Science Fiction Double Feature*

Science Fiction and Crime FIctionSome of the most interesting novels and stories are those with cross-genre appeal. It takes skill to blend the elements of more than one genre and come up with a result that’s a cohesive, strong story with a solid plot and characters. But it can happen. For instance, you might not think of science fiction and crime fiction as having much in common. But if you consider it, crime can happen at any time, anywhere, including the science-fictional world. And the best characters in science fiction stories tell us something about ourselves. And whether we like it or not, crime is a part of the human condition.

It’s not easy to weave a story together that integrates elements of science fiction with elements of crime fiction. But there are plenty of examples of authors who’ve done just that. Here are just a few.

Most people think of Isaac Asimov as a scientist (he wrote several textbooks, actually) or as an author of science fiction. But he also had an interest in crime fiction. His Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley series, for instance, is a science fiction series. It takes place in a futuristic New York, and includes many scientific and technological developments that, at least at the time the novels were written, didn’t exist. Perhaps the most important of these developments was the positronic robot. And in the best tradition of science fiction, Asimov used this futuristic setting and high technology to explore very human questions. But this is a crime fiction series. Baley and his partner R. Daneel Olivaw are homicide detectives. They investigate murders and find killers. And people kill in this context just as they do in the ones that we know. Asimov also wrote several short stories that I would argue ‘count’ as crime fiction. One is The Dying Night, in which a scientist is murdered the night before he’s supposed to deliver a presentation at an important astronomy conference. It’s up to another scientist, Dr. Wendell Urth, to use his expertise to work out who the murderer is.

Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is another example of the blend of science fiction and crime fiction (and wit, too, actually). Adams’ PI sleuth Gently gets involved in a case of multiple murder when a friend of his breaks into his girlfriend’s apartment. It turns out that the time, he was under the influence of the ghost of an engineer who belonged to a people called the Salaxalans  The engineer’s slipshod ways caused the destruction of a large spaceship and the deaths of all aboard. Now the engineer is forced to remain a ghost until he can correct his mistake. The novel involves a time-travel machine, a spaceship, and other technology. It’s science fiction. But at the same time, it’s crime fiction. Gently investigates two murders caused by the malevolent ghost’s influence; other crimes take place, too. You could also argue that this has elements of the fantasy novel about it, too. It’s another clear example of the way a crime novel can also ‘count’ as science fiction.

In Altered Carbon, Richard K. Morgan explores the nature of what really counts as human consciousness. This novel takes place in the 25th Century, by which time a method has been discovered to store a person’s consciousness. That way, when the body is killed, that consciousness can be placed in a new body – a new ‘sleeve’ – and life can go on again. Takeshi Kovacs, who used to work for the U.N., has been killed before. His most recent death experience was especially painful, and now he’s been sent to Bay City (San Francisco many hundreds of years in the future) to be placed in a new ‘sleeve.’ The person responsible for ‘re-sleeving’ him, Laurens Bancroft, has Kovacs placed in a cop’s body, so that he can investigate Bancroft’s first death. Like other science fiction novels, this one explores the human condition through technology, as you might say. Morgan opens up questions about what ‘counts’ as being human, what the value is of one or another person, and what the impact is of wealth and power on the whole equation. But it’s also very much a crime novel, in which a sleuth goes after a very dangerous killer.

And then there’s Charles Stross’ Rule 34, which features Edinburgh Inspector Liz Kavanaugh, who heads the Innovative Crime Investigation Unit. She and her team are responsible for patrolling the Internet and separating out harmless fantasy from dangerous crime. That’s how they learn of the murder of former prisoner and spammer Michael Blair. They’re working on that case when Kavanaugh learns of other former prisoners who are killed in similarly brutal ways. Her story intersects with the story of former identity thief Anwar, who’s become a sort of consul for a Central Asian state, and of The Toymaker, an enforcer for a criminal group called the Organization. This novel is a crime novel, and features the murders and their investigation. But it’s also science fiction. It takes place in the near future, and in an alternate sort of reality that includes different technology. It’s speculative, too, as a lot of science fiction is.

There are also authors such as Michael Crichton, whose novels are often called thrillers, but arguably count as science fiction too. In Prey, for instance, we meet Jack Forman and his wife Julia. Both are successful technology experts, until Jack loses his job. Then, Julia, who’s been working overtime at Xymos Technology, begins behaving oddly. She and Jack begin to clash over matters that had never been a big problem before, and at one point, Jack even wonders whether she’s having an affair. The reality turns out to be quite different. Xymos has been working on developing nanoparticles that are self-sustaining and self-reproducing. This experiment has gone horribly wrong, and if Jack doesn’t find out what’s been going on and how to stop it, a lot of lives will be lost.

Cat Connor’s novels feature Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway, an ex-pat New Zealander who now works as an FBI Supervisory Special Agent (SSA). This series takes place in the present day. But it frequently makes use of the kind of technological wizardry and speculation that are often present in science fiction novels. And it is definitely a crime series.

And that’s the thing about this blend between crime fiction and science fiction. The best examples feature elements of both genres. They also feature solid characters and plots, of course, as well as speculation. As my husband, who loves science fiction a highly-regarded science fiction expert whom I consulted has told me, science fiction gives the context. Crime fiction gives the plot. I think that makes sense.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Richard O’Brien.



Filed under Cat Connor, Charles Stross, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Michael Crichton, Richard K. Morgan

15 responses to “Science Fiction Double Feature*

  1. Patti Abbott

    Can’t remember whether Asimov’s BLACK WIDOWERS series had anything but crime elements but I liked them at the time.

  2. Col

    I did enjoy Altered Carbon, but probably not as much as I wanted to. In the same way that I kind of steer away from medical “thrillers,” I’m just not a fan where science or yet to be developed technologies play a major part.

    • I’d suspect you’re not alone, Col. Not everyone is a science/speculative technology person, so if a novel’s going to appeal, it needs more than that. And of course, everyone has different thresholds for the science aspect.

  3. I have never thought to crime fiction & science fiction working together – thanks for sharing Margot.

  4. I suppose Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is a crime and science fiction blend – although at a much higher (some might say almost pretentious) philosophical level. I haven’t read the book yet, just seen the film adaptations, which apparently the author was not at all keen on.

    • Interesting, Marina Sofia. I’m afraid that’s probably the case in a lot of adaptations, unless the author is heavily involved in its creation. And even then it doesn’t always work. As to Lem, I read his The Investigation; that, too, was quite philosophical.

  5. Margot, I love the blend between science fiction and crime fiction or even science fiction and western fiction. Both genres have almost every aspect of crime fiction and especially murders and dead bodies. I enjoy reading Michael Crichton’s novels. I think he was one of the most versatile and imaginative writers of our time. I found his narrative engrossing.

    • I really like Crichton’s work too, Prashant. A highly talented storyteller indeed. And you’re quite right about his versatility; he wrote historical true-crime fiction, speculative fiction, and lots more, too. It is interesting, isn’t it, that crime fiction and science fiction can make a natural and successful blend. As you say, there’s tension, murder, etc. in a lot of fine science fiction (westerns, too), and that’s a match made in heaven, as the saying goes, when you think about the elements of a crime novel.

  6. Not an area of crime fiction I have ever thought to explore – but strangely enough a TV series of Dirk Gently was being repeated here in the UK tonight, and I caught a few minutes of it. It looked good, but I’m still not really tempted.

    • That’s the thing about crime fiction, Moira. Not all of it appeals to all of us. And I have to admit, as much as I love Douglas Adams’ work, it’s not for everyone.

  7. I like the blend of science fiction and crime fiction. I enjoyed the two books in the Elijah Baley series that I have read, and also the Dirk Gently book, which I want to reread. The others I haven’t tried yet, and I will look and see if I can find the books.

    • I thought Asimov did a great job with the Lije Baley novels, Tracy. And although of course his work is quite different, I thought Adams did too. If try those others, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

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