We like mystery because life is mysterious, and story-telling exists to help us figure out how to live. Mysteries help us figure out how to deal with the unending avalanche of unknowns in our own lives (probably not directly, unless you deal with dead bodies a lot).
Some people say that mysteries are popular because people like puzzles. Well, I like a certain kind of mystery, but I’ve never been a puzzle person.
I like Raymond Chandler mysteries, the hard-boiled detective who fights to stay alive while prowling dark alleys and darker minds. Often, I don’t care that much about the final reveal of who the real criminal is. It’s the journey, the tortuous path that I like.
In science fiction especially, the who-dunnit can easily become a what-dunnit.
For one fateful weekend, the annual science fiction and fantasy convention, Rubicon, has all but taken over a usually ordinary hotel. Now the halls are alive with Trekkies, tech nerds, and fantasy gamers in their Viking finery, all of them eager to hail their hero, bestselling fantasy author Appin Dungannon: a diminutive despot whose towering ego more than compensates for his 5′ 1″ height . . . and whose gleeful disdain for his fawning fans is legendary.
Hurling insults and furniture with equal abandon, the terrible, tiny author proceeds to alienate ersatz aliens and make-believe warriors at warp speed. But somewhere between the costume contest and the exhibition Dungeons & Dragons game, Dungannon gets done in. While die-hard fans of Dungannon’s seemingly endless sword-and-sorcery series wonder how they’ll go on, and hucksters wonder how much they can get for the dead man’s autograph, a hapless cop wonders, “Who would want to kill Appin Dungannon?” But the real question, as the harried convention organizers know, is “Who wouldn’t?”
Growing up on post-boom Lagarto, Juno is but one of the many who live in despair. Once he was a young cop in the police department of the capital city of Koba. That was before he started taking bribes from Koba’s powerful organized crime syndicate. Yet despite his past sins, some small part of him has not given up hope. So he risks his life, his marriage and his job to expose a cabal that would enslave the planet for its own profit.
But he’s got more pressing problems, when he’s confronted with a dead man, a short-list of leads, and the obligatory question: who done it?
“A corrupt policeman, an overgrown jungle city that gets only five hours of sun between 17-hour nights, and battling crime gangs set the extremely noir scene for Hammond’s solidly constructed, fast-paced SF debut… Hammond’s writing is workmanlike with occasional terse highlights, offering rewards to fans of both crime novels and science fiction.”
Red Planet Blues takes place in a small Martian frontier town some time after ancient Martian fossils were discovered, triggering a Fossil Rush and an influx of unsavory characters. The town’s only private eye takes a break from dealing with corrupt cops and desperate prospectors to uncover clues about a decades-old murder and information as to where the legendary fossil motherlode might be.
“Red Planet Blues resurrects the noir mystery, the gold-rush western, and the science-fiction adventure and the result is a unique, fun story that keeps you guessing, keeps the pages turning, and manages to put a smile on your face every few pages, in spite of the pulse-pumping action and adventure.”
—Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show
Humanity has colonized the solar system—Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of our reach.
Jim Holden is an officer on an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations—and the odds are definitely against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.
(James S.A. Corey is the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
With Pattern Recognition, Gibson pulls off writing a science fiction novel that takes places in the present. So what makes it science fiction? Gibson’s unique take on our cultural and technological flotsam, and how that might affect our future. Is that enough to really count as science fiction? The consensus seems to be yes, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Pattern Recognition protagonist Cayce Pollard is among a cult-like group of Internet obsessives that strives to find meaning and patterns within a mysterious collection of video moments, merely called “the footage,” let loose onto the Internet by an unknown source. Her hobby and work collide when a megalomaniac client hires her to track down whoever is behind the footage. Cayce’s quest will take her in and out of harm’s way in a high-stakes game that ultimately coincides with her desire to reconcile her father’s disappearance during the September 11 attacks in New York.
“Gibson’s brisk, kinetic style and incisive observations should keep the reader entertained even when Cayce’s quest begins to lose urgency. Gibson’s best book since Mona Lisa Overdrive should satisfy his hardcore fans while winning plenty of new ones.”
In a universe where humans and aliens have formed a loose government, treaties guarantee that humans are subject to alien laws when on alien soil. But alien laws often make no sense, and the punishments vary from execution to loss of a first-born child. Now three cases have collided: a stolen space-yacht filled with dead bodies, two kidnapped human children, and a human woman on the run, trying to disappear to avoid alien prosecution. Private detective Flint must solve the crimes and then enforce the law—but how can he sacrifice innocents to a nonsensical system?
The Anubis Gates is a steampunk classic that feels more fantasy than sci-fi, but it has time travel and won the Philip K. Dick award in 1984, so that’s good enough for me.
The book features a sorcerer, a millionaire, a body-switching werewolf, a hideously deformed clown, a young woman disguised as a boy, a brainwashed Lord Byron, a mystery from ancient Egypt, and finally, the protagonist Professor Brendan Doyle, who wanted none of this nonsense.
“In five years the penis will become obsolete.”
That’s the opening line.
Fleeing Earth after an alien invasion, the human race stands on the threshold of evolution. Their new home is Luna, a moon colony blessed with creature comforts, prolonged lifespans, digital memories, and instant sex changes.
But the people of Luna are bored, restless, suicidal—and so is the computer that monitors their existence…
“Varley’s tight, clean writing, full of wit and good humor, evokes despair, joy, anger and delight. His Luna is packed with wild inventions, intriguing characters and stunning scenery.”
“How can you drink tea from an empty cup?”
That ancient Zen riddle holds the key to a baffling mystery: a young man found with his throat slashed while locked alone in a virtual reality parlor.
“[Pat] Cadigan… tells a gritty and downbeat tale of multiple murders, exchanged identities and cybernetic sadomasochism. Konstantin, the embittered cop, and Yuki, the rootless nisei, are effective protagonists, but, as is often the case in Cadigan’s work, the author’s pyrotechnic style and intensely detailed descriptions of cyberspace are the major attractions. This well-done example of cyberpunk noir detective fiction should especially appeal to fans of William Gibson.”
A strong follow-up to impressive debut Revelation Space, Chasm City is about a city overrun by a virus that attacks both man and machine, while an agent pursues a lowlife postmortal and uncovers a centuries-old atrocity that history would rather forget…
“Reynolds transmutes space opera into a noirish, baroque, picaresque mystery tale… Think of a combination of the movie Blade Runner and one of Jack Vance’s ironic SF adventure novels.”
The Demolished Man won the very first Hugo back in 1953.
In the year 2301, guns are only museum pieces, and benign telepaths sweep the minds of the populace to detect crimes before they happen. In 2301 murder is virtually impossible, but one man is about to change that…Ben Reich, a psychopathic business magnate, has devised the ultimate scheme to eliminate the competition and destroy the order of society.
“Bester’s two superb books have stood the test of time. For nearly fifty years they’ve held their place on everybody’s list of the ten greatest sf novels.”
-Robert Silverberg (multiple Hugo winner)
The Automatic Detective is a fast-paced mishmash of SF and hard-boiled detective story.
Even in Empire City, a town where weird science is the hope for tomorrow, it’s hard for a robot to make his way. It’s even harder for a robot named Mack Megaton, a hulking machine designed to bring mankind to its knees. But Mack’s not interested in world domination. He’s just a bot trying to get by, trying to demonstrate that he isn’t just an automated smashing machine, and to earn his citizenship in the process. It should be as easy as crushing a tank for Mack, but some bots just can’t catch a break.
When Mack’s neighbors are kidnapped, Mack sets off on a journey through the dark alleys and gleaming skyscrapers of Empire City. Along the way, he runs afoul of a talking gorilla, a brainy dame, a mutant lowlife, a little green mob boss, and the secret conspiracy at the heart of Empire’s founders—not to mention more trouble than he bargained for. What started out as one missing family becomes a battle for the future of Empire and every citizen that calls her home.
“Eccentric characters, all of whom are clever twists on stereotypes, populate a smart, rocket-fast read with a clever, twisty plot that comes to a satisfying conclusion.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Everything Douglas Adams wrote after Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a little disappointing, since nothing was quite as funny as that first book, which had the advantage of being fine-tuned as a radio play for years before it became a novel. However, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has done an excellent job in standing the test of time.
There is a long tradition of Great Detectives, and Dirk Gently does not belong to it. But his search for a missing cat uncovers a ghost, a time traveler, AND the devastating secret of humankind! Detective Gently’s bill for saving the human race from extinction: NO CHARGE.
A century from now, thanks to a technology allowing instantaneous travel across light-years, humanity has solved its energy shortages, cleaned up the environment, and created far-flung colony worlds. The keys to this empire belong to the powerful North family—composed of successive generations of clones. Yet these clones are not identical. For one thing, genetic errors have crept in with each generation. For another, the original three clone “brothers” have gone their separate ways, and the branches of the family are now friendly rivals more than allies.
Or maybe not so friendly. At least that’s what the murder of a North clone in the English city of Newcastle suggests to Detective Sidney Hurst. Sid is a solid investigator who’d like nothing better than to hand off this hot potato of a case. The way he figures it, whether he solves the crime or not, he’ll make enough enemies to ruin his career.
This tome comes in at around 1,000 pages.
“A mesmerizing page-turner.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A new kind of killer roams the streets of the Arab ghetto, a madman whose bootlegged personality cartridges range from a sinister James Bond to a sadistic disemboweler named Khan. Young Marid Audrian isn’t the killer, but is almost murdered when someone thinks he is.
As a reward for living, the 200-year-old “godfather” of the Budayeen’s underworld decides Marid must become the investigator of this serial killer and track him. Marid doesn’t get much choice in the matter of his new job, or in the fact that he must undergo the most sophisticated of surgical implants before he dares to confront a killer who carries the power of every psychopath since the beginning of time.
“Wry, inventive, nearly hallucinatory… a well-written, baroque riff on the time-honored themes of Raymond Chandler.”
When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. To investigate, Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to its equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the vibrant city of Ul Qoma. But this is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a seeing of the unseen. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them more than their lives. What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.
“Miéville offers an outstanding take on police procedurals…[and] skillfully examines the illusions people embrace to preserve their preferred social realities.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
As Alex Benedict investigates a mysterious project his uncle had been working on at the time of his death, he’s drawn deep into the history of a war between human civilization and a neighboring alien civilization. He uncovers secrets that challenge the foundation of the current human government.
A Talent for War is a good example of science fiction mystery. In fact, it’s probably best described as a mystery in a far-future setting. If you’re looking for a wild, spaceship-exploding adventure, this isn’t it. However, if you’re intrigued by what mysteries may appear in ten thousand years and enjoy getting into characters’ heads, give this book a try.
Some critics claim this is not McDevitt’s best novel. It is, however, arguably his most famous, and sets the stage for several well-regarded sequels.
More alternate history than straight SF, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union takes place in Sitka, Alaska, where a “temporary” Jewish settlement was established in 1941, and became more important after the collapse of Israel in 1948.
The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end.
Homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. And in the cheap hotel where Landsman has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under his nose. When he begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, and Landsman finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, evil, and salvation that are his heritage.
“…peerless storytelling and style.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He’s been shuttling between the 21st century and the 1940s searching for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop’s bird stump. It’s part of a project to restore the famed Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years earlier.
But then Verity Kindle, a fellow time traveler, inadvertently brings back something from the past. Now Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right—not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.
“Willis’ delectable romp through time from 2057 back to Victorian England, with a few side excursions into World War II and medieval Britain, will have readers happily glued to the pages.”
Gun, with Occasional Music follows the adventures of Conrad Metcalf, a tough guy private detective and wiseass, through a futuristic version of San Francisco and Oakland, California. Metcalf is hired by a man who claims that he’s being framed for the murder of a prominent urologist. Metcalf quickly discovers that nobody wants the case solved: not the victim’s ex-wife, not the police, and certainly not the gun-toting kangaroo who works for the local mafia boss.
Chances are you now really want to read this, or absolutely want nothing to do with it.
(It’s sitting on my nightstand right now.)
Jeremy Stone, a Nobel-Prize-winning bacteriologist, urges the president to approve an extraterrestrial decontamination facility to sterilize returning astronauts, satellites, and spacecraft that might carry an “unknown biologic agent.” The government agrees, almost too quickly, to build the top-secret Wildfire Lab in the desert of Nevada. Shortly thereafter, unbeknownst to Stone, the U.S. Army initiates the “Scoop” satellite program, an attempt to actively collect space pathogens for use in biological warfare. When Scoop VII crashes a couple years later in the isolated Arizona town of Piedmont, the Army ends up getting more than it asked for.
“Hideously plausible suspense… [that] will glue you to your chair.”
-Detroit Free Press
Not since Isaac Asimov has anyone combined SF and mystery so well. A very rich man dies unexpectedly, and when his backup copy is animated, he hires Takeshi Kovacs to find out why.
Morgan creates a gritty, noir tale that will please Raymond Chandler fans, an impressive accomplishment in any genre.
The Caves of Steel took detective science fiction from pulp status to a real, workable novel. Asmiov maintained that science fiction is a flavor that can be applied to any literary genre, rather than a limited genre itself, and wrote this book in response to the assertion by editor John W. Campbell that mystery and science fiction were incompatible genres. Campbell thought it’d be too easy for authors to invent futuristic facts that the reader couldn’t know about, but would use them solve the crime. Fortunately, Asimov knew better.
Like most people left behind on an over-populated Earth, New York City police detective Elijah Baley had little love for either the arrogant Spacers or their robotic companions. But when a prominent Spacer is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Baley is ordered to the Outer Worlds to help track down the killer. The relationship between Life and his Spacer superiors, who distrusted all Earthmen, was strained from the start. Then he learned that they had assigned him a partner: R. Daneel Olivaw. Worst of all was that the “R” stood for robot—and his positronic partner was made in the image and likeness of the murder victim!
8 thoughts on “23 Best Science Fiction Mystery Books”
Nice list. SF mysteries aka Mysteries in Space are a favorite of mine. And I’m happy to see you’ve listed some of my All Time Favorites, AUTOMATIC DETECTIVE, GREAT NORTH ROAD and Isaac Asimov, though I would have chosen THE ROBOTS OF DAWN.
Oh and I adore McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series.
All three books featuring Elijah Baley are mystery, including The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn. Cheers! I love this blog! 🙂
You will also like “Flammable Felony” by Sophia sapphire. OMG it’s a page turner!
If you want vintage detective sci fi stuff check out ericfrank Russell’s early novels, the perfect combination of alien invasion and hard boiled detective plot
Rendezvous With Rama certainly belongs on this list. I read it many years ago and its enduring sense of mystery blazed a path that propelled me breathlessly through the novel…..and its sequels.
You’re absolutely right!
Found a great book on Barnes & Nobel – “Newhouse Rising” by C.L. Hunter. It takes place in the future, but it could be about today. Really great characters; exciting storyline. It should be on someone’s list.