I started reading science fiction as a young boy (the Tom Swift series being the most memorable), but I also read mysteries such as The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Throughout life, I’ve kept that alternating pattern of SF and mystery going. Seems I was destined to write a first novel combining the two.
The Ultra Thin Man is a SF noir-mystery-thriller, and with that combination in mind, I thought I’d give a rundown on my favorite science fiction mysteries. Mind you, these are the ones I’ve read; you may have read others worthy of this list.
So here you go: my top six must-read science fiction mysteries, in order of publication:
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953)Bester’s novel won the first Hugo Award. I read it sometime in the late ’70s. It’s a murder mystery in a world without murder. It’s a police procedural. You know who the murderer is at the start. You wonder how the telepathic cop is going to figure everything out, particularly when Bester focuses more on the villain. It’s fast, pulpy, sometimes wacky, and quite inventive if you consider there just weren’t very many SF murder mysteries in the early ’50s. It’s not Bester’s best book (that would be The Stars My Destination), but it’s still an intriguing, high speed thriller that holds up well.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (1968)
This is one of my favorite SF novels from Philip K. Dick. It inspired the film Blade Runner, of course; it’s a detective story that mimics the earlier pulpy days of Dick’s fiction. It also adds in the noir sensibilities of the deeper, more philosophical ruminations of Deckard’s character as he searches for eight androids. This gives the mystery a depth that is both sublime and flawed. The question of what is real and unreal, who is intelligent and who is less so, kept me thinking. The real mystery of Do Androids Dream is never solved, even if the one about tracking down the androids is. In fact, even when the android problem is resolved, Dick adds three more chapters and calls into question our humanity.
Queen of Angels by Greg Bear (1990)
This is a classic whodunit—or at least a part of it is—and a departure for Bear, even though he asks many of the same questions Philip K. Dick did in Do Androids Dream. It’s a search for meaning, of self-awareness, and of consciousness. Again, there’s no easy solution to the mysteries Bear creates here. The underlying mysteries of philosophical questions don’t need any answer the author can give. Even the writing style, purposefully missing commas and rolling forward like Virginia Wolfe on a bender, is a challenge. I liked the chance to solve these things on my own. I didn’t, as it turned out, not all of them, but it was fun trying.
Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem (1994)
Mainstream writer Lethem started as a science fiction writer. Gun is a wonderful pastiche of noir and mystery in an SF setting, and it works. It riffs unapologetically from Raymond Chandler’s last novel, Playback: “The subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.” And it’s true. Artificial animals are common, and there really is an actual kangaroo in a dinner jacket. Conrad Metcalf is a PI, a smart aleck, and he’s “on the make.” “Make” is a snortable drug. (The Ultra Thin Man features its own kind of drug, called RuBy.) Lots of fun banter lives in Lethem’s novel.
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (2002)
I loved this Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel for its hardboiled and unabashedly violent honesty. It’s a debut novel, a fabulous detective story, and it had a clear influence on The Ultra Thin Man. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is a “sleeve.” Human personalities are stored digitally and downloaded into new bodies. Inhabitants have cortical stacks in their spinal columns that store their memories, so if they die, the stack can be stored for any length of time. It’s got a great conspiracy plot (hard to pull off, but Morgan succeeds). Kovacs is rough and tumble, and doesn’t take shit from anyone, but he’s passionate, and he’s still got some humanity left in him.
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters (2012)
The most current novel on my list, Winters’ novel is not only a murder mystery, it’s a disaster novel . . . a year too early. The hero of The Last Policeman, Detective Hank Palace, is investigating a murder, but a killer asteroid is going to destroy the Earth before the end of the year. Why bother then? Palace is practically a rookie, with a nose for detail, and by golly, he’s going to use all that he’s learned to solve this case, even if it kills him. I’ve not read the sequel, Countdown City (which won the Philip K. Dick award this past spring), and the final volume, World of Trouble, from this summer, but they’re now on my to-read list.