Recently I've been rereading some classic detective stories — some of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, some of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, and some of Raymond Chandler's works. It occurred to me that mystery stories, and the historical development of the genre, had an interesting parallel with science fiction.
Both science fiction and mysteries began as fundamentally unrealistic. This is obvious with respect to science fiction — there were no Martians invading Britain in H.G. Wells's day, nor vast interstellar wars when E.E. Smith was writing — but it may seem odd to say about mysteries. After all, there really were crimes and detectives when Doyle and Christie were writing, weren't there?
I say that mysteries were fundamentally unrealistic because the early mystery stories, from Poe's "Murder in the Rue Morgue" down to at least the era of Agatha Christie, were completely divorced from the reality of crime and crime-solving. Real-world detectives don't rely on clever feats of deduction or knowledge of obscure trivia. They get the job done by patient legwork and research, asking questions, and (nowadays) making use of technological methods like fingerprinting and DNA matching. The focus is less on figuring out a puzzle and more on building a case which can bring a conviction in court.
Mystery fiction in its first golden age — the Doyle-to-Christie era — was all about elegant logical puzzles and arcane trivia. A whole subgenre emerged of "locked room mysteries" and similar tales about crimes which appear impossible and therefore baffle the authorities. At times the lengths to which criminals in mystery stories would go to make their crimes unsolvable was frankly insane. And it had nothing to do with any real-life crime and everything to do with the demands of the genre.
In one of Dorothy L. Sayers's classic Peter Wimsey novels, Lord Peter focuses on figuring out the seemingly-impossible method because once you know how the crime was done, that will lead you to who did it. A real-world cop standing over a man shot to death on a sidewalk, surrounded by neighbors who swear they didn't see it, might not agree with Lord Peter.
I'm not the first person by any stretch to notice this. Raymond Chandler eviscerated the whole genre of puzzle mysteries long ago in his brilliant essay "The Simple Art of Murder." It was Chandler, and other writers of what came to be known as the "hard-boiled" school, who knew something about real crime and real criminals, and began to drag mystery fiction out of its unreal bubble. Oh, to be sure, there are still plenty of amateur sleuths solving cozy mysteries nearly a century after Chandler's essay, but the heart of the mystery genre nowadays seems to be in procedural stories about (more or less) realistic cops and private investigators solving (more or less) realistic crimes.
This shift had a very important follow-on effect. When mystery stories stopped being elegant puzzles set in a kind of Never-Never Land of country houses and eccentric millionaires, the characters in them changed. They became real people, with real motives. For a modern reader, stories like those of Agatha Christie or G.K. Chesterton have a strange, dreamlike quality about them. (Doyle, to his credit, made the settings of his Holmes stories a lot more real and vivid than many of his successors could manage. Compare the grubby London and Thames waterfront he shows the reader in "The Sign of Four" with the fairy-tale city of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday.)
Let me pause here to point out that I'm not saying Chesterton or Christie were bad writers. They were extremely good writers working within the parameters of a very artificial field. Both of them were masters of gaming the implicit rules and twisting the reader's expectations, which wouldn't have worked outside the "classic" mystery format.
Science fiction, as I said above, had a parallel shift, a generation or so after mysteries. In the case of SF, it wasn't that realism invaded the genre, but rather the genre invaded reality. Science fictional tropes like nuclear weapons, spaceships, computers, satellites, and all the other things we like to brag about predicting turned from fictional to real. Now, obviously science fiction writers have tried to surf the wave and stay ahead of reality, but I think the experience of seeing science fiction turn into science fact had an effect on the creators of the genre similar to what happened to mystery fiction with rise of the more realistic hard-boiled school of writers.
When the setting got more realistic, the characters had to follow. Compare characters in "Golden Age" SF from the 1950s with those in modern stories. It's more than just the change in attitudes from one decade to another. The writers really are paying more attention to characterization and psychological realism. Even in the most old-school contemporary stories, such as — for instance — my own A Darkling Sea, there's a lot more focus on the characters as individuals and how they're affected by what's going on.
It's worth remembering that there was once a split within science fiction almost as sharp as the divide between the old-school puzzle mystery writers and the hard-boiled crowd. In the 1960s the fracture lines between Campbellian SF writers like Asimov, Clement, or DeCamp and the more consciously literary writers like Silverberg and Ellison were quite distinct. As late as 1985 Asimov himself wrote a bomb-throwing essay called "The Little Tin God of Characterization" in which he tried to reclaim SF as a literature of ideas instead of, well, literature.
Interestingly, this never happened to genre fantasy. Writers like Dunsany, Tolkein, Lieber, and Howard all had extremely well-realized characters and settings right from the start. I wonder if that's one reason fantasy never quite had the "kid stuff" stigma that bedeviled science fiction. I can still save my thesis though, by positing that fantasy, as a modern literary genre, is the the more realistic development of the ur-texts of fantasy — fairy tales, folklore, and myths. Genre fantasy is what you get when you write about real people in a fairy tale or myth.
I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that this is a law of literature: that when you write realistically about something, the people in the story have to get more realistic to match. Has anyone else noticed this? If not, I want to claim it as Cambias's Law.