Down Those Mean Skies...
The Case of the Private Detective in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Related Genres

by Kevin Burton Smith

(This is freely adapted from an article I did in the December 1990 issue of WARP. I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now. )

Let's get one thing straight--nobody's ever accused me of being a big sci-fi or fantasy or speculative fiction or whatever-the-hell-you-call-it kinda guy. Hell, it's just too much fun laughing at Trekkies to give it all up.

But I'm not denying that the two genres, that of science fiction and detective fiction sometimes do overlap, and in this issue, we'll be looking at some of those bi-genre hybrids.

A few years ago, at the urging of several of my sci-fi pals, I did tune in to watch an episode of TV's Quantum Leap, because it was a rerun of an episode several of my sci-fi pals insisted I would enjoy. That night's episode promised our intrepid time travelers reincarnation as a hard-boiled 1953 private eye charged with his partner's murder. Now that, my friends, is something that did interest me. Yeah, I know the show wasn't a mystery program, much less a detective show, but I figured a little science fiction never hurt anyone.

Well, I figured wrong.

Now, my friends had always been after me, telling me about all these great sci-fi detectives I should check out. They suggested Blade Runner, Larry Niven's Gil Hamilton, Isaac Asimov's Elijah Baley and R.D. Olivaw series, and a host of others. But the show was pure agony. Sort of like brushing your teeth with a brick. A bunch of shopworn cliches sprinkled over a generic plot that gave new meaning to the word "hackneyed." The show wasn't written so much as photocopied.

It left such an unpleasant taste in my mouth that I just felt I had to give the whole concept of a science fiction/private eye fiction crossover another shot. That initial study lead to an article in a local Montreal fanzine, WARP, the "Official Newsletter of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association."

Of course, first of all, I'm talking private eyes here. Not cops, not soldiers, not even mercenaries, all of which appear with alarming frequency in sci-fi. Probably something to do with a sort of kneejerk conservative faith in authority and technology and organization, whereas the private eye tends to be a bit more of a loner and even a rebel, of sorts, whatever his political values are. After all, he's doing a job the police can't or won't or maybe even shouldn't do. The private eye serves no master, save for his client and his own code of ethics.

Despite that, science fiction and detective fiction do have a lot in common. They share similar, parallel histories, both tracing their roots back to the last part of the nineteenth century (Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle). Both were reborn in the early part of the twentieth century, and gained large followings due to the pulp magazines of the day, including, it should be noted, the short-lived, but prophetic Scientific Detective Monthly of 1930. Gradually the best of the pulp writers (and yes, some of the worst) graduated to novels. later exposure through film and television greatly expanded the genres' audiences. So greatly, in fact, that, to the general public, science fiction conjures up images of Star Trek, Star Wars, old Humphrey Bogart flicks, or even, God forbid, Magnum P.I. Just take a gander down the aisles of any decently-sized bookstore, and check out the size of the science fiction and mystery sections. The only other genre fiction section that comes close is Romance. Western, war, men's adventures and everything else falls far behind.

And, of course, several writers have worked in both genres. Sci-fi writers who came over t crime include Leigh Brackett, queen of the space operas, whose first novel was actually the private eye classic No Good From a Corpse, recently excerpted on this site. She went on to write the screenplays for The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, two classic P.I. films based on novels by Raymond Chandler. Manly Wade Wellman wrote a straight P.I. novel, Find My Killer (1949). So has Keith Laumer with Dreadful, in 1971. And writers such as the afore-mentioned Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Poul Anderson, George Alec Effinger, Larry Niven, Avram Davidson, and Philip K. Dick were no strangers to mystery either.

Anthony Boucher, renowned sci-fi author and co-founding editor of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, was also editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and the revered mystery critic for The New York Times Book Review. in fact, the most important annual convention for crime and detective fiction buffs is called Bouchercon, in his honour. He also wrote perhaps one of the first amalgams of the mystery and sci-fi fields with his classic 1942 Rocket to the Morgue, some editions which conclude with a note from Boucher urging mystery fans to give science fiction a shot.

And it's been a two-way street. Crime writers have also dabbled in sci-fi and fantasy. They include Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald, Michael Collins, Erle Stanley Gardner, Lynn S. Hightower, Mike Avallone and Lawrence Block. Even Chandler himself reportedly wrote a fantasy short story.

And then there are those genre-straddling writers who belong to neither camp, including Fredric Brown, Ray Bradbury, Max Brand, Murray Leinster, Ray Cummings, Ron Goulart and William F. Nolan.

However, my concern this month is not so much which writers work both sides of the street, but those who've plunked themselves smack dab in the middle of the street, ignoring traffic, and created something unique, a whole new sub-sub-genre, the sci-fi/P.I. crossover.

I was surprised, in researching the original article, to discover how many people have attempted it. And how some of them have even been worth the paper they've been printed on. Not all of them, mind you. There are also some real turkies, and some real heartbreaks along the road.

But there are also some that do honour to both genres, as evidenced by Down Those Mean Skies, our ever-expanding list of Sci-Fi Eyes.


Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Keith for starting this mess.

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