Thursday, April 13, 2006

Science Fiction Detectives

In April we explored authors whose books blend science fiction with mystery and crime fiction. According to Jeannine, this is essentially a cross-genre that requires only that the detective be somewhere in the future, or on another planet, or in an alternate history. He/She/It can be human, or robot, or android, or A.I., or whatever some clever author thinks up. I suppose if it’s an alien it could technically be used in our Ethnic Detectives discussion too. There are the books of J.D. Robb (Eve Dallas in the near future), Donna Andrews’ series about A.I. sleuth Turing Hopper, the Philip K. Dick story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (remember the movie Blade Runner?) and Minority Report (with a movie of the same name). You can find a small list at Stop You Are Killing Me and another annotated one at SciFiMysteries. It should be a very different kind of discussion, so be sure to join us.
Last night was a very lively meeting, writes Jeannine. It was a somewhat smaller group, but no one was shy. We discussed “science fiction detectives” which we discovered can cover a great deal of diverse ground (and space).
We had a great time setting up the display and refreshments. Wow, you can take just about anything and call it something else. For some odd reason, none of us had any light sabers or ray guns, no space shuttles or bio-scanners, warp drives, androids or brain augmentations. On our paychecks? Ha! So we went decidedly low-tech:
  • the classic flying saucer (as seen in “Plan 9 from Outer Space”) – two metal pie pans taped together
  • We had E.T.’s bicycle horn
  • Arthur Dent’s towel (and a copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – yes, that Arthur Dent)
  • My personal favorite – two Scottish Tribbles
  • A bottle of nanobots (you just think it’s empty)
  • A spherical thruster cap and an FTL warp drive dynamo (my cats didn’t want to play with them anyway)
  • A technobabble modifier (also used to pry the keys off the keyboard, or is that the same thing?)
  • And you’ve all seen one of these – a whatchamacallit doohickey thingamabob (be sure to spell that correctly – a thingamagig is completely different)
  • And everyone’s favorite, an actual transporter (it said so, right on the paper we taped to the floor, with a few cds to make it look “realistic”)
Naturally, once you get started with this sort of thing, look out. For refreshments we had:
  • Alien Munch Mix (caramel corn mix)
  • Flying saucers (cookies – round ones, duh)
  • Golden orbs of Alpha Centauri (oranges)
  • Space drops (just change the a to an i…)
  • Robot fuel (coffee)
  • Android fuel (tea)
  • Fuel stabilizer (cream/creamer)
  • Fuel booster (sugar/sweetener)
  • Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters (apple cider)
A couple of members also brought real food, er, let me think here… ah, yes –
  • Bark from the Tree of Life (chocolate, no-brainer)
  • Speckled Space Puffs (try saying that fast 3 times – poppy seed muffins)
Oh yes, colanders were provided to wear for people who were afraid of having their minds sucked out by aliens. Some people swear by aluminum foil, but we thought the colanders looked much smarter.
Okay, now that the important stuff is out of the way, on to the books!
  • Our first title brought to the table was Murder in the Solid State by Wil McCarthy. The reader was not a fan of science fiction, but thought it was a fairly decent mystery with lots of computer related technobabble that she skimmed over. She said, however, that there were about three small bits totally unrelated to the plot that she found quite offensive, and spoiled the story for her (and will keep her from reading any more by this author).
  • Our next member had returned his book, so couldn’t quite remember the title – Death in… by McCarthy. He said it was about how science affects politics and way of life, and the plot followed scientists in truly deadly competition with one another, resorting to murder to get ahead. Lots of murder. And a bit of nanotechnology. After tracking down the title (Reference Librarian to the rescue!), we discovered it was the same as one discussed by an earlier member – Murder in the Solid State by Wil McCarthy. Each had such a different reaction to and enjoyment of the book that they didn’t realize they were discussing the same item. The rest of us didn’t either. Maybe we should always have at least two people read the same book – the result is quite fascinating.
  • Our next member is a fan of the TV program “Boston Legal,” so she picked up one of the Tek series “by” William Shatner (ghostwriter!, ghostwriter!), TekLords. In it, PI Jake Cardigan tries to stop a deadly viral plague that has been loosed on a future San Francisco. We know that it is a future San Francisco because there are lots of androids and robots, and cool new words we’ve never heard of. The reader found it extremely annoying throughout, and just keep hearing the phrase “Denny Crane, Denny Crane.” Evidently not science fiction to be taken seriously….
  • Which, ahum, brings us to J.D. Robb. Robb is the pseudonym of Nora Roberts, and it should be noted her “futuristic” detective Eve Dallas is catalogued here in the mysteries, not the science fiction. Several members read one of her titles – Divided in Death and Survivor in Death, and both were rather unimpressed. The first reader did not like SF to begin with, so found all the futuristic terms and gadgets quite annoying. The story and characters were uninvolving, and the mystery was just so-so. The other reader didn’t care for the book because it was not SF enough. It read to her as just everyday USA a little faster. Characters were flat, and the mystery okay. Her verdict on the book, “Oh well.”
  • Three members chose the classic Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick (made – sort of – into the movie Blade Runner). One of them even finished it recently, another had read it years ago, the other is almost done…. The first member to discuss it considered it one of the best pieces of science fiction ever written, with the creation of a complete universe with its own theological system, and asking the question (and the real mystery within the mystery) “What makes us human?” In the novel, human detectives hunt down androids who have escaped termination, and as the story evolves, the humans become more inhuman, and the androids more human, and the question becomes more difficult to answer. This member is also a big fan of the movie Blade Runner, but says it is nothing like the book and follows a completely different story line. He says both are great in their own ways, but have in common only their characters’ names. Both of the other readers agreed with most of his points, especially the exploration of the line between android and human. One was impressed with the religious imagery, though she had a feeling a great deal of it was sailing over her head, and she also thought the creative terminology didn’t always work (disemelevatored?, p.115).
  • We now move to a “mystery” without a detective, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow. Orson Scott Card is a master universe/world builder. He has two parallel series that take place at the same approximate time and universe, but focus on different characters – the Enders series that begins with Ender’s Game (read Chapter One here), and the Shadow series that begins with Ender’s Shadow (read Chapter One here). Ender Wiggin’s shadow is 4-year-old Bean, a brilliant orphan enrolled in the same school as Ender, where games and drills are far more than just games and drills. The mystery is not murder, but the parentage of the child. The book comes highly recommended, and the reader fully intends to try out the rest of the series, even though she has never been a big fan of science fiction.
  • Our next member doesn’t like science fiction at all. Never reads any of it. Never. So imagined how stunned she was to learn J.D. Robb can be considered science fiction. Or that alternative histories and time travel can as well. She loves time travel. Gotchya! You read some science fiction, tell us all about it. So she told us about The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser (a mystery writer of some repute), in which a bride on the eve of her wedding looks in a family heirloom mirror and is switched with her grandmother on the eve of her wedding. The member was fascinated at how differently the two coped – the grandmother was totally befuddled in the future world, and the granddaughter found it very easy to slip into a world where she knew what was going to happen to all the main characters already.
  • Our next member has the luxury of being read to by her husband while she is doing needlework. He loves science fiction, so recommended the Peter F. Hamilton trilogy: Mindstar Rising, A Quantum Murder, and The Nano Flower. Unfortunately, they read the middle one first, which she described at very much science fiction, but also a classic “closed door mystery.” She said it was strong as both SF and mystery, and both enjoyed it enough to move on to the first in the series.
  • This same voracious reader also shared a mystery with strong science fiction elements, You’ve Got Murder by Donna Andrews, the first in a series about a mystery solving A.I. (artificial intelligence), Turing Hopper. This first in the series explores how the Turing first became sentient, and then how she gets her human friends to help her solve a mystery. Our reader enjoyed this, said it was interesting watching the evolution of the character, and that the mystery was well done as well.
  • Now to Pashazade by Jon Courteney Grimwood. This one is a bit complicated (but never confusing). It takes place in a near future 21st century in an alternate history where the Ottoman Empire never fell. Most of it takes place in “El Iskandrya” (Alexandria) and follows the adventures of Ashraf Bey, a rather mysterious man brought from Seattle by his aunt (who he is amazed to discover is his aunt) to take part in an arranged marriage. When he discovers his intended does not want to marry him, he backs out (the scandal!). But before the dust settles, his aunt is murdered, he becomes guardian of his niece, and he is framed for her and another’s murders. But he is no shrinking violet – he has some rather interesting skills, an unusual base of knowledge and way of “seeing things.” Like a certain fox…. Read it to find out. One of the most interesting (and refreshing) aspects of the book was the north Africa/Muslim setting, rich with history and atmosphere, combined with the near future/modern sense of society and technology.
  • We move now to another voracious reader, who brought quite a few titles to the table. She read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde specifically to cover our theme, and thoroughly enjoyed the wit and imagination shown in creating this “literary detective” who restores order to sabotaged classic works of fiction by actually entering the work to catch the saboteur. We read this title some years back as a group, and discovered you either love it, hate it, or just don’t get it.
  • This member then expanded to some of her favorite science fiction, and science fiction fantasy (more cross-genres!). She shared Barbara Hambly’s The Silent Tower, full of mages and magic, dual worlds, and a void that is mysteriously being opened to create a connection between the worlds. Another favorite by Hambly is Time of the Dark, another “SF fantasy” with dual worlds.
  • She also shared the adventures of Pip and Flinx series by Alan Dean Foster in For Love of Mother-Not. Flinx is an orphan boy traveling from world to world trying to find out where he came from (he appears to be genetically altered), and Pip is his pet, a deadly poisonous snake (sounds handy). Each book takes place on a different planet, so there is always variety and imaginative world-building in each novel of the series.
  • Another member brought up a title that exemplifies how the time travel really can be true science fiction – To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. In it, Willis takes some of the time travel concepts she introduced in the award winning Doomsday Book, and turns them into a very humorous jaunt through Victoriana (there was nothing remotely humorous in Doomsday). Highly recommended.
The meeting then turned into a lively discussion of “what comes next” and other activities we might try. We settled on our themes/selection through August (stay tuned below), but also brought up other possible ideas. A theme idea related to our ethnic detectives was to do selections continent by continent – mysteries set in Africa, mysteries set in Asia…. Another idea was to have Sherlock Holmes as a theme, but not limited to Doyle. There are many, many mysteries and series with Holmes as a main character (such as those by Laurie R. King or Caleb Carr). This also brought us to a discussion of which we each preferred – everyone reading a single title, or all the same author, or a broader theme – and it was decided that most preferred a mix, a single title one month, a theme the next, an author the next….
You can find a list of books on science-fiction mystery and crime fiction available in the Douglas County Library System by clicking on "Comments" below this post.