Top Ten Dystopian Mysteries
Dystopia is the place where science fiction goes noir.
Twentieth-century crime stories and dystopian sci-fi both explore the urban shadows where our worst behaviors are most often on exhibit, trust is always betrayed, and establishment institutions are corrupt if not actively malevolent. They share a dark realism, which the hard-boiled pulps use to explore intimate treachery, and their futuristic cousins scale up for black satire charged with imaginative wonder. Whatever the aperture, the gaze is paranoid—usually seen through the eyes of cynical operators who work close to power but definitively outside it and seek redemption by exposing its secrets and lies.
“There are eight million stories in the naked city”—even when the city is an imaginary one. In China Miéville’s The City & The City (2009), the imaginary city has two manifestations that share overlapping space but different realities. Best known as a progenitor of “New Weird” fictions infused with radical politics, in City, Miéville fashions a surreal police procedural on streets that intersect with the liminal dead ends of our own, following a homicide inspector’s investigation of a murder that leads him from one city into its adjacent but alien double. Beautifully written, with an atemporal voice simultaneously familiar and fantastic, City’s achievements earned it the Hugo, World Fantasy, Clarke, and BSFA Awards.
William Gibson’s novels often jack in to dystopian mystery, starting with his debut Neuromancer (1984), where the noir sensibility bleeds through the cyberpunk screens. In Pattern Recognition (2002), the naturalism of Gibson’s approach produced a science fiction of the present, following a corporate coolhunter as she navigates the networks of the post-9/11 global metropolis in search of mysterious footage appearing in the back alleys of the web. Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010) followed in similar veins, the former tracking a shipping container loaded with stolen treasure of the Iraq War, the latter hunting down the creator of a mysterious line of bespoke denim. The dystopia of this loose trilogy is just the world we live in viewed through a particular science fictional gaze, its mysteries not far from our own everyday searches, providing a potent speculative minimalism.
Sometimes science fiction goes outside. In Station Eleven (2014), Emily St. John Mandel follows the members of a Shakespeare troupe in their travels through the abandoned towns of the Great Lakes after most of the world’s population has been wiped out by plague. The mystery is in the dangers of the world they explore, and in how the novel’s dystopian present ties to our own, as revealed through a series of flashbacks.
Greg Hrbek’s Not on Fire, but Burning (2015) travels from a Muslim detention camp in the Dakotas to a suburban town in the Northeast, exploring how loyalties and identities are constructed and tested, the core tension of the book powered by the mystery of whether one of the characters may turn out to be a terrorist, and if so, whether the cause is just. Hrbek’s is one of many post-9/11 dystopias set in a world where 9/11 never happened.
An even darker recent dystopian mystery is Underground Airlines (2016) by Ben Winters, set in a contemporary U.S. in which slavery still exists in four states, and one former “person bound to labor” is forced to work hunting down fugitives in the free states. A controversial book, Airlines shows the power of alternate history to help us confront the dystopian truths of our own real world.
In The Female Man (1975), an innovative classic of feminist science fiction, Joanna Russ explores four separate realities:a late 20th century in which the Depression never ended, a world where men and women are literally at war, a far future without men, and our 1970s. The mystery follows women from each of these realities as they travel to the others and meet one another, ultimately learning the secret that brings them together and the deeper secrets of how their worlds and identities came to be.
J.G. Ballard’s work followed a dystopian trajectory from the romantic apocalypses of his early books through his social speculations of the ’70s and ’80s. But his last four novels, starting with Cocaine Nights (1996) and ending with Kingdom Come (2006), use mystery to explore the dystopian present. The best example may be Super-Cannes (2000), in which a book editor follows his wife to her new job at a corporate compound in the South of France, only to find himself caught up in the mystery of what it is the other residents are up to at night under the tutelage of the company shrink.
Philip K. Dick often reads like some psychedelic cousin of the hard-boiled pulp writers. His story “Minority Report” (1956) and his novel The Man in the High Castle (1962) are both great examples, but his best dystopian mystery is probably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the story of bounty hunter Rick Deckard tracking fugitive androids through the streets of post-apocalyptic San Francisco that was the basis for Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner.
The Children of Men (1992) by P. D. James is set in an autocratic England carrying on in a world where no children have been born for 25 years. The story follows an academic cousin of the country’s ruler as he is lured into an underground plot—and then tasked with guarding the secret, and life, of a newly conceived infant. Children of Men was adapted into a brilliant 2006 film by Alfonso Cuarón.
The greatest dystopia remains George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Winston Smith’s journey into the mysteries of the managed state of Oceania is as devoid of redemption as the bleakest noir—perhaps not coincidentally, given that 1984 and the original noir films were produced by the postwar Zeitgeist of 1948. The lasting legacy of Orwell’s masterpiece shows the power of that noir sensibility coupled with the science fictional gaze to see, and sometimes avert, the worst tendencies of our own real world.
Christopher Brown is the author of Tropic of Kansas, a 2017 novel about a brother and sister’s travels across a dystopian mirror America in search of sanctuary, the secrets of freedom, and each other.