Guest Blog: Gary Phillips: “Future Crimes”

Written by Gary Phillips

Pioneering sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov purportedly opined according to Wikipedia that science fiction is a flavor that can be applied to any literary genre.  That no matter how far or where we go, humans and sentient life in general are capable of altruism and deviousness.   And the darker, norish manifestations of these infusions are on display in novels such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? his short story “The Minority Report,” and Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan.  

Now as far as I know there was never a story where Flash Gordon solved a lock room murder, but as early in various Tom Swift adventures, beginning in his 1910 magazine, the teen genius would often use his inventions to help solve a mystery.  For instance in 1933’s Tom Swift and his Television Detector, it’s a forerunner with tubes and a cathode ray tube of an infrared heat signature device used these days,  that helps Tom and his chums crack a perplexing case.  

The 1930s saw the explosion of pulp magazines where for a dime then twenty-five cents you could read a novel-length story (usually around 50,000 words) plus several short stories or back-up features.  Among those cast of characters from adventurer magicians like Norgil to lone, crazed masked bloodthirsty vigilantes such as the Shadow and the Spider were the he-man scientists like Clark “Doc” Savage, surgeon, gadgeteer and righter of wrongs at times against advanced tech, and Super Detective Jim Anthony.  He was half Irish and half Comanche, could see in the dark, and fought such sci-fi inspired menaces as a robot sea serpent and radio-controlled zombies.  Then there was Curt Newton, Captain Future.

Subliminally you may know of him as it’s a cover of a Captain Future pulp that graces a wall of Sheldon’s and Leonard’s apartment in the Big Bang Theory.  Created and announced by Mort Weisinger, later to be a legendary editor at DC Comics, at the first World Science Fiction convention in NYC in 1939, he was aimed at appealing to teenaged male sci-fi fans.  But it was sci-fi author Edmund Hamilton who fleshed out Weisinger’s idea and brought forth the space spanning adventures of the good captain and the Futuremen; Grag, a seven foot tall robot; Otho, a green-skinned android; and Dr. Simon Wright, the Brian, a scientist’s living brain in a portable container.  In The Space Emperor story (that’s the cover in the apartment), a mystery sets events in motion as the Futuremen must solve who and what are turning humans into bestial bipeds.

In the 1950s Asimov hurls the locked room mystery into the Atomic Age.  In Caves of Steel, a robot is accused of killing a human, though this is contradictory to one of the three immutable Laws of Robotics, one of them being artificial life can’t harm a human.  It’s up to a human cop, Elijah Baley reluctantly teamed with an android partner R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve the case.  The trope of human and android working together to solve crime has been used many times sense, including the recent near future police procedural, Almost Human – and not to forget the ‘70s TV show Future Cop, with Ernest Borgnine as a gruff veteran patrolman paired with an effusive android partner.

The antagonist faking their death, used effectively in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, was resurrected in “Court Martial” an episode of the original Star Trek.  On stardate 2947.3, Captain Kirk is accused of criminal negligence in the death of a lieutenant commander during an ion storm.  It turns out the supposed dead man had manipulated the supposed infallible ship’s computer to alter the recorded record so as to frame Kirk.

Humans and aliens working together to solve crime was witnessed in the late ‘50s when Hamilton, Gardner Fox and artist Bob Brown created for DC Comics the Space Ranger, a masked vigilante with comic sidekick, the shape shifting alien Cyril (also in the ‘50s, DC had J’onn J’onzz – which today would be a rappers name – the Martian Manhunter who disguised as John Jones, used his powers, including shapeshifting, as a plainclothes cop).  In Alien Nation, originally a late eighties film written by Rockne S. O’Bannon wherein the buddy-cop flick got a new lease,  a human LAPD plainclothes cop is reluctantly partnered with a Newcomer.  He’s an alien among others who have crash-landed on Earth.  They hunt down a fellow alien killer and drug lord.  Then there was Gerry Anderson’s (of Thunderbirds and Fireball XL5 puppetry fame) live action Space Precinct 2040.  The latter was a kind of futurized NYPD Blue set in Demeter City on the world of Altor where human and alien cops hunted down human and alien perps.  

Given Alien Nation and Blade Runner, based on Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? are getting rebooted, and the acclaim for China Miéville’s The City and The City, where the investigation into a dead woman dumped in the streets leads what it means to “unsee” are healthy suggestions that science fiction and mysteries are destined to find opportunities to intertwine. 

As Asimov noted in his introduction to the anthology, The 13 Crimes of Science Fiction, “…every type of mystery – and not merely the classical puzzle – can be found within the universe of science fiction.”

About Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips’ recent work includes Hollis, P.I., prose short stories about his private eye first realized in comics, Day of the Destroyers, a linked pulp thriller anthology, and upcoming is Occupied Earth, a shared universe of our planet under alien overlords -- including a couple of human and alien cop stories -- which he co-edited with Richard Brewer.