When science fiction hit the mainstream in the 1940s and 1950s, the authors who championed the genre, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C Clarke where well versed in the writing which preceded them. They would have likely read Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or James M. Cain; so it’s no wonder that their writing shared the same colour of character and panache for plot that made the detective a household name.
Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel (1954)
One of science fictions first forays into the detective genre, the trilogy pairs by-the-books police detective, Elijah Baley, with the positronic robot, R. Daneel Olivaw. Daneel is the perfect foil to Baley’s brash and often hot-headed approach to police work, in a rapidly changing world which looks to cast the stubborn detective as a relic of the past. The series might have started as a vehicle for Asimov to test the stretching point of his “Three Laws,” but the books offer an intelligent and often times witty take on the buddy-cop formula.
Alfred Bester’s The Demolished man (1953)
At the same time, Alfred Bester, offered the darker side of the coin with The Demolished Man. A police procedural set in a future where telepathy is common in humans. The Espers (telepaths) are powerful figures in society, heads of state, scientists, and police detectives. The novel begs the question, how can someone get away with murder in a reality where your every thought is heard? Bester weaved a plot of corporate espionage and slanderous backstabbing in the highest echelons of business. He’s widely considered the forerunner of cyberpunk, while his gritty realism likely influence later writers including Philip K Dick and J G Ballard who didn’t shy away from more baroque visions of the future.
Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Thrust into pop culture through its adaptation, Bladerunner, Do Android’s Dream, takes the baton from Bester and runs to the hills with it. A paranoid future where androids are used as slave labour and mercenaries in the off worlds colonies, what happens when they return to meet their maker. Our unstable detective, Rick Deckard, is tasked with retiring escaped androids, hunting them through the megacity of future Los Angeles. Do Android’s Dream is as much a detective novel as it is a reflection of what it means to be human, turning the lens on the protagonist and the society which created the androids in the first place.
George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails (1988)
The spiritual successor to these novels can certainly be found in the cyberpunk novels came about in the late eighties and early nineties. As real-life corporations ate up the broken empires of past, and we were thrust into the uncertain futures and industrial landscapes of the millennium. When Gravity Fails is set against the backdrop of a prosperous Arab n, the west in tatters and reverting to the dark ages, while the Middle East and Africa flourish. Marid Audrian is a different calibre of sci-fi detective than those who came before, he’s self-assured, street smart, and a brutal in his pursuit of criminals. The novel is standard cyberpunk fair, with body modifications galore and a serial killer who holds the combined memories of the world’s most notorious killers.
Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002)
In a similar vein, but cranking up the hard sci-fi volume to eleven, Altered Carbon, pitches the reader into a future split between immortal billionaires known as ‘Meths’ and an underclass struggling to survive. Following the invention of the digital consciousness, people can afford to live forever, switching out their robotic sleeves and travelling the unlimited distances of the stars by casting their consciousness. Protagonist Takeshi Kovacs, an envoy super soldier, wakes up on Earth, two hundred years after his death, in a new body. Kovacs is contracted to investigate the murder of a meth and propels him into the twisted and immoral world of immortality.
James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes (2011)
Skipping into the modern age and blending the tropes of cyberpunk and classic interstellar science fiction, Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse series, finds detective Miller on the hunt for the daughter of a shipping magnate and the alien molecule which may spell solar system spanning catastrophe. Miller’s investigation runs obsessively with search for the heiress and the pandemic which has taken over the Io space station. . While the books which follow focus on the interplanetary tensions and the threat of the protomolecule – Leviathan is a great standalone title, packed with vibrant characters, sci-fi intrigue, and villains both human and other.
Let us know your favourite science fiction detectives. Bonus points if you can find a title written by a woman or a person of colour. Unfortunately, it's a real boys club.
1. Amanda Bridgeman's The Subjugate
2. Martha Well's All Systems Red
3. Anne Leckie's Providence
4. Jo Walton's Ha'penny
5. P. Djèlí Clark's The Haunting of Tram Car 015