the museum! Rather than expected empty museum, thief saw the staff entering in the morning while he was still inside!

Story itself is told as conversation in the "main observation lounge" of "Phobos Spaceport" - among 3 passengers headed to earth: Detective Inspector Rawlings - Martian cop on transfer to the "Yard" (Scotland Yard? I don't know) on earth; Mr Maccar, a terran art dealer, & the narrator. Near end, we will learn, obliquely, that Inspector suspects Maccar funded the theft, & Maccar knows he is under suspicion.

Collected in.

  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  2. "More Than One Universe"
  3. "Tales of Ten Worlds"

Fact sheet.

First published: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 1960 as "Crime on Mars".
Rating: B


Anonymous said...

Your argument that the time zones across the meridian must be 1 hour is correct. However, notice that we cannot assume that (WLOG) the left is one hour slower than the right because then 2 time zones away will be 2 hours slower, and so on ... coming all the way back to where we started (24 hours behind).

Essentially, this means that at sometime, when we go across, we will come across a 23 hr gap (1 hour behind, but 1 day ahead!) and that's essentially what happens across the divided city.

On earth, Alaska and Siberia are separated by less than 300 km, and yet they are over 22 hrs apart (effectively for only 2 hrs they are on the same day!). However we don't realize it, because

(1) Its in two different countries
(2) There's an ocean in between.

But if there were no ocean and continuous land, then there would be a piece of land where one side would be one day ahead of the other!

Anonymous said...

Yes when the detective says the "yard" he means the Scotland yard. Thank you very much for the summary it makes a whole butt load more sense! I did not understand the time changes.

Ninja said...

Man you sure don't get very many comments do ya? ummm ya i hated this story until you explained it. so thanks. the person before me made sense but what is the first comment talking about?? huh weird. Hey Can't you see this Woman's A Nun??!!! Get that corn outa my face..take it easy!!!

Tinkoo said...

Ninja: First comment really explained to me the weird idea of how the nearby places can be a day apart.

I live in a country that has no concept of time zones (though east-most & west-most points are some 1:30 to 2 hours apart, we manage with a single time). While I understood the idea of time zones, it was the example of Siberia vs Alaska that really clarified things for me.

Anonymous said...

F**k this story

hello said...

Hello ;) umm.. quick question AT the end of the story, what does the inspector say about the people who hired Danny? What is Mr. Maccar's reaction?