My Slow Dance with SF Detective Stories

Jay Werkheiser visits the blog today to delve into the crossover of mystery and science fiction. Don’t miss his story “Slow Dance”—on sale now in our current issue—which lives just at this intersection.

by Jay Werkheiser

“The science-fiction detective story is a rare and difficult form.” Those words, written by Larry Niven, struck a chord when I read them forty years ago, and I can still quote them verbatim. I was a nerdy teenager then, reading as much SF as I could find. I’d already discovered Niven and other hard SF writers and knew that I wanted to write stories like theirs.

I had exhausted the local library and couldn’t buy books fast enough to feed my habit. Somehow I ended up with a subscription card for a science fiction book club. It was one of those deals where they automatically sent you a new book every month unless you sent a cancel notice by a certain time. The teaser to get you to sign up was six books for a penny. Obligations to purchase? Short deadlines that made it difficult to opt out? Didn’t matter; I had six free books coming!

One of the books was a large anthology called Epoch, edited by Robert Silverberg and Roger Elwood. I immediately spotted the names Niven and Benford in the table of contents, and that was enough to get me to check the box. Niven’s story was “ARM.” I had already read a lot of his Known Space stories, but this was my first exposure to Gil the ARM Hamilton. The story opened my eyes to a whole new subgenre of stories, but that author’s note is what really got me thinking. The science-fiction detective story is a rare and difficult form.

Niven’s reasoning was that the author had the obligation to make his worldbuilding so detailed that the reader could potentially solve the puzzle (or at least feel like he could have), yet not give away the solution too easily. Contemporary murder mysteries already have a detailed and believable world in place, so the author and reader can focus on the mystery. But the author of a science-fiction detective story needs to build the world while he’s setting up the mystery and unveiling clues. The reader has to learn the author’s world on the fly while trying to solve the mystery. If the author fails to build a solvable mystery within a plausible, understandable world, the reader feels cheated.

Writing a hard SF detective story doubles down on the difficulty for both author and reader. Not only does the story’s technology have to be plausible, the solution to the mystery has to grow organically from that technology. If Niven had built the plot of “ARM” around Sinclair’s inertialess generator, then ended the story by revealing that the murderer had used some fancy ray gun that hadn’t been mentioned before, it would have been a cheat. But no, Niven’s climax hinged on Gil Hamilton figuring out how the murderer used the inertialess generator yet missing an important clue that put him in danger right up until the end. It was elegant, and it inspired me to try writing SF mysteries.

Niven was right, I discovered; science-fiction detective stories are difficult, and I have thirty-year-old form rejections to prove it. The occasional SF mystery idea occurred to me over the years, but most died quietly before the first word even made it to the page. Ideas are easy, but developing them into stories that people might actually want to read, not so much. “Slow Dance,” appearing in the March/April 2019 issue of Analog, is the first SF mystery I managed to get right.

Story ideas are often a cosmic collision, where two unrelated thoughts smash together in an instant, forming an accretion disk around the condensing core of a new story. Over the next few days, the story coalesces as character, plot, and thematic elements accrete onto its surface. With “Slow Dance,” the impactors were the idea of a locked-room murder aboard an isolated spacecraft and an interesting semi-cryonic system I had been toying with.

Impactor 1 was pretty straightforward, a small crew on a deep-space mission, a murder, a scramble to find out whodunit. I was thinking in terms of the typical noir style, but why would there be a detective on the crew? Eh, I could sort that out later. What I really needed was a murder weapon, something science fictiony and (hopefully) intriguing to the reader. Every writer I know has countless rocky idea fragments like that orbiting inside his mind, waiting for a collision.

Impactor 2 was that cryonic system I was playing with. Early in my career I was active in the Critters online writers group. (Aspiring writers: Google it if you aren’t already a member; you’ll thank me for the tip.) A story I circulated for critique involved a particle beam propulsion system that was endangering the crew of a spacecraft, and they had to figure out why it was happening before . . . you get the idea. One writer who critiqued the story suggested that I change the nature of the threat, make it some sort of cryonic gas that wasn’t working properly. The suggestion wasn’t right for that story, but it triggered a cascade of ideas.

I envisioned a deep-space mission with the crew slowed so that the twenty-year mission felt like only one year for them. But how to do it? Not a gas, certainly. It would take some sort of cocktail of metabolic enzymes to slow down the chemical reactions of life while maintaining the body’s delicate equilibrium. I won’t bore you with the research details other than to say that if you want to write hard SF, you’ll one day find yourself reading articles about the gory minutiae of the metabolic reactions occurring along the inner membrane of the mitochondrion. Heck, if you read Analog regularly, you probably enjoy reading sciency stuff anyway. So now I had a cryonic system in search of a story where I could use it.

Impact. The cryonic system is the murder weapon. It’s necessarily complex because metabolism is complex, so it’ll be (relatively) easy to throw a monkey wrench into it. As is often the case, ejecta from the idea collision spark secondary impacts of new ideas. What’s the point of a cool cryonics system if I can’t highlight the time-rate difference? A secondary impact flashes—the detective is back on Earth (or ultimately the Moon, but whatever), separated by time and space from the murder. Half the fun of being a writer is finding ways to make your characters’ lives more difficult, and forcing a detective to solve a murder with a distance, light-speed, and time dilation gap sure fit the bill.

That in turn suggested an epistolary style. I fell in love with the style when I read Joe Haldeman’s Mindbridge in my youth (another one of those book club selections) and, later, Stephen King’s Carrie. I’d never quite found the right story to fit that style of storytelling, and so this was my big chance. If Trina was going to have to solve the murder mystery aboard the Slow Dance by reading documents and testimony from the crew, why not just show those documents to the reader and let them see all the clues as well? It was a fun challenge trying to develop the characters through their testimony, chat logs, and so on.

From The Caves of Steel to Red Planet Blues, detectives of the future have a long history of solving murder mysteries. On the short fiction front, Analog’s writers have crafted their fair share of detective stories. In recent memory, we’ve had Martin L. Shoemaker’s “Murder on the Aldrin Express” and Christopher L. Bennett’s “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad.” I’m pleased and humbled to join their ranks. Only . . . looking at the trends above, perhaps I should have named my story “Murder on the Slow Dance” and changed my middle initial to L.

Jay Werkheiser teaches chemistry and physics. Pretty much all the time. His stories are sneaky devices to allow him to talk about science in a (sort of) socially acceptable way. Much to his surprise, the editors of Analog and various other magazines, e-zines, and anthologies have found a few of his stories worth publishing. Many of those story ideas arose from nerdy discussions with his daughter or his students. He really should keep an updated blog and author page, but he mostly wastes his online time on Facebook or Twitter (@JayWerkheiser).

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