Crimes of the (Next) Century: A Look at Sci-fi Crime Novels

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Throughout history, technology and social conditions have changed, but human nature usually doesn’t. So crime has always been part of our world and unless things change drastically it will continue to be part of society well into the future. The one thing that will change in the future though is how crime is committed and how it’s fought. For years writers have been postulating what the future of law breaking and law enforcement will look like with stories that meld the conventions of sci-fi and crime fiction. So it’s a genre cocktail with something to offer all types of crime fiction fans and in this piece we’ll look at some notable, and some of my favorite, sci-fi crime hybrids.

Perhaps the best-known example of sci-fi crime tales is the subgenre known as cyberpunk, which has been characterized as “high tech and low life.” In cyberpunk, outlaws and antiheroes use technology, cunning, and often violence to fight back, outwit, and escape powerful organizations, such as corporations.  Computers and artificial environments like cyberspace are also an important element in cyberpunk. So the stories often read like surreal and trippy noir tales. Writers such as Phillip K. Dick and Alfred Bester paved the way for the cyberpunk genre, which kicked off in the ’80s with the emergence of its most notable author, William Gibson whose 1984 novel Neuromancer is viewed as a classic of the genre.

Richard K. Morgan’s trilogy of novels, Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, and Woken Furies, are more future noir stories than they are cyberpunk, but Gibson and the genre he helped define were an influence. In Altered Carbon readers are introduced to Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-soldier who makes his living as a mercenary in a far future world where physical death is no longer the end of a person’s life. That’s because the human consciousness can be stored digitally in devices called cortical stacks and then “resleeved” in new bodies. So violence like murder and war has taken on a whole new set of implications in Kovacs’s world.

Another fun element of the Kovacs trilogy is each novel features a different noir-tinged genre. In Altered Carbon Kovacs is resleeved in the body of a former police detective and asked to solve a murder. So the book reads like a high tech, hardboiled detective story. In the second Kovacs novel, Broken Angels, Morgan’s protagonist is a soldier fighting a war against corporate forces on a distant planet when he becomes embroiled in an expedition to recover an ancient alien artifact. So Broken Angels maintains the noirish feel of the first novel, but it also includes elements from the military SF and horror genres. In Woken Furies, Kovacs has returned to his home world to wage war against an extremist religious sect that murdered a former lover, and while he’s there he becomes involved in a rebellion against the planet’s dictators.

Kop by Warren Hammond
Kop by Warren Hammond
Woken Furies was the last book in the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, but it was not Morgan’s last future noir. In Market Forces, Morgan takes reader to a world where corporations invest in wars between foreign countries and compete for promotions via Mad Max-style auto duels. Morgan’s 2007 novel published as Black Man in England and Thirteen in North America takes place in a world where military science has created super soldiers; genetic variants capable of high aggression and low sociability. These super soldiers are kept on Mars, but when one escapes and goes on a killing spree on Earth the one super soldier residing there is recruited to find his fugitive “brother” and end his reign of terror.

Fans of Morgan’s sci-fi crime novels will love Warren Hammond’s Kop trilogy of novels starring corrupt police detective Juno Mozambe. The novels take place in the city of Koba on the impoverished jungle planet of Lagarto. The wealthy Koba elite live a life of luxury in lavish homes while the majority of citizens struggle to make ends meet in tent cities and decrepit buildings that are always in danger of being reclaimed by the jungle and the planet’s teeming wildlife.  Juno Mozambe is a detective with the Koba Police Department trying to protect the people of his world, but unfortunately he’s taken a lesser of two evils approach to doing that. He allows some crime to flourish, while he comes down hard on others. Mozambe’s exploits are characterized by gritty crime, powerful and insidious foes, and shocking violence. So they read like sci-fi versions of James Ellroy’s police procedurals. Yes they’re that good.

Mozambe’s life begins to change drastically in Kop, where Juno is partnered with a wealthy young female detective named Maggie Orzo in order to solve a politically sensitive murder. In Ex-Kop, the second book of the trilogy, a down-on-his luck Juno is recruited by Maggie to try and clear the name of an innocent young girl accused of murder. In the third and final book of the trilogy, Kop Killer, Mozambe tries to win back the life he once had by stealing the protection ring of a corrupt police detective.  That attempt puts him on the trail of a new illicit drug and a brutal, cybernetically enhanced serial killer.

Currently I’m in the middle of an interesting trilogy of sci-fi crime novels that feature a variety of interesting elements. Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn trilogy of novels that take place in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 Universe. It’s my first real exposure to that world, but so far it’s fascinating. Imagine a detective story set in a world of high tech intergalactic warfare, powerful psychics, alien races, and interdimensional demons and you’ve got a hint at how cool the Eisenhorn trilogy of novels are. You can get all three books, plus two short stories in a nice, value-priced omnibus edition.

How about you? What are your favorite sci-fi crime novels?


Dave Richards covers all things Marvel Comics for the Eisner Award-winning website Comic Book Resources and his book reviews and other musings can be found at his blog Pop Culture Vulture.

Read all posts by Dave Richards for Criminal Element.


  1. Jeff H

    The Marid Audran series by George Alec Effinger. I’ve read the first book, Gravity Fails, and I thought it was excellent.

  2. Barb Breger

    The Alex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt. Have read them all and have enjoyed them all. For what my opinion is worth, I recommend them to S/F – Mystery readers.

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