Welcome to Part 12, my final WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write up.
The panelists for the titular panel were as follows: Trish Matson (as moderator), Valarie Valdes, Carl Fink, and Kat Clay.
The panel description was brief and to the point (since the title covered so much): The panel discusses SF mysteries set in space.
What Is Crime?
Where ever you find people, you find good people and you fine bad people. But, what makes certain people’s behavior qualify as ‘bad’? Well, there is typically an official and/or unofficial codification of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Hurting others, putting others at risk, or taking advantage of others to their detriment usually tops the list. These days, the law of your country and the society in which you find yourself defines what is and is not a crime.
In our own world, we see groups like Black Lives Matter protesting what they see as the law being excessively enforced against Black Americans — among others — without accountability. Additionally, we also see justice somehow coming down on the side with the most money more often than statistically it should.
In speculative fiction, though, we often set humanity in situations where, through ignorance, (willful or not), the humans or the aliens hurt one another. In the classic Orson Scott Card Ender’s Game series, the bugs had a hive mind and didn’t realize that killing individual bodies was ending the consciousness of another sentient being, forever, (give-or-take some sort of afterlife or reincarnation).
Crimes take place in all sorts of novels, but here are some of the major crime genres.
Types of Crime Novels
- Cozy mystery
- Private Eye
- Classic Detective – like ‘locked room’ mysteries
- Police Procedural
Things To Think About When Writing About Crime in Speculative Fiction:
Three Things To Think About When Writing Laws
- Who is creating the laws?
Very often in speculative fiction, and often in life, the people creating the laws do not expect them to be enforced on themselves or their families. They bring in their own prejudices and assumptions about “those-types-of-people”. Or, you have people making laws based on theory, who are out of touch with the realities of life and the deviousness of people.
If you’re in a closed environment, like a generational ship, it would likely be the officer level crew making the laws – like the Captain and those working closely with the Captain.
- Who is enforcing the laws?
We expect it to be brave people and/or artificial intelligences who follow the letter of the law with a compassionate, (but far from naive), interpretation. That’s not always the case. In some societies, bribes are so expected, they’re counted as business expenses. Often, people from a particular class or background end up in law enforcement. Those enforcing the laws see people on their worst day, or only the worst people, and it can jade them, so that they come to expect that from everyone. That sort of attitude can lead to them prioritizing their own over justice, or the law.
On that generational ship, it would likely be the enlisted level crew enforcing the laws. Security has a lot of authority, but most of us know just how expendable ‘Red Shirts’ are on Star Trek: The Original Series.
- Who is being policed?
We expect it to be everyone, equally, with none above the law. Historically, we have often seen poorer areas heavily policed and heavily punished in an attempt to cut down on crime, while better off areas were less heavily policed and their residents punished with a gentler touch. And we can’t forget that those with money can often make trouble with the law go away.
In the States, it used to be that children getting in trouble in school would end up in suspension – in school or out. Now, cops are called in, charges filed, and jail is becoming common.
Back to the generational ship example. Most of the policing would be of the passengers, but are there class distinctions there?
Perhaps, there some who paid for a large suite for their families, while others bought just a bunk? Are there criminals assigned to the ship to work off their debts? What happens to the later generations? Do these roles become a caste system?
Things to think about when creating your speculative world. Which leads us to a few other thoughts.
Two Things To Think About Regarding The Speculative Aspect
- What are the technical limitations?
If we’re futuristic, do we have cameras? If we’re magic, can we cast a truth spell or seeing spell? With the tech level, for less advanced societies, don’t give them modern forensics. For more advanced societies, think about how far forensics has come in the last century!
Play fair with the reader!
If you’re writing a who-dunnit in space, you want to establish what the laws are and at least hint at what the technology is capable of. Mystery readers typically enjoy stories better if they can either work it out themselves in advance from the clues, without it being too blatant, or see it’s obvious in retrospect.
If you make the twist something that wasn’t explained, the readers often feel cheated.
And we all know, readers who feel cheated leave 1-star bashing reviews.
If there are AIs (created beings with artificial intelligence), are they the criminal? The tool used to commit the crime? The detective? Is there a thing in their programming that’s preventing them from solving the crime?
Some of the best speculative mysteries are when the world building sets up the ‘smoking gun’, where it’s only obvious in retrospect.
- Who are people?
Can you create backups of people from their last transporter session. Or from clones? So, would killing a body still count as murder.
And delving into this, are clones recognized as people? What about other species that we may or may not recognize as fully sentient? And should we enforce our morality and expectations on alien societies?
PERSONAL NOTE: I will always believe that the moment a clone experiences life differently than the original, they are creating their own memories and are their own person, with all the rights that entails. Why yes, I’m a second-born identical twin, why do you ask?
All The Book Recommendations!
- The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun (The Robot Series) – Isaac Asimov
- Long Arm of Gil Hamilton – Larry Niven
- Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty
- Retrieval Artist Series – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
- All Systems Red (Murderbot) – Martha Wells
- A Pale White In The Black – K. B. Wagers
- A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine
- Lord Darcy Series – Randall Garrett
- The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia – Ursula Le Guin
- An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon
- Ethan of Athos – Lois Bujold
- And Then There Were (N-One) [Uncanny Magazine] – Sarah Pinsker
- Revelation Space – Alistair Reynolds
- Deadly Litter – James White
What other things do you consider when you set a crime in space?
Do you have any favorite ‘crimes in space’ novels you’d like to recommend?