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Crime and Punishment

Entry updated 13 November 2023. Tagged: Theme.


Genre fiction concerned with crime may be roughly divided into detections and thrillers. The former are problem stories; the latter exploit the melodramatic potential of the conflicts inherent in criminal deviation. For further discussion of the many forms of punishment found in sf, see the entries for Prisons and Torture.

Detective stories depend very heavily on ingenuity and generally require very fine distinctions between what is possible and what is not. It is not easy to combine sf and the detective story because in sf the boundary between the possible and the impossible is so flexible, but futuristic detective stories can work, given a sufficiently rigid set of ground rules; thus Isaac Asimov was able to create intriguing detections based on the restrictions of his three Laws of Robotics, most notably The Naked Sun (1957), and Randall Garrett was able to write his ingenious Lord D'Arcy stories about an Alternate-History detective who must use his powers of ratiocination to solve crimes in which rigorously defined magical laws feature, often being used forensically. There was also a subgenre of early detective stories featuring "scientific detectives" armed not only with the scientific methods of thought made famous by Sherlock Holmes (which see) but also with the equipment and arcane knowledge of advanced science. Notable works in this vein include The Achievements of Luther Trant (coll 1910) by Edwin Balmer (see Lie Detectors) and William MacHarg, and the many Craig Kennedy adventures chronicled by Arthur B Reeve, including The Poisoned Pen (coll 1911) and The Dream Doctor (fixup 1914). Hugo Gernsback's short-lived Scientific Detective Monthly published fiction of this sort, but the speculative aspects of the stories are understandably tentative.

Crime is much more commonly and effectively exploited in sf for its melodramatic potential; the imaginative freedom of sf allows both criminals and crime-fighters to become exotic, and their schemes grandiose, a pattern which underlies Jules Verne's great creations: Captain Nemo, who features in Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870; trans as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas 1872) and its sequel L'île mystérieuse (1874-1875; trans as The Mysterious Island 1875); and Robur the Conqueror, who features in Robur le conquérant (1886; trans as The Clipper of the Clouds 1887; vt Robur the Conqueror 1887) and its sequel Maître du monde (1904; trans anon as Master of the World 1914). Pulp-magazine sf grew up alongside increasingly exotic detective pulps which featured the prototypes of the Superheroes who would ultimately come into their own in Comic books, most notably Doc Savage. In the early days of scientific romance the scientific supercriminal (often embittered by the world's failure to recognize and reward his genius) was a common character, frequently holding the world (or large parts of it) to ransom. Robert Cromie's The Crack of Doom (1895) and Fred T Jane's The Violet Flame (1899) feature early examples of world-threatening superscientists. There was a glut of such stories in the 1930s, including Power (1931) by S Fowler Wright, The One Sane Man (1934) by Francis Beeding and I'll Blackmail the World (1935) by Samuel Andrew Wood. Few apocalyptic threats were fully carried out in such novels, although Neil Bell's The Lord of Life (1933) is a flamboyant exception. (The tradition is kept alive today by, among others, the plots of the many James Bond movies.) Disenchantment with the state of the world allowed many writers of the 1930s to sympathize with world-blackmailers whose demands were humanitarian; C S Forester's The Peacemaker (1934) is a notable example, and C J Cutcliffe Hyne's Man's Understanding (coll 1933) includes two black comedies suggesting that even the most destructive and unreasonable Mad Scientist would be no worse than the actual rulers of the world. Later examples include the atom-bomb story The Maniac's Dream (1946) by F Horace Rose and the Dr Palfrey novels by John Creasey.

Among the early Genre-SF writers to make use of the stereotyped supercriminal was Murray Leinster, whose many versions of it include "A Thousand Degrees Below Zero" (15 July 1919 Thrill Book), "The Darkness on Fifth Avenue" (30 November 1929 Argosy Weekly), "The Racketeer Ray" (February 1932 Amazing) and "The Earth-Shaker" (15 April-6 May 1933 Argosy). John W Campbell Jr used the formula in "Piracy Preferred" (June 1930 Amazing), but he armed his heroes as well as his villain (who reformed and joined the heroes for several sequels). The game of interplanetary super-cops vs super-robbers was pioneered by Edmond Hamilton in the Interstellar Patrol stories, some of which were reprinted in Outside the Universe (July-October 1929 Weird Tales; 1964) and Crashing Suns (stories August 1928-November 1930 Weird Tales; coll 1965), and extravagantly carried forward by E E "Doc" Smith in the Skylark series and Spacehounds of IPC (July-September 1931 Amazing; 1947). The conflict in the Skylark of Space books, between Richard Seaton and the impressively villainous Blackie DuQuesne, was vigorously sustained; and the later Lensman series (in book form 1948-1954), featured perhaps the most famous genre-sf criminal organization of all: the Eddorian-run interstellar cartel known as Boskone.

Pulp sf writers imagined that future crime would follow much the same pattern as crime today, although they were happy to imagine that romantic crimes like piracy might come back into fashion in outer space – or even in time, as in Ross Rocklynne's "Pirates of the Time Trail" (Fall 1943 Startling). Retribution, too, tended to follow well-established tracks, although one or two writers used sealed time-loops and other gimmicks to design punishments to fit particular crimes; Lester del Rey's "My Name is Legion" (June 1942 Astounding) suggests an appropriate fate for Hitler. One magazine story of the 1940s which attempts to make a significant statement about deviancy and penology is Robert A Heinlein's "Coventry" (July 1940 Astounding), which imagines a curious kind of exile, then proceeds to develop one of the most annoying of sf Clichés: the idea that selfish deviants might be harassed as a kind of test to prove their suitability for recruitment into the social elite of a stable society.

When sf writers took to building all kinds of eccentric totalitarian societies for their future scenarios in the 1940s and 1950s, the rectitude of deviancy became a much more open question. As forms of conformity became stranger, so did forms of nonconformity. In Fritz Leiber's Gather, Darkness! (May-July 1943 Astounding; 1950) the establishment's superscience masquerades as Religion, leading the rebels to disguise their own superscience as witchcraft. More sophisticated studies of odd forms of deviancy in warped societies include Wyman Guin's "Beyond Bedlam" (August 1951 Galaxy), whose heroine rebels against the obligation to share tenancy of her body with her split personality's alter ego, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (February 1951 Galaxy as "The Fireman"; exp 1953), whose meek rebels learn books by heart to save them from would-be burners, and Philip José Farmer's Dayworld (1985) and its sequels, in which "daybreakers" exceed their allotted active time in an overcrowded world.

In the 1950s, new ideas regarding the treatment of deviants began to appear in some profusion. In "Two-Handed Engine" (August 1955 F&SF), by Henry Kuttner and C L Moore, criminals are attended by robot "furies" to monitor their actions and symbolize their guilt. In Damon Knight's "The Country of the Kind" (February 1956 F&SF) criminals are outcast, free to do as they will but utterly lonely – an idea explored with greater intensity in Robert Silverberg's "To See the Invisible Man" (April 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow). Robert Sheckley's The Status Civilization (1960) is a satirical extrapolation of the penal-colony theme, imagining the kind of society which criminals might establish in reaction against the one which exiles them. The notion of the prison colony is taken to a terrible extreme in Cordwainer Smith's "A Planet Named Shayol" (October 1961 Galaxy), in which criminals are made to grow extra limbs and organs for harvesting and use in transplants. A much more humane view of the issues involved in crime and punishment is featured in Alfred Bester's classic sf novel loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866), The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953), in which the obsessed villain ultimately fails to avoid detection by a telepathic policeman, but finds the experience of punitive "demolition" less terrible than its name implies and is even grateful that something of him can be saved despite loss of his criminal Identity. This Memory-Edit theme of criminal rehabilitation is revisited in Robert Silverberg's The Second Trip (July-September 1971 Amazing; 1972). Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" (August 1954 F&SF) is another forceful study in homicidal psychology. New fashions in the real-world treatment of prisoners – especially the notion of "brainwashing" – were extensively featured in borderline-sf thrillers, and taken to surreal lengths in the television series The Prisoner (1967-1968), whose theme was sensitively novelized by Thomas M Disch in The Prisoner (1969).

Exotic police forces were featured in heroic roles in many sf stories and series in the 1950s. An alien policeman pursues a criminal to Earth in Needle (May-June 1949 Astounding; exp 1950; vt From Outer Space 1957) by Hal Clement, requiring to inhabit the body of an earthly host in order to do so. Time Police – patrolling and protecting history – became commonplace, as in The End of Eternity (1955) by Isaac Asimov, Guardians of Time (coll of linked stories 1960) by Poul Anderson, and H Beam Piper's Paratime Police series. Asimov's first sf detective story, The Caves of Steel (1954) – which teams a human policeman with a Robot – was followed a few years later by the first murder mystery in which Earth is the corpse: Poul Anderson's After Doomsday (1962). Realistic futuristic police-procedural stories were pioneered by Rick Raphael in an effective series of stories dealing with road-traffic law enforcement in the near future, Code Three (fixup 1966), and were carried forward by such novels as Lee Killough's The Doppelganger Gambit (1979), but law enforcers of a rather less conventional kind have understandably remained dominant. Joe Clifford Faust's A Death of Honour (1987) imagines that the twenty-first-century police might be simply too busy to investigate a murder. The vast majority of the novels of Ron Goulart feature crime and detectives in some quirky fashion or other; most notable among them are the Chameleon Corps books. (John E Stith is another writer who mixes Humour, crime and sf, but with less accent on the humour than Goulart.) Although the world of sf crime has remained male-dominated, female detectives have made significant appearances in Rosel George Brown's Sibyl Sue Blue (1966; vt Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue 1968) and the St Cyr Interplanetary Detective series begun by Ian Wallace in Deathstar Voyage (1969). Superhero crime-fighters made relatively little impact in written sf until the advent of George R R Martin's Shared-World anthology series begun with Wild Cards (anth 1986), but an interesting precursor was featured in Doris Piserchia's Mister Justice (1973); Temps (anth 1991), "created by" Neil Gaiman and Alex Stewart, was the first of a series of shared-world anthologies featuring the crime-fighting escapades of part-time and/or limited-ability superheroes.

A more romantic view of crime is preserved by picaresque sf stories. Although muted for a long time by editorial Taboos, a considerable body of sf makes heroes of social outsiders and deviants. An early example is Charles L Harness's Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men 1955 dos; rev 1984), and much of Harness's work features similar heroic outsiders, who tend to be artists when they are not rogues, and are often both. Much of the work of Jack Vance falls into a similar category. Far less romantic is the eponymous Antihero of Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat (fixup 1961) and its sequels. Philip José Farmer wrote a series featuring John Carmody, a criminal who reformed to become a priest, the most notable being Night of Light (June 1957 F&SF; exp 1966). As the taboos eased there appeared criminal heroes who remained both unrepentant and charismatic, including the protagonist of Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows (1971) and the narrator of Samuel R Delany's "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" (December 1968 New Worlds); Delany is another writer who almost invariably uses miscreant artists as heroes. The most extravagant example of a charismatic criminal in sf is probably the protagonist of Mike Resnick's Santiago (1986), who is pursued across the Galaxy by assorted exotic bounty-hunters, most of whom are certainly no better than he turns out to be.

The relativity of crime and the idea of evil in societies which have very different values is widely featured. Earnest variants can be found in such stories as "The Sharing of Flesh" (December 1968 Galaxy) by Poul Anderson and Speaker for the Dead (1986) by Orson Scott Card, in which alien societies license or compel acts which seem to us utterly horrific. Robert Sheckley often addresses the question ironically, as in "Watchbird" (February 1953 Galaxy), a moral fable about a mechanical law-enforcer's tendency to exceed its brief, and "The Monsters" (March 1953 F&SF), which features an alien society in which wife-murder is a moral act. The blackest sf comedy in this vein is probably Piers Anthony's "On the Uses of Torture" (in The Berkley Showcase, Vol. 3, anth 1981, ed Victoria Schochet and John W Silbersack).

Despite the welter of criminal activity in sf there are very few new crimes, although such Dystopias as Yegevny Zamiatin's My (written 1920; trans as We 1924) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) have taken the rooting-out of political deviance to new extremes in making "thoughtcrimes" detectable and remediable. Crimes of nonconformity often take bizarre forms, as in such J G Ballard stories as "Billenium" (November 1961 New Worlds), in which the existence of an empty room in a society of massive Overpopulation is wickedly but futilely concealed, and "Chronopolis" (June 1960 New Worlds), in which the hero illegally winds clocks. In a grimmer echo of "Billenium", Algis Budrys's "A Scraping at the Bones" (May 1975 Analog) has serial killers murdering neighbours for their precious apartment space. Tampering with history is a crime which features only in sf – matched by the singularly appropriate punishment of historical erasure in Robert Silverberg's Up the Line (1969) – but even this is no more than an extreme of subversive activity. A more original crime is committed by the protagonist of Piers Anthony's Chthon (1967), although the extremely nasty Prison colony to which he is condemned for it is ordinary in kind. The same situation pertains in the design of punishments, and has done ever since Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Los Amigos Fiasco" (December 1892 Idler), which anticipated the use of the world's first electric chair but made the consequences of its use exaggeratedly melodramatic. Numerous sf stories have anticipated the use of "electronic tagging", although usually the tags are capable of administering on-the-spot punishment. An early example (although here the "tags" are created by mental conditioning) is featured in "The Analogues" (January 1952 If) by Damon Knight; others are in The Reefs of Space (1964) by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson and The Ring (1968) by Piers Anthony and Robert E Margroff. When the merits of punitive, retributive and rehabilitative theories of penology are compared in sf, the extremism of plausible examples often makes the argument starkly dramatic; examples of Swiftian "modest proposals" abound. An interesting polemical work on penological theory is John J McGuire's "Take the Reason Prisoner" (November 1963 Analog), and a macabre combination of the punitive and retributive theories is featured in those of Larry Niven's stories in which the crime of Organlegging co-exists with a new penal code whereby criminals are broken up for bodily spare parts. Several of Niven's stories on these lines are among the best examples of the sf detective story; three are collected in The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton (coll 1976).

Advanced methods of detection often involve panopticon surveillance, like the telescreens which watch viewers in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the psi machines (see Psionics) monitoring space-terminal arrivals and departures in James H Schmitz's The Universe Against Her (June 1962, May-June 1964 Analog as "Novice" and "Undercurrents"; fixup 1964), and the "deAngelis board" which registers but does not precisely locate peaks of dangerous emotion among US City populations in R C FitzPatrick's police-procedural "The Circuit Riders" (April 1962 Analog). In more sophisticated treatments, official surveillance is hindered or blocked by criminal countermeasures: incidentally in David Brin's Existence (fixup 2012) and as a major obstacle to the detailed future police-procedural investigation of Peter F Hamilton's Great North Road (2012).

The genre tradition of police procedurals in unusual settings continues in Terry Pratchett's Discworld, whose Ankh-Morpork City Watch deals with crime and civic unrest in a quasi-Victorian quasi-London beset by ongoing industrial revolution; and in China Miéville's The City & the City (2009), where an investigation in the title's overlapping Cities is complicated by the psychological Invisibility of each city's inhabitants to those of the other. New twists on crime in Internet, Cyberspace and Virtual Reality arenas in the very Near Future are explored in such novels as William Gibson's Pattern Recognition (2003), Charles Stross's Halting State (2007) and Rule 34 (2011), and in Neal Stephenson's REAMDE (2011).

Over-the-top lawmen operating in Comics include Judge Dredd and several legally empowered Superheroes (which see): a particularly entertaining superhero treatment is the police department in Alan Moore's Top Ten, collected as Graphic Novels beginning with Top Ten: Book 1 (graph 2001). The best-known Cinema example is RoboCop (1987). There have been several sf Television versions of buddy-cop teams which include a Robot or Android investigator, along the lines of (though with stories generally less well conceived than) Isaac Asimov's police partners Elijah Baley and R (for Robot) Daneel Olivaw in the already-cited The Caves of Steel. Some examples are Holmes and Yo-Yo (1976), Future Cop (1976-1977) – whose similarities to Ben Bova's and Harlan Ellison's story "Brillo" (August 1970 Analog) led to a substantial payment to those authors – and Mann & Machine (1992). Asimov's Baley/Olivaw mystery The Naked Sun (October-December 1956 Astounding; 1957) was dramatized as a segment of the anthology series Out of the Unknown (1965-1971), aired in February 1969.

Even before Sherlock Holmes fell into the public domain he was a popular character in sf stories, as discussed at greater length under Sherlock Holmes. Another Victorian figure who has exerted a similar fascination upon modern writers, though from the opposite end of the moral spectrum, is London's prototypical serial killer Jack the Ripper; several of the stories in the centenary anthology Ripper! (anth 1988; vt Jack the Ripper 1988) edited by Susan Casper and Gardner Dozois are sf.

Further theme anthologies concerned with sf crime stories include Space Police (anth 1956) edited by Andre Norton; Space, Time and Crime (anth 1964) edited by Miriam Allen deFord; The 13 Crimes of Science Fiction (anth 1979) and Computer Crimes and Capers (anth 1985), both edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh; and Future Crimes (anth 2003) edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois. [BS/DRL]

see also: Sociology; Utopias.

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