On Writing Futuristic Sci-Fi Detective Stories

Future

 

A few weeks ago, I was watching an “Andromeda” DVD, when I suddenly noticed that the episode that I was watching contained one of my favourite types of sci-fi storyline.

I am, of course, talking about sci-fi detective stories.

If anyone is curious, the episode in question was called “All Great Neptune’s Ocean” and it is the tenth episode of season one.

Although these kinds of storylines sometimes turn up in TV shows (eg: “The X-Files”, “Fringe” etc..) and in movies, I haven’t personally seen that many examples of them in prose fiction. But, the ones that I have seen have been absolutely brilliant.

One of the best examples of sci-fi detective stories that I’ve read can probably be seen in Eric Brown’s “Bengal Station” trilogy (“Necropath”, “Cosmopath” and “Xenopath”)–these are a trilogy of intelligently hardboiled novels about a private detective called Vaughn who, thanks to futuristic technology, has the ability to read minds. He works aboard a really interesting space station called “Bengal Station”, as well as on various terraformed planets.

My description probably doesn’t do this excellent trilogy justice, but it’s certainly worth checking out if you want a good example of sci-fi detective fiction. Plus, of course, each novel in the trilogy is also pretty much self-contained too, so you don’t even have to read them in order (in fact, I read “Xenopath” first, then “Cosmopath” and then “Necropath”).

But, how do you write these kinds of stories?

After all, if you’re telling a story set in the distant future, shouldn’t all crimes be easily solvable using technology? I mean, what use would there be for detectives in a future where everything is recorded, where forensic evidence can be analysed instantly by computers and where everything is traceable?

I mean, surely human detectives would be obsolete in the future?

Not so.

After all, as technology gets smarter, so will criminals. When fingerprinting was discovered in the 19th century, this didn’t mean that all murder and robbery cases were solved correctly within a matter of days. No, criminals just started wearing gloves–forcing investigators to either use smarter methods of detection or to do things the old-fashioned way.

So, whatever futuristic technology you include in your sci-fi detective story shouldn’t be 100% foolproof. And, even if it is, there should still be a slightly unusual way for criminals to bypass it (eg: if you have a foolproof retina-recognition system at the entrance of every bank, then your criminal might have to work out a sneaky way to get someone else to rob the bank on his behalf, before wiping the his/her memory). Not only is this realistic, but it also means that your story will still need a detective character too.

Plus, even if your detective can get hold of all of the evidence quickly, they still need to find a way to make sense of it and connect it to their suspects.

What this means is that the emphasis of a good sci-fi detective story is often on the detective studying the evidence, rather than the detective finding the evidence.

And, if you think that this will make your detective story “boring”, then you’re wrong. In fact, many popular modern American detective shows on TV rely on these kinds of storylines and they still enjoy a fairly large audience. And, yes, most of them are basically sci-fi detective shows, even if they’re set in the present day.

In American detective shows like “NCIS” and “CSI”–all of the crimes are solved using what are almost certainly faster and more efficient versions of modern forensic technology. They’re solved by finding evidence using technology which is based on modern forensic technology, but improved to the point where a crime can easily be solved within a relatively short amount of time.

To give you an example of the sci-fi technology that can be found in these “modern” shows, I once remember seeing an episode of “CSI” where the main characters were able to solve a crime by seeing an image of the criminal reflected in someone else’s eyes on a piece of CCTV footage.

In order to be able to do this in real life, you would have to have an incredibly high-resolution CCTV camera–which would mean that you would need one hell of a large hard disk to store all of the high-resolution footage from it. Seriously, in order to store even a day’s worth of footage from one camera at this level of detail, you would probably need several petabytes of hard-disk space.

So, if you need examples of how to tell a compelling sci-fi detective story where all of the evidence is already available to the main characters at the start of the story, then be sure to check out some of these forensics-based American detective shows.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Pekoeblaze. Pekoeblaze is an artist and writer, who has produced many drawings and online comics. Check out her website to see more of her work.

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16 thoughts on “On Writing Futuristic Sci-Fi Detective Stories”

  1. An interesting topic – the first sci-fi detective I came across was Isaac Asimov’s Elijah Baley who appeared in three novels that form part of the wider ‘Robot’ series. As an article on Wikipedia states, the first book (The Caves of Steel, 1953) “illustrates an idea Asimov advocated, that science fiction is a flavor that can be applied to any literary genre, rather than a limited genre itself.” I read them back in the 80s and they were feeling a bit dated even then.
    I started to write a lot more on the subject of roles within the a homicide investigation team but decided to stick on my own blog rather than clutter up Ryan’s page. Here’s the link if you want to read more: https://babbitman.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/detective-fiction-getting-your-team-right/

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    1. Cool 🙂 I’ve only read a few of Asimov’s short “robot” stories (and that was a few years ago). But, yeah, science fiction can often be more of a description of the setting of a story than a genre in it’s own right. Although I’m kind of astonished that Asimov worked this out back in 1953 though.

      Thanks 🙂 That’s a fascinating article 🙂 But, yeah, I can imagine that realistic police procedural stories would require a lot of research and your article certainly gives a good overview of the subject 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Glad to help out! Even if you decide not to stick to a realistic police procedure, identifying roles for characters will give you a greater depth and more opportunities to explore different avenues. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What are your thoughts on Arthur C. Clark’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” or, perhaps more relevant, the film based on it, “Blade Runner”? They are not exactly “detective” stories, but certainly “Blade Runner” falls into to genre of film noir.

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    1. I’m a massive fan of both the book and the film (in fact, it’s pretty much my favourite movie), even though they’re almost completely different. Although, and I’m sorry to be pedantic, I should probably point out that the book was written by Philip K.Dick, rather than Arthur C. Clarke.

      But, yeah, it’s pretty much a detective story in name only (in fact, the film raises a lot more questions than it solves) and it’s more of a film noir/proto-cyberpunk kind of thing. It’s also the kind of film where you notice something new every time that you watch it.

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    2. Philip K. Dick rather than Mr Clark. Weirdly, I’ve never got around to reading “Do Androids Dream…” but I’ve seen Blade Runner many times. It is unusual in that Deckard is brought in as a kind of outside consultant, no longer being on the payroll so doesn’t have a team as such to fall back on. So yes, it feels much more like a film noir private investigator kind of movie. Another fantastic crime/sci-fi novel is Alfred Bester’s ‘The Demolished Man’ (1952) which follows the protagonist as he plans a murder in a society where telepaths will always spot evil intentions. This may have influenced Philip K. Dick when he wrote his short story ‘The Minority Report’ in 1956 (also a rather good film). Actually, it does seem to be that the 1950s was a pretty good era for sci-fi crime/detective writing!

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      1. Ah, the book is very different to the film – there’s slightly wierder technology, Deckard is married, the setting is slightly post-apocalyptic, there are a couple of different characters, there’s more background stuff (eg: a religion called Mercerism) and the book also gives a definite answer to the whole question of whether Deckard is a replicant or not.

        But, yeah, in terms of structure, “Blade Runner” is a lot more like a film noir than anything else.

        I’ve heard of “The Demolished Man” and I may even have a copy of it somehwere (since I bought a lot of old second-hand sci-fi novels when I was younger) but I haven’t read it yet. I didn’t realise that it was possibly an influence on “Minority Report” though. Although, I think that it was also an influence on an excellent sci-fi TV show from the 1990s called “Bablyon 5” since one of the telepathic characters in it is called Bester.

        But, yeah, they don’t call the 50s and 60s the golden age of science fiction for nothing. Although, saying this, sci-fi was also fairly good in the 1980s too – mainly because of the invention of the cyberpunk genre (technically speaking, this genre was invented in 1980 by Bruce Bethke, although William Gibson was the one who popularised it in the mid-1980s).

        As for detective fiction, there seem to be great examples of it in pretty much every decade since sometime in the 19th century.

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      2. You’ve definitely made me want to go and read “Androids Dream…” 🙂 I’m merely tossing out the possibility that “The Demolished Man” was an influence on “Minority Report” because it was published just a couple of years before MR and it highlights how difficult it would be to commit crime if people had some kind of ESP (mind reading in DM & precognition in MR). Seeing as DM was the first winner of the Hugo Award it would be bizarre if Dick hadn’t read it!

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    1. Totally. I guess that the general rule here is that you either have to show or briefly explain the limits of the technology before it is used, or make it close enough to modern technology that people can kind of guess what it can and can’t do.

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