Science Fiction Mysteries (a.k.a. Genre is a Construct)

It’s been said that “all stories are mystery stories” — a charming idea, for reasons I’ll discuss today, but also too prescriptive, so let’s modify it from the outset: “all stories can be mystery stories”.

There’s a lot to love about looking at literature this way, both as a reader and as a writer. Stories by and large pose questions, present problems, and raise possibilities. To think about literature-as-mystery is to treat all of these aspects in an exploratory manner: The question is posed to invite investigation. The problem is presented to inspire a hunt for solutions. The possibility is raised, that it might invite new ways of understanding the parameters of the case.

Not all stories actually do this, though. Many are stories of “affirmation”, which begin with an emphatic sense of what the world is, and do not invite any interrogation of those foundational premises. They’re often descriptive stories, stories establishing a set way of thinking and being in the universe — and we have quite a few of them in SF&F today. The reader is still welcome to see these sorts of stories as “mysteries”, inasmuch as there remains a sense of exploratory wonder in where any new story will take them — but for our purposes today, a “true” mystery needs to encourage the reader to hold a multitude of possibilities in balance.

In 1953, the first Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, a novel serialized in Galaxy Magazine the previous year. The Demolished Man is a science-fiction mystery that imagines a future in which murder is supposed to be impossible… and yet a murder is committed. We know the culprit from the outset, but what we don’t know is how Lincoln Powell, telepathic police officer, is going to figure out whodunnit and how — or if Ben Reich, the murderer, is going to get away with having beat the impossible system.

Right away, then, you can see how science-fiction serves as a perfect playing field for overt mystery stories, because in the realm of speculative fiction you can establish the most incredible locked-room, impossible-crime scenarios… and then invite the reader to solve for them anyway.

But looking a little deeper, we can also see how both science-fiction and mystery are here being used to explore a much more widespread literary concept: transgression from established norms. Bester’s story has strong Raymond-Chandler-esque tendencies, as befits the abiding popularity of noir in the era: an era haunted by war (if the names “Lincoln” and “Reich” weren’t clues enough to that end) and worse, in Bester’s time, by the idea of neverending war. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War possibilities for our technology were immense, unfathomable, and unavoidable. Against that backdrop, Bester’s serialized novel explored tensions between individual autonomy and all-consuming state apparatuses, by having us follow two individuals — one working with the state apparatus, and one working for personal gain — to figure out how Reich’s transgression will be resolved within the norms of his society.

We’re so used to the “whodunnit” these days, of course, that it’s easy to forget how many other modes of mystery writing exist. The Gothic novel was inevitably a mystery of place and familial transgression: secrets lurking in ancient homes, harboured by nobles in great moral decline. Then came the Newgate and “sensation” novels, a British criminal-lit craze predicated on reading trial transcripts, and then novelizations based on such crime reports, in the early-to-mid 19th century. When more familiar mystery stories like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) entered the scene, they also did so in keeping with the beliefs of the time — meaning, paranormal and otherwise “spooky” speculative components were often integrated into backdrop of the intrigue. The reader was primed from the outset to expect the unexpected, because the world — the real “mystery” to be resolved — would always prove a more extraordinary place than we might imagine.

Police procedurals and similar novels of formal detection are a style of mystery story in which resolution of the case is expected as a key component of the storyline — but in most every context, science-fictional and otherwise, this is never all that’s being revealed. A classic noir reveals the seedy underbelly of society, or otherwise opens us to the terrible capacities and weaknesses of human nature — many of which the detective learns how to name, by the end of the story, but then has to learn how to live with thereafter, which can be much harder.

In the realm of science fiction, this “other” component varies widely. In James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse, Detective Miller’s search for one woman in a solar system of billions will culminate in the affirmation of a secret that imperils the entire solar system. In China Miéville’s The City & the City, which is plainly informed by the Western-detective novel’s treatment of non-white communities as alternate/concurrent realities, a science-fictional setting allows the author to bypass the usual problems with this trope, and focus more directly on linguistic and geopolitical ideas raised by the presence of borders in any society. And in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels, tbe very idea underpinning many mysteries — that a coherent understanding of the universe is possible, if one follows the clues — is playfully tossed out the door via haphazard supernatural adventures where randomness is both the problem and the resolution.

But my favourite science-fiction mystery is Jack Vance’s “The Moon Moth”, a 1961 Galaxy novelette that absolutely imprinted on me, as a child devouring science fiction and mystery stories, to what extent mystery stories are always solving for more than “X”. In “The Moon Moth”, our protagonist is a Terran consul to a far-flung world of people who wear masks and communicate via music in accordance with strict rules of etiquette and conscientiousness with respect to social standing.

And he is terrible at both.

(Also, if you want a story that captures key elements of internet culture well, this one definitely has a lot of relevant commentary with respect to how human beings rise and fall based on how well they can leverage collective confidence in their status and their work!)

However, when a mystery lands at Thissell’s feet, in the form of an escaped assassin hiding behind the mask of one of the other three expats on the planet, Thissell… well, continues to screw up, a lot, in this unfamiliar culture. But he succeeds in the end! The assassin is outed! And yet, the most important part of the story is that, in outing the assassin, Thissell has finally learned how to move with greater ease and confidence in this different culture, and rises in status accordingly.

Vance’s story is of course by no means unique in this regard. It draws from a long tradition of murder mysteries, in science fiction as in general literature, in which the real narrative quest is not “whodunnit” so much as understanding society better. Funnily enough, even, the novel I started pitching for traditional publication last month, The Parasite’s Lament, is a science-fiction mystery based on one of the greatest mystery novels of mainstream literature: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

Should it come as any surprise, though, that the first “best novel” in science fiction’s Hugo Awards, and a book considered by many to be among the greatest novels ever written, are both mysteries? Only if you buy into the commercialized genre-labelling of stories — which, alack, many do. Writ large, though, mystery is not just a subgenre. Mystery is, rather, the beating heart of most all the stories that we tell.

And so, in The Brothers Karamazov, we have a patriarch who is murdered and one of his four sons — each representing a different aspect of human life — who is the culprit. Likewise, in my science-fictional version, a planet is the patriarch, and one of its “children” — four local citizens whose lives have been shaped differently by it — is responsible for its demise. But also in both, the “whodunnit” is not nearly as important as questions of broader culpability, transgression, and possibilities for restoration within each text’s society. What matters most is understanding more about how human behaviours arise from their environments, and in turn shape who we become.

Third Planet Fall Down, the first of four novellas in the Menagerie Mysteries series that I’m launching as of December 14, also draws upon the mystery tradition so satisfyingly present in Vance’s novelette. In it, Pax Murillo is an AI rendering of a 2040s big-screen private-eye (and international man-of-mystery), slowing becoming self-aware within the confines of an alien theme park. As he gains self-awareness, he comes to realize that humanity was destroyed by the aliens that brought him to life — and so, his struggles to understand himself, this new civilization, and his place within it, weigh heavily upon a story that also, of course, has a mystery component in it.

Will my universe intrigue anywhere near as much as these precursor texts? I haven’t the foggiest. But I’m struck, in looking back on the lineage preceding my own contribution to the subgenre, by how consistently these sorts of stories have focussed on exploring possibilities. Each of the aforementioned classics invites readers to interrogate preconceptions of societal mores, the nature of trespass, and the path to both personal and community-wide resolution after transgression.

There is another way of writing fiction — a narrative style that treats certain premises as obvious and inviolate truths, usually for the purpose of affirming that specific ways of being exist and should be centred in society — but as both reader and writer I’m drawn to the mysteries, myself. The explorations. The chewy in-betweens. The open invitation to a host of dissenting possibilities. And most of all? The lingering doubts, well after any formal resolution in the story’s central plot.

What luck, then, that there are so many different forms of literary mystery in the world.

There’s certainly enough mystery in the world to go around.


Third Planet Falls Down releases on December 14, 2020, but is already available for pre-order on kindle (35% author take, better reach) and Gumroad (100% author take, lower reach).

You can read the first three chapters here!

M L Clark explores the world of science-fiction mysteries, and the narrative aims that mystery, in general, can serve.

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