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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more My Raygun Is Quick
Gene Roddenberry famously (and possibly apocryphally) pitched Star Trek to the networks in the 1960s as “Wagon Train to the stars”—a western, in other words, with newfangled costumes and weapons and ways of getting around. You see, even when we’re trying to boldly go where no man has gone before, we tend to imagine it will be like someplace we’ve already been. And science fiction is a relatively young genre: legendary magazine editor Hugo Gernsback may have used the term in the mid-1920s, but the phrase didn’t show up in a book title (we think) until The Pocket Book of Science Fiction was published in 1946. So it’s only natural that sf creators would borrow stories and themes from other genres as they defined the conventions of their own. And the early and widespread popularity of the mystery made its tropes ripe for the taking. Following are some of the best sf mysteries, categorized by subgenre or theme.
The Eyre Affair. By Jasper Fforde. 2002. Penguin, paper, $16 (9780142001806).
The first in the splendid, mind-bending Thursday Next series finds the literary detective hot on the trail of Acheron Hades, whose theft of the original manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit could spell disaster for the literary world. Next’s investigation takes her inside Bronte’s Jane Eyre, where she inadvertently changes the ending of the novel, much to the consternation of its millions of devoted fans.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. By Douglas Adams. 1987. Pocket, paper, $7.99 (9780671746728).
Gently (real name Svlad Cjelli) uses his rather, um, unique psychic abilities to solve crimes—although it’s worth noting that he doesn’t believe in the existence of psychic abilities, even his own. Not quite as funny or memorable as Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide books, it’s still chock-full of the late, much-missed Adams’ linguistic shenanigans and witty set-pieces.
Illegal Alien. By Robert Sawyer. 1997. Penguin, paper, $7.99 (9781937007218)
An extraterrestrial is tried for murder in a human court. Tense and suspenseful, with a couple of clever plot twists, this is in every way (except the obvious way) a traditional legal thriller.
The Caves of Steel. By Isaac Asimov. 1954. Random, paper, $7.99 (9780553293401).
Roughly 3,000 years in the future, give or take, a human cop teams up with a robot to solve a murder. This is a classic of the sf genre and rightfully so, as it explores some of Asimov’s favorite themes—especially bigotry and persecution—in a hugely entertaining way.
Altered Carbon. By Richard Morgan. 2002. Random, paper, $14.95 (9780345457684).
Five centuries from now, a former UN envoy is tasked with proving whether a man killed himself or was the victim of a homicide. A key witness—or is it suspect?—is the victim himself, who was restored to life shortly after his death. You see, in this dark future, people can change bodies as easily as we in the present day change our shirts. This was Morgan’s first novel, and it’s a damned good one.
The Automatic Detective. By A. Lee Martinez. 2008. Tor, paper, $7.99 (9780765357946).
Mack Megaton, a robot private investigator, reluctantly gets involved in a case that could spell the end of the world if he doesn’t handle it delicately . . . and “delicate” isn’t something a half-ton metal man does too well at the best of times. Like Chris Moore or Tom Holt, Martinez specializes in offbeat characters, convoluted plots, and plenty of goofy wordplay.
The Demolished Man. By Alfred Bester. 1953. o.p.
A classic story of a man who executes the perfect murder, only to be undone by his own subconscious. Set in a world in which telepathy is commonplace, the novel poses the still-brilliant question: How can you plan a murder when the cops can read your mind? Tension, apprehension, and dissension have most definitely begun, and if you don’t know what that means, you need to read this book right away.
Chasm City. By Alastair Reynolds. 2001. Penguin, paper, $8.99 (9780441010646).
A man desperate to avenge a woman’s death tracks a dangerous posthuman to Chasm City, a once-opulent metropolis now devastated by a nanotech plague that has plunged it into chaos. Reynolds’ novels are always rich in atmosphere and detail, and Chasm City itself feels as real as anyplace you’ve ever visited.
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