Genre Benders: SciFi Meets the Private Eye

Post by Molly Odintz

Our Pick of the Month for March, A Man Lies Dreaming, by Lavie Tidhar, seamlessly melds alternative history with the private detective novel, for a unique, chilling, and highly relevant take on the events of WWII. Tidhar is not the first, however, to combine these two genres, nor is A Man Lies Dreaming his first work to combine scifi, alternative history, and the PI novel.

Beyond my own personal enthusiasm for such works, science fiction and the detective novel have long shared an affinity. Each explores our greatest fears through our darkest imaginings; each, when good, is as likely to explode the genre as to adhere to its conventions; each, whether good or bad, has a fascinating tendency to represent left-wing or right-wing politics better than any centrist viewpoint.

Science fiction and detective fiction both exhibited the same spare, linguistic dexterity that catapulted modernist writers to fame, yet each spent decades condemned as pulp. Each has since been embraced as a serious topic of analysis, with a set of writing conventions and classic works, yet each seeks to widen its scope to the point at which the idea of overarching “genre” becomes somewhat meaningless, in the face of brilliant sub-genre and cross-genre works.

In celebration of the death of the canon, the rise of genre fiction, the waning of genre fiction, and its replacement with the post-modern categories of sub-genre and cross-genre fiction, I’ve collected a few of those works that refuse to pick a side, firmly in multiple genre camps. Below, you’ll find a few of my favorite mystery/scifi genre-benders.

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Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, A Man Lies Dreaming, is our March Pick of the Month. The narrative is split between Shomer, a pulp fiction novelist imprisoned in Auschwitz, and Wolf, an anti-Semitic German refugee working as a private detective in London. Wolf’s tale takes place in an alternative history universe, where the Communist Party wins the 1933 German elections, and fascism takes political hold in England, rather than in Continental Europe. Tidhar hints that the two stories are linked – Shomer may spend his nights dreaming the story of Wolf.

Tidhar previously wrote a different alternative history/PI novel, Osama, set in an alternative history universe in which Osama bin Laden is a fictional character in a series of lurid pulp thrillers about the exploits of al-Qaeda. A detective is hired to trace the origins of the character Osama and find the author of the bin Laden novels. His quest leads him to believe that his universe is occupied by the ghosts (alternatively, and eerily, called “refugees”) of those killed in terrorist attacks and mass bombings. Government agents, worried that the fictionalized violence in their universe could turn into the real violence of our universe, try to keep the detective from locating the source of the bin Laden novels. Copies can be found via bookpeople.com

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The Joe Pitt Novels by Charlie Huston

This is my nod to the urban fantasy subgenre. Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt novels are, to say the least, ambitious. Joe Pitt works as a PI. He’s also a vampire, who lives in a carefully divided and highly politicized underworld version of New York City, where the punnage is outmatched only by the carnage. As a vampire PI, his character solves one of my biggest plausibility problems with the detective genre. A reader may wonder how a human protagonist has gotten beat up so many times, yet appears unharmed. A vampire protagonist, on the other hand, no matter the beating, can drink blood and heal rapidly. Copies of the series can be found on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion is a hard book to classify. Seven pilgrims are on a spaceship, on their way to the distant planet of Hyperion to petition a creature known as the Shrike, which will either answer their pleas, or impale them. On the journey to Hyperion, each pilgrim tells their story, and shifting perspectives from each pilgrim on their society lead to a paradigm shift in the moral order of the novel too stunning to give away here. Each pilgrim’s narrative is told in a different genre, including noir, Lovecraftian horror, military fiction, biblical narrative, and space opera. Copies of each installment in the series can be found via bookpeople.com

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Last Policeman by Ben Winters

Like my previous picks, The Last Policeman also uses a noir narrative in a scifi setting for a edgy mixture of black comedy and the speculative fiction sublime. A policeman attempts to solve one last crime as an asteroid heads toward Earth and the rest of the world readies itself for the apocalypse. The cop’s friends, family and (former) coworkers have no clue why, as the world nears its end, he is still committed to doing his job. The Last Policeman is the start to a fantastic scifi trilogy from Ben Winters, whose next book, Underground Airplanes, is due out this fall. Copies of the series can be found on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.


This list is not comprehensive, and does not feature those authors whose style, rather than structure, has been influenced by noir and hard-boiled fiction; William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, and the cyberpunk genre would be prime examples of this phenomenon. I also have not included blurbs for anything I have not read yet. I’d like to make a special mention of two novels that combine mystery and scifi that I have yet to read, but already know will be fantastic: The Dead Mountaineer’s Innby Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, and The Girl in the Roadby Monica Byrne.

 

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