Writing Sci-Fi Detective Stories

2015 Artwork Sci-fi Detective stories article sketch

A few weeks ago, I was watching an “Andromeda” DVD, when I suddenly noticed that the episode that I was watching contained one of my favourite types of sci-fi storyline.

I am, of course, talking about sci-fi detective stories. If anyone is curious, the episode in question was called “All Great Neptune’s Ocean” and it is the tenth episode of season one.

Although these kinds of storylines sometimes turn up in TV shows (eg: “The X-Files”, “Fringe” etc..) and in movies, I haven’t personally seen that many examples of them in prose fiction. But, the ones that I have seen have been absolutely brilliant.

One of the best examples of sci-fi detective stories that I’ve read can probably be seen in Eric Brown’s “Bengal Station” trilogy (“Necropath”, “Cosmopath” and “Xenopath”) – these are a trilogy of intelligently hardboiled novels about a private detective called Vaughn who, thanks to futuristic technology, has the ability to read minds. He works aboard a really interesting space station called “Bengal Station”, as well as on various terraformed planets.

My description probably doesn’t do this excellent trilogy justice, but it’s certainly worth checking out if you want a good example of sci-fi detective fiction. Plus, of course, each novel in the trilogy is also pretty much self-contained too, so you don’t even have to read them in order (in fact, I read “Xenopath” first, then “Cosmopath” and then “Necropath”).

But, how do you write these kinds of stories?

After all, if you’re telling a story set in the distant future- shouldn’t all crimes be easily solvable using technology? I mean, what use would there be for detectives in a future where everything is recorded, where forensic evidence can be analysed instantly by computers and where everything is traceable?

I mean, surely human detectives would be obsolete in the future?

Not so.

After all, as technology gets smarter, so will criminals. When fingerprinting was discovered in the 19th century, this didn’t mean that all murder and robbery cases were solved correctly within a matter of days. No, criminals just started wearing gloves – forcing investigators to either use smarter methods of detection or to do things the old-fashioned way.

So, whatever futuristic technology you include in your sci-fi detective story shouldn’t be 100% foolproof. And, even if it is, there should still be a slightly unusual way for criminals to bypass it (eg: if you have a foolproof retina-recognition system at the entrance of every bank, then your criminal might have to work out a sneaky way to get someone else to rob the bank on his behalf, before wiping the robber’s memory). Not only is this realistic, but it also means that your story will still need a detective character too.

Plus, even if your detective can get hold of all of the evidence quickly, they still need to find a way to make sense of it and connect it to their suspects.

What this means is that the emphasis of a good sci-fi detective story is often on the detective studying the evidence, rather than the detective finding the evidence.

And, if you think that this will make your detective story “boring”, then you’re wrong. In fact, many popular modern American detective shows on TV rely on these kinds of storylines and they still enjoy a fairly large audience. And, yes, most of them are basically sci-fi detective shows, even if they’re set in the present day.

In American detective shows like “NCIS” and “CSI” – all of the crimes are solved using what are almost certainly faster and more efficient versions of modern forensic technology. They’re solved by finding evidence using technology which is based on modern forensic technology, but improved to the point where a crime can easily be solved within a relatively short amount of time.

To give you an example of the sci-fi technology that can be found in these “modern” shows, I once remember seeing an episode of “CSI” where the main characters were able to solve a crime by seeing an image of the criminal reflected in someone else’s eyes on a piece of CCTV footage.

In order to be able to do this in real life, you would have to have an incredibly high-resolution CCTV camera – which would mean that you would need one hell of a large hard disk to store all of the high-resolution footage from it. Seriously, in order to store even a day’s worth of footage from one camera at this level of detail, you would probably need several petabytes of hard-disk space.

So, if you need examples of how to tell a compelling sci-fi detective story where all of the evidence is already available to the main characters at the start of the story, then be sure to check out some of these forensics-based American detective shows.

———

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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7 comments on “Writing Sci-Fi Detective Stories

  1. theryanlanz says:

    HI there. This is a great article. Do you mind if I feature it on my blog (6,100 followers)? I have on guest post-ers 1-2 times a week. I would, of course, give you credit by name and provide a link for my followers to check out your blog. Before even considering, I wanted to ask you first.

    -Ryan
    http://www.ryanlanz.com

  2. theryanlanz says:

    The guest post is scheduled for the morning of June 24th! I look forward to my followers checking out your stuff. If I spot another post of yours that I think might make for another guest post opportunity, can I do the same process for it too (of course with credit/bio/link back to your blog)?

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