REVIEW: Murders on Mars: The New Science Fictional Crime Noir
Sometimes, it’s the strangest things I notice when I’m steamrolling through my to-read list. And recently, I’ve been noticing a lot of murders … and not just murders, but whodunits, noirish crime thrillers that lean heavily on hard-bitten central investigators to drive their plots forward rather than landscape or even the weird affect which Tony and I often talk about on the podcast. These investigators may or may not have an official job description, but they certainly fill the role of the private detective à la the classic crime noir genre, in that they are more Sam Spade than they are Hercule Poirot. And upon their only-sometimes-capable shoulders rests more than just the resolution of a crime; because these are works of science fiction and increasingly set on Mars or the Moon or elsewhere in the Solar System, the resolution of the crime is often equated with the survival of those humans who live there. In this way the “Murders on Mars” variant of the whodunit is truly unique; the best crime noir writers may indeed always have shown similar relationships (in that the resolution of a crime = the return of a community to harmony), but they weren’t often layering them against a background of a truly hostile physical environment. Poirot didn’t have to contend with depressurizing habitats, and Spade certainly never gave a thought to faulty oxygen scrubbers or a torn spacesuit.
The body of texts I’m reviewing today is indicative of this trend, this blending of “hard” science fiction with the best of crime noir. My mother, who loves Kathy Reichs and P.D. James and Louise Penny, could probably be persuaded to read books like these—even though she more or less dislikes science fiction on principle. There are far more texts being released in 2018 which find themselves at this intersection of genres than I will be reviewing here, either because I’ve already read and reviewed them on Goodreads or because they’re still on my to-read pile. David Pedreira’s Gunpowder Moon, for example, is set on the Moon but abides by the stated tenets rather well. Alastair Reynold’s long-awaited (very long-awaited) sequel to The Prefect, Elysium Fire, takes these tenets and transmutes them into something space operatic. John Scalzi’s Lock-In series and Melissa F. Olsen’s Nightshades series qualify as thoroughly capable science fictional crime fiction but don’t quite approach noir territory.
Ah, but these three books? They’re noir. In space. Or in a world so changed it might as well be set on the Moon. Let’s get stuck in, as they say.
One Way by S.J. Morden marks the first book in what I assume will be a series set on Mars and elsewhere throughout our Solar System. Morden has published several other science fictional series under what I presume to be his full name, Simon Morden, but this is the first to feature the spacefaring murderer and family man Frank. Within the larger constellation of new science fictional crime noir books, One Way clearly circles close to Polaris, our North Star in that it not only features a hard-bitten, straight-talkin’ unwilling investigator of an ongoing mystery and set of sabotaging incidents which slip quickly into downright crime, it features a criminal as that investigator. Everyone’s a criminal on Mars, it turns out—when corporations are looking for cheap labor which will raise no eyebrows if they happen to meet grisly ends.
And many of them do. Meet grisly ends.
Morden also dedicates a great deal of time to the minutiae of survival. Tellingly, One Way is often compared to Andy Weir’s The Martian and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. In many ways this is the perfect comparison, as it shares both the strengths and the weaknesses of those books. On the one hand, One Way digs into the pith of all those things which qualify a book as “hard” science fiction, and it also taps into the dispassionate misunderstood-but-unapologetically-criminal mind of Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs. Both of these things are great, in that I happen to adore hearing about pressure differentials and debating the important role of the criminal in underscoring the failures of societal power structures. But One Way also struggles to paint characters in the round, just as The Martian and Altered Carbon did. (One Way is, however, blessedly free of Morganesque soft porn sex scenes, and for that alone I give it a bonus star.) Crime fiction as a time-honored standalone genre has long been criticized for failing to develop rounded characters, so perhaps this is a problem of failed source material and inspiration. That said, I was perpetually annoyed by Frank as a person, and not in a way that ultimately paid itself off as a literary device.
Still, I’ll forgive a lot for hijinks on Mars, and Morden pulls no punches in the final fifty pages of One Way, raising the stakes in unexpected ways. This may be a series which grows on me, and I’ll be checking in on Frank again as future installments are released.
Morden’s One Way was published by Orbit in February 2018.
This next book doesn’t take place on Mars, but it’s certainly a whodunit which belongs on the same shelf as Morden’s One Way and Newman’s Before Mars. I’m talking about Michael David Ares’ Dayfall, which has one of the best premises ever in recent science fiction: after years submerged in the darkness of nuclear winter, light is finally about to break through—and as a generation which has grown up in a New York without sunlight face the coming of their first dawn, a serial killer wreaks havoc in the streets. Seriously, could you come up with a more compelling premise? I don’t think so! The heightened language and the stakes will feel familiar and yet also fresh to lovers of crime fiction and science fiction both. And everyone who knows me well knows that I’m a sucker for the literal urban underground as a metaphor for psychosocial exploration.
So much for the book’s highlights. This book is more interesting to me for its failures than for its successes, which tells you as much about me as it does about the book itself. Not only does Ares struggle with character development, but he also struggles with the actual architecture of the book and the texture of his sentences. There’s little purple prose to slow him down, but there is a superabundance of clichés. Jon Phillips, a small-town Pennsylvania cop who we’re somehow supposed to believe was promoted to lead investigator of a major New York homicide case after being shot by a perp while disobeying orders (or at the very least, operating extrajudicially), stumbles across a smokin’-hot lady bartender with a dark side and a lot of secrets who is described at every meeting as possessing “ice-blue eyes.” I get really tired of clichés, especially when they reduce women to arm candy for pedestrian white, straight, cisgender male characters. And while poor Icy Blues is problematic on her own, she’s really representative of where Ares goes off the rails.
Here’s the thing with clichés: they’re clichés for reasons, sure, but they’re also the absolutely easiest possible literary move you could make in a given moment. Oh, so you have a private detective? Give him a long dark coat and a duster hat. You have bright lipstick and look sure of yourself as a female? Let’s call your lipstick color blood-red and throw in some fingernail tapping into the mix. You have a beautiful but and strong woman? Let’s make her white, blonde, and blue-eyed. Give her some hidden depths. And let’s make sure the man spends a few pages putting himself in harm’s way to save her from her own inability to judge the looming danger. None of these clichés is impossible to use well, but they’re very often indicative of an author phoning it in, or an author at a loss of how to get from point A to point B without leaning on tropes and stereotypes.
I’m also not at all convinced that Ares understands the science of nuclear winter. It’s not … you know, a giant storm that only looms over the East Coast and Europe, leaving the American Breadbasket untouched. It’s not the sort of thing which you can fend off by spending most of your time in nightclubs instead of out in the street.
Also, what’s the deal with all of the bible verses that crop up all the time in Phillips’ mind while he’s wandering through sex fetish nightclubs? Clearly Ares has a thing against people with realistic bodies engaging in sexual activity, as the ultimate outcome of one scene reveals. But he also can’t help but obsess over the body as a sexual object. Which gets super uncomfortable when the bible passages start thrashing about in there. (I should know. I was raised by missionaries.)
Is Dayfall really all that bad? Maybe not. Maybe it caught me on a bad day, when I was more sensitive to flimsy characterization and latent sexism. Perhaps it really just pisses me off because I love the premise so much and I just … don’t love the book as much as its premise. I recommend picking up a copy and letting me know what you think, and if I’m missing the point.
After all, it’s my duty as an honest human being to admit I could be part of the problem.
Michael David Ares’ Dayfall was published by Tor Books in March 2018.
The third book in this triptych is perhaps the strongest of all, not just as a book but as an exemplar of the form—this new sub-subgenre of science fiction crime noir. I’m referring to Emma Newman’s Before Mars, which is in fact the third book in her Planetfall series but the first that I have read. Did I do that wrong? Who knows. I think it’s a prequel, and I have mixed feelings about reading prequels before the main story arc of a series, when they were written afterward. (Here’s looking at you, The Magician’s Nephew.) In fact, Before Mars marks the completion of a triptych of Newman’s own making, all of them unspooling around one central event: the departure of the spaceship Atlas from Earth. The first book in the series deals with those who went, the second book deals with those who stayed behind, and the third book (Before Mars) deals with those who made it all possible, who in fact went partway, but who ultimately fell short of the stars. Can you tell I’ve spent much time perusing the descriptions of these other two books? Yeah, I’ll be adding them to my to-read list. My … endless … to-read list.
Unlike these other two examples, Before Mars is something of a slow burn. It doesn’t start with a criminal act; it opens with Mars getting a new artist-in-residence, a geologist with a whole lot of secrets, some of which she seems to be keeping from herself. There’s more of the psychological thriller angle to this book than the others, but even so it becomes rapidly clear that something is indeed very wrong with herself, with the other Martian scientists, with the AI who runs their habitat systems, and with all of their memories. Newman has clearly read Gillian Flynn as well as Dashiell Hammett, and taken the “untrustworthy narrator” trope to heart. In a good way. That is, in a way that she makes count by the end, and rewarding the reader’s trust in the printed page to justify its inclusion. All the same, Before Mars rapidly escalates from subtle psychological thriller to full-blown whodunit, and our intrepid geologist-artist dishes equally as much of the accurate scientific minutiae as does Morden and Weir, only well-meshed in moments of real character development or the occasional scenic passage. There are very few infodumps to be found here, and in my mind that’s a mark in Newman’s favor.
Also, I’m a sucker for artists-in-residence on Mars. I’m pretty sure that was in my Twitter bio for a couple of years: “First writer-in-residence on Mars!” I was very enthusiastic, if you can tell, and also in recovery from my MFA.
There’s a mystery to be uncovered in Before Mars, and if you’ve already read the first two books in the series you’ll know what that secret is. If you haven’t, and you’re like me, you’ll find the eventual dénouement pleasingly strange and unexpected, and just the sort of conclusion to whet your appetite for reading more.
Emma Newman’s Before Mars was published by Ace Books in April 2018.
And there you have it: a trio, a triptych, a veritable flock of science fiction crime noir books to keep you on your toes through the summer months. There are a lot of details which resonate with each other, both in terms of successes and failures and characterization and tropes and the transmutation of beloved subgenres, and I think the rapid sequential release of these three books by three very different publishing houses indicates that something new isn’t just on its way. It’s already here. And it might just kill you when you’re not looking. (In a good way.)