Why settle for one genre when you can have two? The science fiction and mystery genres go together as well as peanut butter and chocolate — and it doesn’t get any better than that. As one famous candy slogan puts it, “Two great tastes that taste great together.” So with that in mind we asked our esteemed panel the following question…
Traditional whodunits and high-tech far-future worlds seem like they’d go together like Dr. Pepper and trout. It’s hard enough to write a traditional mystery (as opposed to a police procedural or noir) set in the year 2015, so how do you write one in a setting with even more surveillance and even more technology? But Adam-Troy Castro absolutely nails this apparent discrepancy in his Andrea Cort novels and stories (two novels so far, and a smattering of novellas), creating a pitch-perfect blend of mystery and science fiction.
Counselor Andrea Cort became a war criminal at the age of six, and now investigates crimes for the Diplomatic Corps. Due to her past, she’s a tough, hard-nosed bureaucrat, but she’s far more of an investigator than a fighter, which I find refreshing in a world where “strong female protagonist” usually means “kick-ass warrior.” Cort uses her intelligence to save the day, and they follow the mystery maxim that the reader should always be one small step behind the hero, but only one step behind. For instance, The Third Claw of God (a locked-room mystery set on a space elevator) takes the traditional mystery structure and plays it absolutely straight: there are witness interviews, juicy red herrings, and a final reveal right out of Holmes. This novel is such a neat little puzzle, and I realized the conclusion at the very moment I was reading it on the page.
But while they’re great mysteries, the Cort novels and stories are also awesome science fiction. The future setting of these books is quite lush and clearly well-thought-out. All of the Cort tales (as well as several of Castro’s other non-mystery stories) take place in a galaxy populated by both humans and a number of alien species, not all of which are humanoid. In the novella “Unseen Demons,” Cort must investigate the murder of an alien being that lacks all senses but touch and may not possess sentience, which leads to the ethical quandary of whether a crime has been committed at all. Cort’s bodyguards are a linked pair of minds, which raises questions about identity and personhood. There’s also a lot of crossover between the Cort tales and his other work, which lends three-dimensionality to Castro’s fictional universe.
As a fan of traditional puzzle-type mysteries and also far-future science fiction, I can’t recommend the Andrea Cort stories enough. I only wish that all the stories were collected and commercially available (most of the novellas were originally published in Analog and hard to find).
Oh, I love a good speculative-style mystery! I imagine other contributors here will discuss Mieville’s The City & The City, and Jo Walton’s trilogy starting with Farthing. Therefore, I’ll go with a book that needs more love.
J. Kathleen Cheney’s The Golden City is the start of a trilogy that also shares that name; the third book is out in July. The setting is Portugal at the start of the 20th century. Oriana is a sereia, a unique take on sirens/merfolk, and lives in Portugal as a spy for her people. When she survives a murder attempt, she strikes an uneasy alliance with police consultant Duilio Ferreira. The mystery and fresh mythology are clever, but I think most of all I love how Cheney uses such a unique geographic and political setting. I knew nothing about Portugal at this period in history; well, I’m sketchy on Portuguese history overall, to be honest. The culture feels alive, and the roles of men and women and the restrictions on sereia add levels of complexity. Each book delves deeper into the intrigues of the time, too.
These books please me on many levels: as a historical fiction geek, a fantasy reader, and as a mystery-lover who grew up on Agatha Christie.
If I were going to choose a classic novel for this, then my favorite classic “detective” story is Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny. It’s not a stereotypical detective novel (hence the earlier quote marks). Instead the protagonist, Fred Cassidy, is trying to find out what happened during a night when he blacked out, the location of a mysterious star stone, who wants it enough to leave threatening or bizarre notes, and whether he can survive by finding the missing artifact himself. It’s a madcap adventure with an interesting structure and still remains one of my favorites after all these years.
If I’m thinking about more recent novels, then I’ll go with Midnight Riot (The Rivers of London) by Ben Aaronovich. OK, I know that’s Urban Fantasy rather than Science Fiction, but the protagonist does try to understand his magic in physics terms. These books were recommended to me by a friend, but I dragged my feet, having a huge TBR pile already. I finally bit the bullet while on vacation and purchased the first one–the English version, which is why I think of this as The Rivers of London series (that’s the name of the UK version of the book). My reading of that book was followed by quick purchases of all the others on my e-reader while traveling. I adored young constable Peter Grant and the interesting troubles he quickly found himself in as a member of the tiny faction of the police that investigates occult crime. The writing is fast and clever, the depiction of London is amazingly accurate without being sympathetic, and the plot propels you along like the current of the Thames. There’s some British slang to work your way through (so you might want to get it on e-reader where you can see definitions) but if you’re a fan of British crime drama, you already know most of those words. So go out and buy a copy today.
Actually the whole KOP series by Warren Hammond, but if I have to pick one to recommend I think the first in the series is the best.
This is a gritty, hard-boiled detective story set on the alien world of Lagarto, a planet teeming with humidity and lizards. Hammond’s world-building is top-notch, as far as I’m concerned. The sense of place you get from this story is as well realized as the characters living in it. Juno, the protagonist at the center of this detective story, may seem a bit cliche at first but in fact is wonderfully nuanced.
Hammond plots a thrilling mystery here, and paces the book with the perfect blend of action and thoughtful detective work.
And if I can pick a second to throw into this Mind Meld mix, then (very) honorable mention must go to Patrick Weekes and his awesome fantasy caper, The Palace Job.
It does this book a bit of a disservice to call it a fantasy Ocean’s 11, because it’s so wildly imaginative and chock-full of inventive, interesting characters. Read it, and the new sequel, you’ll be glad you did. Between this and Hammond’s KOP, I think you’ll have your mystery/detective/caper itch covered for the rest of the summer.
I love detective/mystery novels, and could probably come up with a dozen favorites. I’ll settle on talking about Jo Walton’s Farthing and its sequels, known collectively as the Small Change trilogy. On surface, this is a classic country-house cozy murder mystery. All of the elements are here: the group of social intimates come together for a weekend party, the everyone-is-a-suspect, the outsider detective.
My library system files each book in the trilogy in a different section: the first in mystery, the second in general fiction, the third in SF. It could draw fans from the readers of any of those genres. The speculative element is key, but integrated so smoothly that it is terrifyingly easy to read this as straight mystery. Farthing is set in post-WWII England, but it’s a very different world than the one we know. Walton has created a world in which Hitler’s march on Europe went unchecked. A group of politicians known as the Farthing Set brokered an agreement with Germany that allowed England to remain autonomous. The US, under President Lindbergh, is increasingly isolationist, and has closed its doors to Jews. Europe’s Jews live with yellow stars and ration books and ghettos and camps. England’s Jewish population is free, but faces strong prejudice. This alternate history is the only SF aspect of the book, which otherwise reads as political mystery and social commentary on the British class system, justice, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.
The treatment of the Jewish characters in this system of casual ingrained bigotry was absolutely gutting. The author really managed to make me feel that things could have as easily gone this way as the way they did. Walton is an excellent writer; her style feels breezy and effortless in a way that takes an enormous amount of work to achieve. The main characters feel real, and the split narrative (alternated first and third person chapters, divided between our detective and a guest at the party) works in a way that such things often do not.
There’s a bit of a “to be continued” ending, not often found in this type of book, but the main arc that begins in this one ties up nicely by the end of the third. It works as a mystery, as a commentary on the mysteries written in the real post-war era, and as an alternate history. Like the best alternate histories, Walton shows how terrifyingly easy it might have been for history to have taken a different course.
Things George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails gets right: all of the above!
When reaching for a detective story, it’s always the sleuth’s voice that draws me in and keeps me turning pages. I like my detectives quick-witted and cynical and, if I’m being honest, more than a little unlucky. While Marid Audran is definitely silver tongued and a touch hapless, he’s not cynical — and I love him anyway. He’s a hustler with a heart of gold, and flows through his gritty, hand-to-mouth life with peace and determination.
Marid inhabits the cyberpunk world of Budayeen, a slum on the edges of an opulent Middle Eastern city. Through his eyes we witness a wide cast of characters, and one of the real pleasures of this book is how accepting Marid is of all he meets. In his world, personalities are changed by swapping out cartridges called moddies and skills are enhanced by add-ons called daddies. Marid himself isn’t wired up, but he accepts that his friends and acquaintances are and doesn’t blink an eye as they transition fluidly from one gender or personality to the next.
Marid’s skills as a private eye are put to the test when a killer comes to the Budayeen using moddies that mimic the personalities of famous killers. When the killer starts picking off his friends, Marid’s struggle really begins, dragging him into a wider world of intrigue.
For such a quick-paced novel, When Gravity Fails packs in a lot of complex ideas about identity, drug use, and the place of religion in a world where changing who you are is as easy as changing your shoes.
To Say Nothing of the Dog was the first Connie Willis book I read. Like several of her other books, including Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, it features the time traveling historians of future Oxford.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is a page-turner comic science fiction mystery romance that gently explores the capabilities and conventions of all those genres. It begins with a mystery of pathetic simplicity – a hunt for an item of kitsch, the “bishop’s bird stump,” among the ruins of the bombed Coventry Cathedral during the Second World War, but that mystery turns out to be only one thread of a knot.
Historian Ned Henry has made so many time-travel “drops” searching for the bishop’s bird stump that he is showing symptoms of “time-lag.” But his well-deserved rest will have to wait, as he is sent to Victorian England to cope with an emergency: another historian has inadvertently brought something to the future and created a dangerous paradox. There are mysteries within mysteries, and Ned and his fellow historian Verity Kindle make a great detective team.
The book begins with the dedication, “To Robert A. Heinlein, Who, in Have Space Suit – Will Travel, first introduced me to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog.” There are references throughout to other novels, including one of my other favorite mysteries, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers.
To Say Nothing of the Dog won both the Hugo and Locus awards in 1999 and was nominated for the Nebula.
At Worldcon in London in 2014, I kept trying to see Connie Willis on panels or in readings and, much like her hapless time travelers, kept arriving just a bit too late, after the rooms had reached capacity. I never did see her, but my partner bought me a signed first edition of To Say Nothing of the Dog in the dealers’ room, and it has pride of place on my shelf.
My favourite modern sci-fi detective novel is Halting State, by Charles Stross, although set in an independent Scotland in 2018, I guess it won’t be considered modern for long. Sue is a cop in Edinburgh, called into a case at Hayek Associates, a gaming company which has had its virtual bank robbed by orcs accompanied by a large fire-breathing dragon. Elanie is a forensic accountant. Jack is a games programmer between jobs, there to help translate. These point-of-view characters all tell their story in second-person.
I am really not a fan of stories told in the second person, because it feels like a CYOA and I keep waiting for my turn. I hated the first few pages and then… Stross somehow pulls it off. I was in the story and not the least bit bothered. We discover the intricacies of “blacknet,” the information market and peer-to-peer currency system.
” ‘[Blacknet] asks you to do favours, it does you favours. Like, be in front of a building with a running motor at such a time with the back doors open, and drive to an address where someone’ll be waiting for you with a wallet full of cash and another stolen car.’ At least, that’s the innocent-sounding version, because, let’s face it, burglary and criminal damage go together like love and marriage, or robbery and a get-away carriage — and most of the stuff blacknets get used for starts there and gets worse real fast. None of the perps know each other, because it’s all done with zero-knowledge proofs and anonymous remixers running out of zombie servers on some poor victim’s home entertainment system that’s downloaded one piece of X-rated malware too many.”
The novel (published in 2007) may not age well, a risk with any near-future science fiction: VR glasses, an online game played out in meat-space, cyber-crime based on an MMORPG, pervasive surveillance… the world is all a little too close for comfort. However, as an example of what sci fi can do with a crime thriller premise, it’s excellent.
My pick for top sci-fi detective novel is Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I realize it might need a bit of defending as a detective novel, as Deckard is a bounty hunter, not a police officer or private eye, and though his path through the plot begins with the murder of a fellow bounty hunter, there isn’t much of a question as to who (or what) has committed the crime. But, think about it–how neo-noir can you get? The novel holds the essence of a detective novel, if not some of the specifics. Deckard is constantly questioning the angles of the case, like any good investigator, and as he becomes more embroiled in the criminal plot, the stakes raise for him on a personal level. The ‘ticking time-bomb’ is small and localized, unlike in a sci-fi thriller. And Deckard’s internal dialoging and shades-of-black view of the world are the bread-and-butter of private-dick stories (no pun intended).
Presuming you buy my explanation, then the question becomes, why do I think it’s one of the best detective novels? Perfectly adequate detective stories have the investigators rolling through the motions, coming closer to their adversary while the criminal gets closer to their climax-crime. But DADoES does what the best detective novels do–emotionally involves the detective, tearing down the wall between cop and criminal to the point where the criminal isn’t just a malevolent force, they’re a person. The most intriguing detective stories let the investigator (and thus, the audience) understand the criminal. Not only do we find ourselves wondering if androids can possess the all-important ability to empathize, but we also find ourselves empathizing with them. We see how brutally ‘andys’ are treated when Deckard himself is accused of being one. And the moment Deckard starts to question his humanity is when we start to fully grasp our own. It’s a masterful bit of irony–in a world where most wildlife is extinct, humans own robotic pets in order to prove they can be empathetic, yet the very idea that we might see humanoid robots as objects of sympathy is abhorrent to the main character.
Most detective novels deal with humans who have become monsters–and in SFF, this is often literal. But DADoES plays with the idea that the monster might be more human than we’re comfortable with, which is what ultimately sets it apart.