Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"To Many Authors the Solution of Crime in a Science Fiction Setting Was Little More Than a Tongue-in-Cheek Literary Toy"

LONG-TIME (or perhaps that should be LONG-SUFFERING) READERS of ONTOS might have noticed that we've been on an extended "science fiction crossovers with detective fiction" jag, since over the last couple of years we've been scouring the Internet searching for stories that combine our two favorite genres—and so far there seems to be no end of them.

Half a century ago Sam Moskowitz, the premier historian of science fictiondom, noticed the same thing and published two articles in issues of Worlds of Tomorrow that briefly survey the sui generis SF-tec subgenre from its beginnings with Poe to the mid-1960s—parts of which, we regret to say, reveal the solutions. Caveat lector!

"The Sleuth in Science Fiction."
By Sam Moskowitz (1920-97).
First appearance: Worlds of Tomorrow, January 1966.
Survey (12 pages).
Online at Archive.org (HERE).
(Note: Occasional SPOILERS.)
"Sam Moskowitz traces the history of detectives in science fiction—with new clues on every page!"
Of course, Moskowitz rightly designates Edgar Allan Poe as the one who started it all, being the originator of both the modern detective story and science fiction tale, but Poe never tried combining the two.

Instead, Moskowitz points to Balmer and MacHarg's Luther Trant stories as the first full-fledged SF-detective crossovers, in whose wake followed Arthur B. Reeve and his durable character Craig Kennedy, and occasional interlopers like Sax Rohmer, with his archvillain Fu Manchu, armed to the teeth with world-conquering superscientific gizmos, and tirelessly pursued by Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, the Holmes and Watson of Rohmer's oeuvre.

Hugo Gernsback played no small role in this, constantly promoting scientific detection in all of his publications, consistently printing crossovers in his otherwise popular general science magazines. Gernsback failed, however, to catch the public's imagination as completely as the early Luther Trant and Craig Kennedy stories, and was forced to transform his high-quality Scientific Detective Monthly into a more conventional crime fiction magazine; the fact that America was deep into the Depression didn't help matters.

- On his megasite (A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection) Mike Grost has entries about the early SF tecs discussed by Moskowitz (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE).
- Two issues of Scientific Detective Monthly (SDM) are available at the Comic Book Plus site (HERE) and (HERE).
- One story that just missed publication in SDM but did see the light of day elsewhere in another Gernsback magazine is "The Murders on the Moon-Ship" (1931), also available at Comic Book Plus (HERE; select page 48); unfortunately, Moskowitz blabs the solution.

Moskowitz followed up his first installment with:

"The Super-Sleuths of Science Fiction."
By Sam Moskowitz (1920-97).
First appearance: Worlds of Tomorrow, March 1966.
Survey (12 pages).
Online at Archive.org (HERE).
(Note: Occasional SPOILERS.)
"Science fiction's favorite historian tells us about the early days of sf detective stories—and who dun it!"
Moskowitz resumes his short history of the science fictional detective with a character he discussed at some length in the previous piece, David H. Keller's Taine of San Francisco ("The Taine stories were uneven in quality and loosely constructed"), and notes again the major influence exerted by Hugo Gernsback:
Though the publication of Scientific Detective Monthly and Amazing Detective Tales had done much to refine the art of the scientific detective story, progress was not continuous, nor was it uniform in all publications. The thinking of the editors of that day was that if a crime is committed or solved through the utilization of established scientific principles, it constituted a legitimate science fiction story, regardless of whether any element of fantasy was present. Their logic was not shared by their readers. Other than Taine, scientific detective stories enjoyed small popularity, though editors continued to use them.
Moskowitz points to other fictioneers besides the professional SF pulpsters who tried their hands at SF-tec fiction during the 1920s, the most surprising instance being Erle Stanley Gardner (laboring for top dollar at Argosy):
It was inevitable that he [Gardner] would attempt to incorporate the crime and detective theme into his science fiction, just as he had done in his desert yarns.
As for one of those professional SF pulpsters:
. . . undoubtedly the crime story in a science fiction setting that created the greatest impact during this period [the '20s] was Murray Leinster's "The Darkness on Fifth Avenue.". . . In referring to the supplementary crimes committed under the cloak of darkness by people in the darkened area, Leinster also provided graphic sociological comment. . . .[He] would use the detective and scientific invention both in and out of the science fiction magazines.
The template, if you will, for James Bond and others of his ilk was basically fashioned in the pulps of the 1920s:
The foregoing tales of Erle Stanley Gardner and Murray Leinster were actually popularizers and prototypes of a formula involving a criminal genius threaten-ing a city, country or planet with scientific horror and an official or specialized agent battling the menace.
Moskowitz wraps up his survey with three brilliant SF-tec stories that just about every science fiction reader should be aware of: Hal Clement's Needle (1949), Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1953), and . . .
. . . the most inspired of all. It was written by Isaac Asimov, who had previously built two reputations in science fiction, one with his robot stories and the three laws of robotics and the second with his Foundation series of the galactic empire. The Caves of Steel (1953) is the supreme masterpiece to date of the detective story in science fiction, so much so that it has received mention in at least one important book on the development of crime fiction.
So ends Moskowitz's overview of the science fiction-detective subgenre. In the fifty years since then a newer generation of writers and film makers have been mashing SF and tec fiction together, admittedly not always successfully, but often enough to tell us there's still a lot of life left in the science fictional detective after all.

- David H. Keller's output is well represented on Amazon (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE); Keller's non-SF detective story featuring the Taine character, "Hands of Doom" (1947), is available at Pulpgen (HERE).
- There's plenty of information about Sam Moskowitz on the Web: his New York Times obituary (HERE), Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), and the ISFDb (HERE).
- On Tor.com (HERE) David Cranmer also acknowledges Asimov's contribution:
When trail-blazing editor John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction (eventually renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact) boldly declared that mystery and science fiction genres were incompatible, Isaac Asimov disagreed. In response, Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel, successfully creating a futuristic whodunit and proving Campbell wrong. Today, it seems like a passé point that science fiction can be injected into any literary genre, but it took Asimov’s mid-twentieth century vision to help pave the way. — David Cranmer, "Eight Essen-tial Science Fiction Detective Mash-Ups" (2014)
Artwork by Frank Kelly Freas

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