The Thin Line Between Crime Fiction and Science Fiction

By Marietta Miles

“Anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is science fiction.”

-Ray Bradbury

Most writers have more than one story waiting to be written. Some lucky devils have more than one genre bubbling under the hood.

There are a few published authors who have made that glorious leap from one category to another. My favorite example is Joe Lansdale. Whether he writes about a drive-in at the end of the world or the murder house behind your neighborhood, the man can shiver your spine and break your heart no matter the style. I would imagine it is every writers secret wish to pop from one genre to another, like Peter Pan back and forth between the real world and Neverland.

How difficult is the jump? We’re going to get a few answers from writers who create and an agent who promotes.

First, we’ll discuss the creative process.

I’d like you all to meet Nik Korpon and Tom Sweterlitsch.

Nik Korpon is author of THE REBELLION’S LAST TRAITOR (Angry Robot 2017), a brand new sci-fi-mystery due out June of this year. He is also the author of crime and mystery titles STAY GOD, SWEET ANGEL, among others. His stories have been featured in the pages and on the screens of Thuglit, Needle, Out of the Gutter, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey and many more. To learn more about THE REBELLION’S LAST TRAITOR, click on the cover below:

Tom Sweterlitsch is author of TOMORROW AND TOMORROW and THE GONE WORLD (2018), both from Putnam. To learn more about TOMORROW AND TOMORROW, click on the cover below:

Marietta: Tell us about your existing and upcoming releases.

Tom: The novel that’s currently available, TOMORROW AND TOMORROW, is a science fiction novel deeply indebted to Raymond Chandler and Hitchcock, with a knight-errant’s search for a vanished woman, but also shades into the violent domain of crime fiction and serial killer thrillers. In the novel, a virtual reality construct called the Archive perfectly recreates a city that no longer exists. The main character immerses himself into the Archive, revisiting his memories and grief, but also investigating insurance claims for deaths that had been inadvertently recorded in life and then preserved virtually. Wetware implants, virtual reality, information sickness, are all touches of science fiction.

My next novel, THE GONE WORLD (Feb 2018), has time travel, quantum physics, spaceships, distant planets and aliens, but the tone of the book is earthy and sorrowful, the plot focusing on a desperate search for a missing teenage girl in 1990s West Virginia. The main character, Shannon Moss, is an NCIS investigator, and the plot is a Mobius strip pitting the end of humanity against the loss of a single life. 

Nik: THE REBELLION’S LAST TRAITOR is about a former revolutionary-turned memory thief called Henraek. About ten years before the book starts, he and his best friend Walleus led the rebellion against the brutal authoritarian government party, but when it became clear that the rebellion wasn’t going to succeed, Walleus went turncoat, trying to talk Henraek into coming with him. Henraek flipped his shit and started a riot, which accidentally killed his wife and son. So the book starts with Henraek stealing memories for the Tathadann, and selling some on the side on the black market where they’re consumed like drugs. But after one mission, he finds a memory that suggests the story he’d heard about the riot isn’t quite true. The book follows him as he searches for the truth about his family. And obviously, a ton of shit goes massively wrong along the way.

Marietta: All three titles have a clear and intriguing crime at heart but the environment is futuristic, dystopian or post-apocalyptic. At times, the science fiction genre and the crime genre can seem like polar opposites. For instance, in science fiction, often, the main character needs to be likable in order to build familiarity with the reader. Particularly if the setting is “out of this world.” How do you combine that idea with writing a character who personifies the classic crime model of a disagreeable or unlikable character?

Nik: It sounds like a dipshit thing to say, but I really don’t think about that. The story needs what the story needs and that’s what I focus on. I tend to underwrite the early drafts, though, so as I’m editing and fixing plot things, I’m constantly building and refining the world, so maybe I’m doing it in a roundabout way. I’m also a huge fan of Justified and drew on the Boyd and Raylan dynamic when writing Henraek and Walleus, which probably helped with character development.

Writing unlikable characters is fun though. Actually, unlikable might be too heavy of a word. Henraek can be a giant pain in the ass because he doesn’t let things go and he can be kind of self-righteous, but he’s also dealt with a lot of loss in his life—loss of family, loss of purpose, loss of country—so you can see why he’s a prick sometimes. On the flip side, Walleus is more loquacious, the kind of guy who will use 40 words when 4 will do, to crib a line from Justified. But he’s also the more morally problematic of the two. Long story short, I try to write characters, then let the background fill itself in. 

Tom: Fiction is malleable. There’s a line that can be drawn from William Burroughs to J.G. Ballard through New Wave science fiction, through Cyberpunk, where crime fiction is appropriated, played with, turned on its head, and the characters are thieves, drug addicts, murderers, all sorts of scuzz, not likable at all. Circling back to your question, though, I would agree that we’re in a moment where a lot of science fiction currently on the bookshelves features characters that are plucky and wisecracking, but essentially very “likable.”  Generally, the question of whether or not characters need to be likable for a book to be successful has been in the air recently, but I don’t think this is so. We need our Ottos, Mesmers, Lamberts.

Marietta: If you had your way, where would your book be shelved?

Tom: Readers who’ve found my novel specifically because of its genre have invariably been science fiction readers, so I think science-fiction is the right place for it. TOMORROW and TOMORROW reads like a science fiction novel from page one.

Nik:  The biggest problem is that it [TRAITOR] doesn’t fit into any one genre. It’s tough selling it as a mystery novel because there’s a lot of sci-fi stuff. Conversely, it’s hard to sell it as a sci-fi novel because there aren’t a lot of speculative or off-the-wall elements. (And I’m not suggesting that SFF books are all weird shit, just that the ones I’ve read tend to be more imaginative and alternate-world than TRAITOR is.) A lot of it has been drawing on corollaries. Sure, Traitor has its own constructed language in some parts—which is derived from Irish—but it’s not really that much more foreign than, say, a Richard Price novel, which draws on the slang of the neighborhoods he writes about. I’m hoping that there are enough elements of each genre that it’ll appeal to that community of readers, but also maybe broaden people’s horizons a bit.

I think more people know my crime writing than sci-fi, largely because I don’t write much sci-fi, but I don’t know why that is. I watched a lot of each when I was a teenager, going between X-Files and Juice, STARS WARS and the GODFATHER films (first two only, though). I dabbled in weirder fiction—slipstream is what I think it’s called—but think I defaulted to crime after moving back to Baltimore, because I was living in the city and whatnot. It’s a strange thing because I’d love to write things that straddle the line between crime and sci-fi, but in gearing up to promote TRAITOR, I’m seeing how hard it is to have a book that doesn’t fit into a distinct category. Not that it’ll stop me from writing what I want to read, but it’s interesting to see. I’d love to see this book shelved in both sections but think it’ll probably go toward sci-fi.

Marietta: Nik brings up the long-standing challenge of categorizing a piece of fiction.

The concern of where to shelve a book relates to several different issues. The issue of too much inventory, too little shelf space and the need to have a book in one place. Another is the cost and labor involved in promoting and advertising in two different genres. With current POS and inventory technology and the ballooning of online shopping and social media as advertising these particular issues seem to be, slowly, shaking themselves loose.

Yet, there is the human side of the issue. Readers. Fan bases. Will they follow an author to a new genre? Will a particular fan base accept a new writer?

There have been several examples of Science Fiction and Mystery coexisting beautifully under one cover and seeing great success. What are a few of your favorite titles that bridge the genre gap and why? I think of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY.

Tom: Some of my favorites: HARDBOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD by Haruki Murakami; DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP by Philip K. Dick; EL BORBAH by Charles Burns; THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY by Michel Houellebecq

Nik: Funny you should ask! (I have two listicles—crime for sci-fi readers and sci-fi for crime readers—coming out soon.) The two that are most obvious I think are China Miéville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY, which is a detective story set in a city that borders a metaphysically distinct city in eastern Europe, and MADE TO KILL by Adam Christopher, which is ripped straight from ’50s hardboiled novels but instead stars Ray Electromagnetic, the robot detective. The other I’d recommend is ALTERED CARBON by Richard K. Morgan. It’s a crazy murder mystery but there are so many other heady aspects to it that I loved, particularly surrounding the nature of reality/religion/spirituality. That’s the kind of SF/crime book I’d want to write, one that is really engaging and entertaining but also explores much larger topics.

Now, a few words about what happens after your baby is complete.

Please meet Connor Goldsmith. Connor is an agent at Fuse Literary, the full-service, hybrid literary agency representing such authors as Julie Kagawa, Kerry Lonsdale, Kellye Garrett, and Mitchell Hogan (Ed. Note: Ahem!).

Marietta: Science Fiction is an ever-evolving field which is seeing an explosive amount of attention right now. How do you build credibility within the genre? What are the greatest challenges facing a genre-hopping author?

Connor: I think the hardest genre hop to make is to go from SF/F to something else, especially more literary fiction. That said, SF/F is definitely a tight-knit community that can feel hard to break into. I think the best way to build credibility is to begin with short stories. Some of the hottest up-and-coming SF/F authors are people who started out with stories in places like Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Crossed Genres, and other magazines. 

The most important thing you can do is not condescend to your audience. The SF/F community has faced a lot of dismissal from other readerships, and the fastest way to be rejected is to act as though your experience in more ‘legit’ literary fiction or a more mainstream genre like commercial thrillers makes you uniquely qualified to present something special. Don’t act as though your perspective as an outsider makes you a gift to SF/F; it’s patronizing toward exactly the people you want to win over.

Marietta: I know that conventions are often good places to promote to a large number of science fiction fans in person and also get a feel for trends in the genre. This, creators and fans mingling, is a path that is fairly specific to the science fiction, fantasy and horror fields. What other explicitly science fiction avenues do you suggest new authors explore in order to spread the word and learn a little more.

Connor: Cons are absolutely the fastest way to make connections, but they’re definitely not for everyone. If you’re not a con-going type, I think social media is beginning to provide a similar function. Twitter in particular has become a powerful networking resource for SF/F writers in particular, especially people writing in the YA age category. I’d recommend looking at a few of the larger blogs, like John Scalzi’s Whatever, but for the most part you have to put yourself out there. 

Many people have also found success with the support system provided by SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), but don’t feel as though you necessarily need to join a group in order to strike out on the path.

Marietta: Science fiction has been on a popularity upswing for some time, now. Classic comic and graphic novelizations crossing into space opera territory. YA’s fascination with the end times. DIVERGENT. HUNGER GAMES. Romance has seen many crossovers, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE being a fine example. The multi-generational appeal of Star Wars. As a tip to writers, what elements are key for a story to fall into the science fiction category? In your opinion, what are some of the best examples of science fiction/crime crossovers and why do you think they worked?

Connor: Science fiction is a perennial; it has always been popular. STAR WARS, as you note, has been a phenomenon since the 1970s. Adolescent fiction has been fascinated with the end times since before ‘YA’ was codified as the modern category we all understand — the recent film adaptation of THE GIVER, which recast that classic into a more contemporary YA sensibility (with mixed results), is evidence enough of that. What we’re seeing now in particular, primarily due to the influence of prestige television shows like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones, is a growing acceptance from the mainstream that sci-fi and fantasy can be ‘high art’. People aren’t turning up their noses as much anymore.

The best SF/Crime crossover I’ve read is easily Lauren Beukes’s THE SHINING GIRLS, which is a serial killer story with a time travel element. The killer is a man who travels through time to track down women destined to change the world, then murder them before they can accomplish their goals. It’s a breathtaking story written with great care both for the criminal investigation storyline and for the logic of the science fiction worldbuilding. 

It works because the time travel isn’t just dressing; it’s the core mechanic of the story, and it’s what makes this particular killer so much more frightening than others we’ve read about before. At the same time, Beukes doesn’t let her taut thriller pacing get bogged down by too much exposition about exactly how time travel works — the science fiction is integrated seamlessly into the larger investigation, and we understand its rules through their consistency in the narrative rather than via long discussions of paradox and quantum theory.

Marietta: Puts THE SHINING GIRLS on TBR list. It would seem, balancing each component is key to spanning the bridge between genres. Each element in equal measure. Be brave. Marry the tense, jittery feeling of a perfectly paced crime-thriller to the far-reaching, ominous milieu of Science-Fiction and create something spectacular. You’ll have it all. Story. Setting. Characters.

If you regard the words of Ray Bradbury (he who literally changed my life) you know, anyone who dreams is qualified to write Science-Fiction.

Marietta Miles’ short stories and flash can be found in Thrills, Kills and Chaos, Flash Fiction Offensive, Yellow Mama, Hardboiled Wonderland and Revolt Daily. Her stories have been included in anthologies available through Static Movement Publishing, Out of the Gutter, and Horrified Press. She is rotating host for Noir on the Radio, Dames in the Dark. Her first book, ROUTE 12, was released February of 2016. Please visit www.mariettamiles.blogspot.com or Facebook for more stories and further information. Born in Alabama, raised in Louisiana, she currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children.

To learn more about ROUTE 12, click on the cover below:

 

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