Terri is offering both a hard copy and an e-book version of Dark Side of the Moon to two of our readers who post a comment to the blog this week. -- AP
When Genres Collide: Writing the Science-Fiction Mystery
Mystery novels throughout the years have been set in different time periods ranging from Twelfth Century monasteries to Victorian England to World War II. This is common practice and few people think much about a gumshoe amateur or professional solving a crime at some point in the past whether 1930’s Chicago or Ancient Egypt. However, when you set a mystery in the future, the game changes.
No one ponders over the genre of a Brother Cadfael mystery, for instance. They don’t wonder if it should be classified with historical fiction or maybe Catholic fiction. They recognize the mystery elements immediately, and Ellis Peters goes on the same shelf as Agatha Christie.
Such is not the case when the setting for the mystery set in the future. For instance, let’s take my novel Dark Side of the Moon (Muse It Up Publishing, 2011). Here are two blurbs for the story, both accurate, but one causes more questions than the other.
After the death of her mother, History Professor Carolyn Masters takes a job at a new university hoping to leave her past behind her. However, the murder of a colleague brings her face to face with her own demons as she tries to find his killer.
After the death of her mother, History Professor Carolyn Masters takes a job at a new university on the moon hoping to leave her past behind her. However, the murder of a colleague brings her face to face with her own demons as she tries to find his killer.
Just three words and now, a cozy mystery becomes – what? A science fiction story? In a world that likes to carefully put everything in simple well-defined boxes, what do you do when you start combining genres? I’m not sure I have all the answers, but here are a few observations.
Decide on a Dominant Genre
Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov set the standard, in my opinion, for the science fiction mystery. In his story, a murder occurs and Elijah Bailey, seasoned cop, must team up with Daneel Olivaw, an android to solve the case. Even though we have political intrigue about a division of humanity between the denizens of Earth who stay in their underground cities and those who generations ago left for the stars, the story remains one of a couple of cops trying to solve a mystery.
Now, by his third Elijah Bailey/Daneel Olivaw novel, Robots of Dawn, Asimov’s focus shifts and is much more on the science-fiction elements than on the mystery. In this case, it becomes a sci-fi story with a mystery as the trigger for the action. It is also an excellent novel which lays the groundwork for his Hugo Award Winning Foundation series, which is pure science fiction.
I chose with my novel to emphasize the mystery over the science fiction elements. What always makes my day is when someone says when reading the story they almost forget it is set on the moon until something happens to remind them. That was what I intended. So, first, decide whether it’s a mystery that happens to include sci-fi elements or a science fiction story that includes a mystery.
Research, Research, Research
You wouldn’t sit down and write a mystery that takes place in a Roman Villa at the time of Christ without studying everything you could find about the history of that time, it’s customs, architecture, food, wardrobe, etc. Yet, many think that writing stories about the future can be an act of pure imagination without doing any research.
Such is not the case. Science fiction readers, and even if you emphasize the mystery, you will get sci-fi fans as well, are tough on any type of scientific blunder you make. You can get away with more imaginative science placed further in the future, though. This is because science changes and what seemed settled today may be overturned by new discoveries tomorrow. I just read a story about scientists who this week accelerated some neutrino particles past the speed of light. If that holds up, it changes everything and overturns much of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and opens up the possibility of two science fiction standby’s time travel and FTL (Faster than Light) travel – at least at the subatomic level. But with near future (100 years or less) science fiction, be sure your future technology is firmly rooted in scientific principles as we know them.
Even with historical fiction, you have something relatively familiar to begin with: the college campus, the small town, the monastery, the urban neighborhood. You only partially create the world of your story. Most of it is based on models already known to you or based on your research of olden days.
However, when you are speculating about the future, you have no such firm foundation. That new world may even work on a different physical basis than the one you are familiar with. My novel is set on the moon, which means every so often having only 1/6 the gravity of Earth becomes an issue. One essential clue in the novel depends on that fact.
World building goes beyond all the things you do when creating a setting for your story. You have to consider social mores which may change over time, new art, new clothing, new architecture. However, don’t get carried away. In 200 years everything isn’t going to change. People still live in colonial mansions and a resident of Boston 2011 would be able to communicate easily with one from 1811, at least in terms of language. So you need to balance the familiar with the exotic to give your reader solid ground on which to stand when entering this new world.
I don’t know that I’ve mastered all of these. I suspect I will continue to struggle with them through several more novels. I do hope they have given you a bit of insight into the process of writing when genres collide.
Thanks for joining us today, Terri. Readers, if you’d like a chance to win either an e-copy or a physical copy of Dark Side of the Moon, post a comment. Mention which format you’d like, and don’t forget to check back on Sunday to see if you’re one of the lucky winners. -- AP