Hard boiled in spaaaaaaace.
February 8, 2010 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Future noir. Please recommend detective fiction in a scifi setting.

A mefi refuted my jokey comment about how Snowcrash, by dint of celebrating cliches, bookends the cyberpunk genre (with Neuromancer at the other end) and suggested Altered Carbon, the first of the Takeshi Kovacs novels, and I'm looking for more.

It doesn't have to be "high art," I'm looking for pulp detective-y/hard boiled/noir stories to read for fun (but quality is appreciated), as opposed to straight-up "Cyberpunk" as was previously asked.

I've read pretty much the entire body of Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson, Stross, PKD, Bear, Egan, but couldn't get into Melville no matter how hard I tried, I've already read Gravity's Rainbow, The Star's My Destination, and The Demolished Man, and I'm planning on reading the Travis McGee novels.

posted by porpoise to Media & Arts (67 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Douglas Adams:
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detectie Agency
Long Dark Teatime of the Soul

Although, I don't think these qualify as hard boiled... maybe par-boiled... in seltzer water...
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:58 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails is a noir in a cyberpunk Islamic culture extremely worth reading. The sequels are less good, but not completely awful either.
posted by Spanner Nic at 9:59 AM on February 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You might enjoy Jonathan Lethem's "Gun With Occasional Music," which is exactly detective noir in a sci-fi setting. I wasn't crazy about it, but I'm not crazy about Lethem, so there you go.

It's very different from the cyberpunky stuff you've listed, being a self-conscious stylistic atavism.
posted by grobstein at 10:01 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just came in here to recommend "Gun With Occasional Music" only to find grobstein already did so.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:02 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

How about Dan Vining's "The Quick" and "The Next"? More supernatural thriller than cyberpunk but very L.A. noir.
posted by Allee Katze at 10:05 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain is exactly what you're looking for!

(And Spanner Nic's recommendation of Effinger is quite spot on, too.)
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:08 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Asimov's "Robots of Dawn" is a detective story in the era of sentient robots. Ignore any misgivings you might have about Asimov's robots due to associations with the Will Smith "I, Robot" movie; the book has quite a different tone (and a much better plot.)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:09 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Faint of Butt at 10:12 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Detectivey, sci-fi, and a lot of fun - "The Stainless Steel Rat" and its sequels by Harry Harrison.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:14 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: KOP and Ex-KOP. Both great.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:18 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Altered Carbon was a good quick read. Very fun.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:20 AM on February 8, 2010

I'll second Hardcore Poser's Robot's of Dawn and more generally the whole robot detective series with Elijiah Bailey (Caves of Steel in particular). Not necessarily in line with what you are looking for though, as it is first wave scifi and not the 3rd+ wave cyberpunky goodness with which you seem to be enamored.
posted by EsotericAlgorithm at 10:20 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: I have an anthology book called "The 13 Crimes of Science Fiction", which is edited by Asimov, Greenberg and Waugh from the 50's. Not sure if it is still available, but lots of fun, especially coming from that gum shoe time period and earlier.
posted by Vaike at 10:21 AM on February 8, 2010

Should check of the new Pynchon novel Inherent Vice and any Ross Macdonald novels (Lew Archer series).
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 10:25 AM on February 8, 2010

* you should check out the
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 10:26 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Glad to see infinitywaltz already name-checked Century Rain, but you've also simply got to see Reynolds' Chasm City. Not precisely a detective story as such, but it's most definitely a mystery (and a good one at that).
posted by valkyryn at 10:26 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You may like Larry Niven's stories (novellas?) of Gil "The Arm" Hamilton. At Amazon.
posted by aimedwander at 10:27 AM on February 8, 2010

John Stith's characters almost always have to solve a mystery (and get the girl).
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:27 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by Robert Heinlein
posted by Jacqueline at 10:29 AM on February 8, 2010

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep


A Scanner Darkly

by Philip K. Dick

Both about detectives/bounty hunters, both very much sci fi, and both draw from noir settings and tones. And both are great books. I do not recommend A Scanner Darkly unless you feel you have a very firm grasp on your own sanity :)
posted by Salvor Hardin at 10:30 AM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: Very intriguing suggestions so far everyone, please keep 'em coming!

Ah, I almost forgot that I have a shelf-full of Stainless Steel Rat trade hardcovers =) and, in addition to 3rd+ wave scifi, I'm a big fan of the first wave and golden age scifi as well.
posted by porpoise at 10:31 AM on February 8, 2010

As discussed here, Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn series has a pulpy detective feel to them. (Or so people tell me, I'm only a few chapters in.)
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 10:32 AM on February 8, 2010

Seconding the "13 crimes of science fiction" anthology especially if you like classic SciFi. And tentatively suggesting the Dresden files series by Jim Butcher. It's technically fantasy but fits the noir criteria.
posted by entropyiswinning at 10:35 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: If you can find it, the hardest of hard-boiled space noir is the unfortunately titled Anarchaos. By "Curt Clark", aka Donald Westlake, aka the guy who wrote Parker.
posted by ormondsacker at 10:35 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jennifer Government (spoiler alert if you read too far down)
posted by MuffinMan at 10:36 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: The Automatic Detective. Lots of comedy elements and that may not be exactly what you are looking for, but I really enjoyed it.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 10:37 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

+1 Altered Carbon. +1 for Asimov's Robots.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:37 AM on February 8, 2010

Niven wrote more mysteries than just the "Gil the ARM" books: I think the collection "Neutron Star" has one or two head-scratchers, for example. He wrote a neat locked-room mystery but I think that's one of the Gil books.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:42 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: A mefi refuted my jokey comment about how Snowcrash, by dint of celebrating cliches, bookends the cyberpunk genre (with Neuromancer at the other end) and suggested Altered Carbon

That was me! That was me who suggested Altered Carbon! Yes! (pumps fist)

First, I'll plug Lethem. Gun, With Occasional Music really sneaks up on you. I was not expecting what I got. I won't go into details but the story is not the story I thought it was and that dissonance (unlike with, say, Darwinia) greatly added to the experience. But Lethem is not much like the authors you name, and may not be your cup of tea. So let me move on to my core suggestions.

If you've already read Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs stuff I'd move to George Alec Effinger. The Marîd Audran novels are cyberpunk, but they're the real stuff not the cliche-ridden imitation crap. Effinger was doing cyberpunk before cyberpunk was cool (which lasted, oh, a week):

When Gravity Fails
A Fire in the Sun
The Exile Kiss

After that you can move on to the real hardcore stuff. The Arabesk trilogy by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Grimwood's sequence is essentially what you'd get if Morgan, Effinger, and Lawrence Durrell had some sort of mutant love-child. Grimwood takes the cyberpunk aesthetic and updates it much like Morgan did, using it to get all his alienation and rage about the inequities of the modern world out on the page. The anger practically boils off the page. Except he's a more skillful writer and where the extreme violence in Morgan's work has all the subtlety of a carpet-bombing B52, Grimwood's anger is more like a razor. Not subtle by any means, but less flashy and more personal, and in a lot of ways more affecting for it.


Grimwood is the stuff. I'm sure there will be a bunch of good suggestions, but you should listen to me instead. Because I suggested Morgan to you! Hooray!
posted by Justinian at 10:48 AM on February 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's certainly not your hard-core SciFi, but I found Alan Dean Foster's Cyber Way to be a fun and easy read, and it fits your criteria.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 10:51 AM on February 8, 2010

Let me clarify and expand my assertion that Grimwood is a "more skillful" author than Morgan. Grimwood's prose, style, and use of literary devices is more aligned with what the establishment would consider good writing. Morgan does what he sets out to do extremely well (in some of his novels; he is uneven), but obviously he is deliberately and explicitly writing in an over-the-top style which would not find favor in those circles. So my comparison depends heavily on whether you consider "good writing" to be writing which fulfills certain arbitrary criteria, or to be writing which effectively conveys what the author means to convey even if that is a glossy, ultra-violent pulpy noirish explosion.
posted by Justinian at 10:53 AM on February 8, 2010

Zelazny's My Name Is Legion has some unique qualities.
posted by coffeefilter at 10:56 AM on February 8, 2010

Stross's Halting State is pretty good; less a Noir than an actioner, but a fun read.
posted by jenkinsEar at 11:19 AM on February 8, 2010

You might (also) like The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross.
posted by rjs at 11:21 AM on February 8, 2010

Sometimes I wonder if people even bother reading these questions before answering. He knows about Morgan and he's read PKD, so there's no point in suggesting those, and the Atrocity Archives, whatever its merits, is not detective fiction. I'm kind of surprised no one's dropped the Culture novels in here yet. I guess maybe Banks has fallen out of vogue since he's not a MeFi member.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:31 AM on February 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Other Stross books that have a whodunit or a "figuring out the conspiracy" angle that I'd recommend . . .
Saturn's Children (fun especially for the nod to Heinlein)

Not in spaaaaace, but very noir and excellent . . . Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World

More recent, set in present/near future, starts as detective story and then rapidly turns into geeky action film (but loved it and its sequel): Daemon
posted by donovan at 11:36 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I hate to write one of those answers that ignores, invalidates, or otherwise begs the question, but -- have you tried full-on classic noir? It might be worth your time to check out Raymond Chandler (The Long Goodbye is his best novel; Trouble Is My Business, a great introduction to his short stories), Jim Thompson (Pop 1280 and The Killer Inside Me for heavily psychologized; Texas By The Tail for dirt-kickin' mean fun), or James Ellroy (LA Quartet especially; Black Dahlia goes down like a swig of rye and a punch in the gut, and I mean that in the best possible way).
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:43 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

How about Lynn Hightower's Elaki series? The books are Alien Blues, Alien Eyes, Alien Heat, Alien Rites. They're pretty hard-boiled police procedural mysteries where the human cop's partner is a very alien alien, and most of the plots revolve around gritty interspecies murders.

They're not the greatest things ever, but they are most definitely mystery SF.
posted by sineala at 11:47 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Slow River by Nicola Griffith.
posted by doteatop at 11:51 AM on February 8, 2010

Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union won quite a few science fiction awards.

Part of Dan Simmons' Hyperion (Brawne Lamia's tale) is a noir-ish detective story.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:54 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: While it's not exactly "detective SF," A Talent for War is a superb SF mystery novel. What I've read of McDevitt's other stuff is not bad, either.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:55 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: I recommend the Alex Benedict Series by Jack McDevitt. The first book is "A Talent for War." I'm not sure I would call them hard boiled or even noir. They're more of a "Murder She Wrote in Space." They revolve around this guy, Alex Benedict, who is an atiquities dealer 10,000 years in the future. Every book is about him finding some kind of artifact that he begins to investigate, then somebody tries to kill him, so he investigates more and then he solves the mystery. It's sort of formualic but also a lot of fun.
posted by crios at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2010

What? No one has mentioned David Brin's Kiln People yet? Lots of fun, unique premise, well written-enjoy!
posted by purenitrous at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

While it's not exactly "detective SF," A Talent for War is a superb SF mystery novel.

And if you skip the last few pages it is a poignant, wrenching, brilliant story. With the last couple pages it's not bad.

The rest of the series decline extremely rapidly in quality.
posted by Justinian at 12:04 PM on February 8, 2010

Alex Benedict, who is an atiquities dealer 10,000 years in the future

(In which the entire universe appears to have turned into a nearly homogenous slice of the whiter parts of fin de siecle California)
posted by Justinian at 12:07 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: It's been a long time since I read it, but Noir, by K.W. Jeter, is a sci-fi detective novel that I remember liking pretty well. It had some fairly prescient take on the copyright wars for a novel published in 1998.
posted by dortmunder at 12:19 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: 2nding Effinger & Grimwood.
Adding Richard Paul Russo's Carlucci series to the mix.
posted by juv3nal at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Oh also:

It's been a while, but I remember Walter Jon Williams' Voice of the Whirlwind being not bad.

And I could personally never really get into him, but I'm surprised no one has mentioned Neal Asher who ticks the right pulpy violence & science fiction boxes.
posted by juv3nal at 12:42 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like Asher, but I wouldn't call any of the stuff I've read of his (Cowl, some Polity books) detective fiction.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:02 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: China Miéville’s The City & the City is more properly speculative fiction set approximately in the present, but it’s also a murder mystery and garners ★★★★★ from me. It is not unamazing, grosstopically speaking.
posted by joeclark at 1:25 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: One more! "Chasm City" by Alastair Reynolds - excellent piece of work with a great twist.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:28 PM on February 8, 2010

3rding Larry Niven. Other than his Gil the ARM stuff he also wrote a couple short stories that are exactly what you want, pulp detective with sci-fi.
posted by Iax at 1:33 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Richard Paul Russo's gritty, violent, disturbed Destroying Angel is right up this alley. Serial killings in mid-21st century San Francisco. Cyberpunk/Hammett in a decent genre blend. If you like it there are two more in the series.
posted by mediareport at 1:43 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Robert Sawyer's Illegal Alien.
posted by angiep at 2:06 PM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: <rubs flippers together with glee> Thanks everyone for a re-filled reading list!

Effinger looks like my next reads (not just because he was suggested first; one of the things I really liked about the Kovacs series was it's "multiculturalism" - but yeah, Morgan is really uneven).

I love Niven, but haven't read any of the Known Universe or Hal Gil stories (although the Pham Nuwen stories are kinda noir-ish). Same with Zelazny, I've read lots of his stuff, but not Legion yet. I have read Simmon's Hyperion saga and really enjoyed it... and yes, in addition to the Travis McGee novels, I plan on reading some of the classic hardboiled stuff, thanks for the précis, Pickman's Next Top Model, a great answer to an unasked question.
posted by porpoise at 2:15 PM on February 8, 2010

Charlie Houston's Joe Pitt series? Not quite futuristic, but still good alternate reality detective fiction with plenty of pulp and noir.
posted by dchrssyr at 4:09 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Futureland by Walter Mosley, who knows a thing or two about noir. Comes complete with electronic-eyed private eye.
posted by ultrogonic at 5:39 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Against The Day is even more science fictiony than Gravity's Rainbow, and the Lou Bassnight plot thread is a straight-up detective story.

I haven't read it in a while, but William Burroughs's Cities of the Red Night starts out as a detective story, if I recall correctly.

Gene Wolfe has done at least one detective mystery (playing with genre is kind of his thing), but it's not one I've read and I can't think of the title. Not much help there.

Nthing The Yiddish Polcemen's Union.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 6:03 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: The Nightside series by Simon Green.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:48 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Nightside City by Lawrence Watt-Evans.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:13 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Queen of Angels by Greg Bear, which is sort of a hard science fiction police procedural/mystery. Ish.
posted by biscotti at 8:02 PM on February 8, 2010

Yeah, I'll 2nd Mosely's Futureland for some great stories in a gritty dystopian future, even if it didn't hang together as a whole for me. His non-scifi Easy Rawlins series, though, is a very good hardboiled series set in post-WWII L.A.'s black community. I liked most of the Joe Pitt/Charlie Huston stuff dchrssyr mentioned - smart, tough, violent vampire in modern-day New York. And if you go for the original writers try Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, which pretty much started things off and may be "one of the most influential American novels of the 20th century." It was a huge kick in the face to American lit.
posted by mediareport at 8:29 PM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Wow, some great suggestions here. Most of what I was going to suggest got covered already (and I'm adding loads of others to my amazon wishlist!). But I see no-one yet has suggested Peter F. Hamilton's Greg Mandel trilogy, so thought I'd chime in with that.
posted by jzed at 1:38 AM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing Effinger. Superb stuff.
posted by Artw at 11:48 AM on February 9, 2010

Yiddish Policemen’s Union was a total bore.
posted by joeclark at 12:26 PM on February 9, 2010

Response by poster: For anyone interested, The 13 crimes of science fiction (1979) is freely available on the Internet Archive. Yay!
posted by porpoise at 8:09 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Adam-Troy Castro's novels about Andrea Cort are very hardboiled sci-fi actioners. Emissaries from the Dead and The Third Claw of God are Raymond Chandler meets Arthur C. Clarke. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
posted by shimmerbug at 9:08 PM on February 9, 2010

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