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The Butlerbot Did It: Nine of the Best Science Fiction Detective Stories

The crossover between science fiction and crime fiction is a particularly well-trafficked one, and one that has contributed hugely to popular culture. Comics like Ghost in the Shell use the idea of a futuristic police procedural to get at the root of what it means to be human, and while the same description applies to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (and by extension Blade Runner) or William Gibson's Neuromancer, the three show just how varied the combinations of a futuristic theme with the atmosphere of noir detective fiction can be.

Aside from the all-time-greats we know and love, there is an almost endless number of science fiction crime stories to choose from, which means that many of us find ourselves asking that age old question… what should I read next?

Remember, every great detective needs a partner. Even Holmes had his Watson. With that in mind, we hope that this article and its list of what we feel are nine of the best science fiction detective stories you might not have heard of yet can help go some way toward answering that question, so with that in mind read on.

The Penultimate Truth

Philip K. Dick may be responsible for the single best example this genre-crossover has to offer, but Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was just one of a rake of sci-fi detective stories. One of the other great examples is his psychedelic telepathic-mystery novel, Ubik. Sadly, The Penultimate Truth is less well remembered, but no less worth reading.

Like so much of the science fiction written during the Cold War, The Penultimate Truth depicts a human civilisation living in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Surviving in a series of underground bunkers, mankind labours in constant terror of nuclear fallout. When people start going missing from a government project, they have no choice but to contract Webster Foote and his private investigation corporation to help unravel the mystery. The plot twists and writhes, through time as well as space, but the case is worth it. It’s not quite as strange as Ubik, and for many that’s to recommend it.

For those familiar with the short story, The Defenders, the setting will be very familiar.

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Altered Carbon

Something of a cyberpunk masterpiece, Altered Carbon tends to be mentioned in the same breath as Neuromancer, though the former continues to outshine it to some extent. The book deals with what many would consider to be the core themes of cyberpunk fiction, including the divide between rich and poor, and questions of transhumanism and its effects on humanity.

Set in a future in which mankind has colonised a number of other planets, Altered Carbon is the first of a trilogy starring Takeshi Kovacs, a former soldier who was originally born on Harlan’s world. In Morgan’s depiction of the future, humanity has reached a point where whole personalities can be uploaded and stored for future use, then later retrieved and “resleeved” in a new body for use as necessary. The super-rich can afford to repeat this process indefinitely, and as a result are termed “Meths” (as in “Methuselah”). When one such Meth dies under suspicious circumstances, Kovacs is hired to investigate.

Netflix has announced that it’s currently producing a series based on Altered Carbon, so if you’d like to get in ahead of the show, now is the time to start reading!

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Incompetence

Rob Grant is best known for his work alongside longtime co-writer Doug Naylor on Red Dwarf (both the cult-classic TV show and the genuinely spectacular novel). Those of you who already know Grant’s writing will likely remember him for a razor sharp sense of humour and a quietly bleak view of humanity’s future. Both are central to the plot of Incompetence.

In a world in which it has been deemed unfairly discriminatory to expect people to be competent in their work, Incompetence follows a detective trying to solve the case of his mentor’s murder. Travelling under the assumed name of Harry Salt, our hero must navigate a world in which almost every individual he meets seems woefully under-equipped for their chosen profession. Moreover, the world is plagued by new categories of mental illness, including the spectacularly termed “Non-Specific Stupidity.” Before long, the reader begins to appreciate the difficulties of solving a crime in a world in which precious few people seem to understand exactly what it is they do day to day, let alone the activities of others. It's the perfect detective novel for anyone who's ever looked around at their coworkers and thought, "But... how?"

The Caves of Steel

While Asimov’s robot series began with the collection of short stories titled I, Robot, The Caves of Steel was the first novel to join it. Set in the distant future, The Caves of Steel sees a human detective partnered with an android to solve a crime in a crowded and overpopulated New York. Our human protagonist is Elijah Baley, while his robot partner is Robot Daneel Olivaw (more usually, R. Daneel Olivaw).

Part of what makes Asimov’s writing about robots so compelling is that he succeeds in breathing life into them despite constantly reminding us of their artificiality. The book is replete with golden-age science fiction imagery and themes, not least of which the “caves of steel” of the book’s title, which describe the domes under which the Earth’s human inhabitants now live. In the course of their murder investigation, our protagonists lead us to look at their society’s issues with class and culture, as well as discrimination and fears of automation. In the style of all great sci-fi, this is an adventure full of novelty, but which also leaves the reader with something to chew on. 

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Finch

Jeff Vandermeer is now known for his spectacular and strange Annihilation trilogy, but before he was writing about alien outcroppings on Earth, he wrote Finch, a detective novel set in the sci-fi/fantasy state of Ambergris. While this is technically the third book in the series, it’s a strong standalone novel and a fine place to start for those who haven’t yet read any Vandermeer. Indeed, the feeling of being thrown in at the deep end is something that very much reinforces Vandermeer's style.

Ambergris is controlled by a race called the grey caps, a spore-based species of fungal humanoids. As with the Annihilation trilogy, the prose here is laden with a kind of low level creepiness informed largely by what has been called a “fungalpunk” theme. The plot follows a human detective’s investigation into a double homicide, with one human victim and one fungoid. His partner, Wyte, is a human who’s been colonised by a fungus, which is every bit as gross as it sounds.

Fans of Vandermeer will appreciate the motif of low-level corruption and contamination that runs through the novel. It's filled with a sense of creeping dread that's simultaneously horrifying and engrossing.

The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is the first book of his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. The book is a strange combination of science fiction and recent history, situating much of its sci-fi in the historical events surrounding China’s cultural revolution. The book meanders between past and present as its central problem is investigated. It's strange and ultimately charming. 

While it flits around a little, The Three-Body Problem largely follows a scientist and nanomaterials specialist called Wang Miao, who wakes up one morning to find his vision obscured by a constantly ticking countdown. He then begins an arduous investigation of how such a thing could be possible, as well as who might have the power to project such images. If that weren’t enough, the plot also follows the effort to fully understand the mathematical conundrum of three-body orbital dynamics, which is just about enough to leave your head spinning (though in what direction we can’t say without more research).

This is hard sci-fi in almost its best form, grounded and developed, backed up by strong theory. It’s a genuine pleasure to read and a real brain-teaser to follow.

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Great North Road

Peter F. Hamilton is best known for his Commonwealth Saga, but beyond his space operas, Hamilton has shown that he has an excellent handle on what makes for a strong crime novel. Great North Road is set in Newcastle in the not-too-distant future, in a world in which humanity has developed the technology necessary to instantaneously move from one planet to another. One such gateway connects Newcastle with the distant world of St. Libra. The story follows the investigation into the murder of a clone (who also happened to be a member of the unspeakably wealthy North family). The case is being handled by Sidney Hurst, a detective with Newcastle police, who soon notices that the murder bears a surprising resemblance to another murder of a member of the North clan years prior.

The investigation is rendered more complex by the shifting political valences of the North family, as well as the power and influence of offworld interests beyond the gateway. Given the extent to which Newcastle depends on the gateway economically, the potential fallout from an investigation becomes apparent quite quickly. Great North Road presents us with a world filled with fun technologies and strange socio-cultural innovations, coloured by the eerie closeness of an alien world so close to our own.

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When Gravity Fails

George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails is a 1987 sci-fi novel set in the Middle East. Here, the Arab world has risen as the West has declined. This is sci-fi noir in exactly the way that good cyberpunk should be, dark and brooding, with a core conceit that leads readers to question key elements of the human experience.

The story unfolds from the point of view of Marîd Audran, who is less an investigator than a low-level hustler. One of the weird quirks of When Gravity Fails’ future technology is that many people sport cybernetic augmentations allowing them to use “moddies” (personality modules that a user installs to experience their life with a new personality, including reconstructions of historical figures or fictional characters). Audran eschews these modifications, which as you might expect means that the reader can at least identify well with the book's protagonist.

When Gravity Fails is set in a strange world, one in which the boundary between things we consider to be integral and extrinsic are constantly challenged. It’s an odd read, and one that sometimes puts one in mind of Gibson’s Neuromancer, but that’s to its credit.

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The Quantum Thief

Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief is a strange novel even by the standards of books like Vandermeer’s Finch. The novel begins with its protagonist, a thief named Jean le Flambeur, incarcerated in a “Dilemma Prison” until someone stages a jailbreak so that they can bring him in on a job.

From there, le Flambeur must travel to the Oubliette, one of Mars’ moving cities, to retrieve memories stored there when he was incarcerated. Where books like When Gravity Fails call into question otherwise concrete ideas like personality or character, The Quantum Thief does something similar for the idea of memory. While individuals still have “memory” as we understand it, those who live in the Oubliette also have access to “exomemory,” a kind of collective memory anyone can access.

Leaving it at that would sell the book a little short though, because despite also being a relatively straightforward whodunnit, it’s also absolutely dripping with far-future weirdness, including a society that uses time as currency, sci-fi panopticons, far-reaching conspiracies, and questions about the upload of consciousness into machines.

Fair warning, if this description seemed a little hodge-podge, it’s because the book itself introduces so many ideas so quickly that it can be tricky to keep up. Indeed, the one criticism most often levelled at The Quantum Thief is that it’s difficult to understand, but it’s well worth the effort.

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Professor George Edward Challenger first made a name for himself as a travelling adventurer and investigator. Unfortunately, he has never succeeded in solving the greatest mystery of all... and ... Show More

2 Comments

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Alizée
Interesting list, thank you! Currently reading Great North Road, I'll have to check out some of the other books of this list I haven't read yet.
George Edward Challenger
Glad you enjoyed it, Alizée! I hope you have as much fun with Great North Road as I did. I just love that feel of near-future strangeness!