In the vast tapestry of science fiction, there’s a particularly shadowy and evocative strand that seamlessly melds the grit of classic detective tales with the imagination of futuristic wonder. It’s a genre where the mysteries are deeper, the lights dimmer, and the cities often more sprawling, lit by twin moons or neon signs. It’s a place where neon-lit streets are drenched in rain, where starships bear the weight of human sins, and where detectives, draped in trench coats, unravel mysteries in a future tinted with both technological marvels and deep-seated melancholy. Sci-fi noir books, as this hybrid genre is known, draws readers into a universe of intrigue, combining the best of hard-boiled crime narratives with futuristic imaginings. So, pour a glass of synthetic whiskey, dim the lights, and let’s journey into the dark corners of tomorrow’s tales.
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Sci Fi Noir Books List
As we delve deeper into this world, we’ve curated a list of essential sci-fi noir books that epitomize the genre. These titles, each a gem in its own right, will transport readers to the smoky bars on distant planets and the rainy alleyways of future megalopolises. Without further ado, let’s unveil the must-reads of sci-fi noir.
Gun, with Occasional Music – Jonathan Lethem
Gumshoe Conrad Metcalf has problems—there’s a rabbit in his waiting room and a trigger-happy kangaroo on his tail. Near-future Oakland is a brave new world where evolved animals are members of society, the police monitor citizens by their karma levels, and mind-numbing drugs such as Forgettol and Acceptol are all the rage.
Mixing elements of sci-fi, noir, and mystery, this clever first novel from a beloved author is a wry, funny, and satiric look at all that the future may hold.
Metcalf has been shadowing Celeste, the wife of an affluent doctor. Perhaps he’s falling a little in love with her at the same time. When the doctor turns up dead, our amiable investigator finds himself caught in a crossfire between the boys from the Inquisitor’s Office and gangsters who operate out of the back room of a bar called the Fickle Muse.
Altered Carbon – Richard K. Morgan
In the twenty-fifth century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Now, assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person’s consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or “sleeve”) making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen.
Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched one hundred eighty light-years from home, re-sleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats “existence” as something that can be bought and sold.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
By 2021, the World War has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remain covet any living creature, and for people who can’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacra: horses, birds, cats, sheep. They’ve even built humans. Immigrants to Mars receive androids so sophisticated they are indistinguishable from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans can wreak, the government bans them from Earth. Driven into hiding, unauthorized androids live among human beings, undetected. Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter, is commissioned to find rogue androids and “retire” them. But when cornered, androids fight back—with lethal force.
The Automatic Detective – A. Lee Martinez
Even in Empire City, a town where weird science is the hope for tomorrow, it’s hard for a robot to make his way. It’s even harder for a robot named Mack Megaton, a hulking machine designed to bring mankind to its knees. But Mack’s not interested in world domination. He’s just a bot trying to get by, trying to demonstrate that he isn’t just an automated smashing machine, and to earn his citizenship in the process. It should be as easy as crushing a tank for Mack, but some bots just can’t catch a break.
When Mack’s neighbors are kidnapped, Mack sets off on a journey through the dark alleys and gleaming skyscrapers of Empire City. Along the way, he runs afoul of a talking gorilla, a brainy dame, a mutant lowlife, a little green mob boss, and the secret conspiracy at the heart of Empire’s founders—not to mention more trouble than he bargained for. What started out as one missing family becomes a battle for the future of Empire and every citizen that calls her home.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon
For sixty years Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a “temporary” safe haven created in the wake of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end.
Homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. And in the cheap hotel where Landsman has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under his nose. When he begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, and Landsman finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, evil, and salvation that are his heritage.
The City & The City – China Miéville
When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. To investigate, Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to its equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the vibrant city of Ul Qoma.
But this is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a seeing of the unseen. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them more than their lives. What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.
The Caves of Steel – Isaac Asimov
Like most people left behind on an over-populated Earth, New York City police detective Elijah Baley had little love for either the arrogant Spacers or their robotic companions. But when a prominent Spacer is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Baley is ordered to the Outer Worlds to help track down the killer.
The relationship between Life and his Spacer superiors, who distrusted all Earthmen, was strained from the start. Then he learned that they had assigned him a partner: R. Daneel Olivaw. Worst of all was that the “R” stood for robot—and his positronic partner was made in the image and likeness of the murder victim!
Red Planet Blues – Robert J. Sawyer
The name’s Lomax—Alex Lomax. I’m the one and only private eye working the mean streets of New Klondike, the Martian frontier town that sprang up forty years ago after Simon Weingarten and Denny O’Reilly discovered fossils on the Red Planet. Back on Earth, where anything can be synthesized, the remains of alien life are the most valuable of all collectibles, so shiploads of desperate treasure hunters stampeded here in the Great Martian Fossil Rush.
I’m trying to make an honest buck in a dishonest world, tracking down killers and kidnappers among the failed prospectors, the corrupt cops, and a growing population of transfers—lucky stiffs who, after striking paleontological gold, upload their minds into immortal android bodies. But when I uncover clues to solving the decades-old murders of Weingarten and O’Reilly, along with a journal that may lead to their legendary mother lode of Martian fossils, God only knows what I’ll dig up…
Leviathan Wakes – James S. A. Corey
Humanity has colonized the solar system—Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of our reach.
Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, the Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to the Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations—and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.
Certain Dark Things – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.
Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.
Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?
The Reality Dysfunction – Peter F. Hamilton
In AD 2600 the human race is finally beginning to realize its full potential. Hundreds of colonized planets scattered across the galaxy host a multitude of prosperous and wildly diverse cultures. Genetic engineering has pushed evolution far beyond nature’s boundaries, defeating disease and producing extraordinary spaceborn creatures. Huge fleets of sentient trader starships thrive on the wealth created by the industrialization of entire star systems. And throughout inhabited space the Confederation Navy keeps the peace. A true golden age is within our grasp.
But on a primitive colony planet, a renegade criminal’s chance encounter with an utterly alien entity unleashes the most primal of humanity’s fears. An extinct race which inhabited the galaxy aeons ago called it “The Reality Dysfunction.” It is the nightmare which has prowled beside us since the beginning of history.
Titanium Noir – Nick Harkaway
Cal Sounder is a detective working for the police on certain very sensitive cases. So when he’s called in to investigate a homicide at a local apartment, he’s surprised by the routineness of it all. But when he arrives on scene, Cal soon learns that the victim—Roddy Tebbit, an otherwise milquetoast techie—is well over seven feet tall. And although he doesn’t look a day over thirty, he is ninety-one years old. Tebbit is a Titan—one of this dystopian, near-future society’s genetically altered elites. And this case is definitely Cal’s thing.
There are only a few thousand Titans worldwide, thanks to Stefan Tonfamecasca’s discovery of the controversial T7 genetic therapy, which elevated his family to godlike status. T7 turns average humans into near-immortal distortions of themselves—with immense physical proportions to match their ostentatious, unreachable lifestyles. A dead Titan is big news . . . a murdered Titan is unimaginable. But these modified magnates are Cal’s specialty. In fact, his own ex-girlfriend, Athena, is a Titan. And not just any—she is Stefan’s daughter, heir to the massive Tonfamecasca empire.
As the murder investigation intensifies, Cal begins to unravel the complicated threads of what should have been a straightforward case, and it becomes clear he’s on the trail of a crime whose roots run deep into the dark heart of the world.
The Dispatcher – John Scalzi
One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone—999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don’t know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life.
Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher—a licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death’s crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death, and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge what they see as a wrong.
It’s a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it’s too late…before not even a Dispatcher can save him.
Trashlands – Alison Stine
A few generations from now, the coastlines of the continent have been redrawn by floods and tides. Global powers have agreed to not produce any new plastics, and what is left has become valuable: garbage is currency.
In the region-wide junkyard that Appalachia has become, Coral is a “plucker,” pulling plastic from the rivers and woods. She’s stuck in Trashlands, a dump named for the strip club at its edge, where the local women dance for an endless loop of strangers and the club’s violent owner rules as unofficial mayor.
Amid the polluted landscape, Coral works desperately to save up enough to rescue her child from the recycling factories, where he is forced to work. In her stolen free hours, she does something that seems impossible in this place: Coral makes art.
When a reporter from a struggling city on the coast arrives in Trashlands, Coral is presented with an opportunity to change her life. But is it possible to choose a future for herself?
Told in shifting perspectives, Trashlands is a beautifully drawn and wildly imaginative tale of a parent’s journey, a story of community and humanity in a changed world.
Midnight, Water City – Chris Mckinney
Year 2142: Earth is forty years past a near-collision with the asteroid Sessho-seki. Akira Kimura, the scientist responsible for eliminating the threat, has reached heights of celebrity approaching deification. But now, Akira feels her safety is under threat, so after years without contact, she reaches out to her former head of security, who has since become a police detective.
When he arrives at her deep-sea home and finds Akira methodically dismembered, this detective will risk everything—his career, his family, even his own life—and delve back into his shared past with Akira to find her killer. With a rich, cinematic voice and burning cynicism, Midnight, Water City is both a thrilling neo-noir procedural and a stunning exploration of research, class, climate change, the cult of personality, and the dark sacrifices we are willing to make in the name of progress.
Shovel Ready – Adam Sternbergh
Spademan used to be a garbage man. That was before the dirty bomb hit Times Square, before his wife was killed, and before the city became a blown-out shell of its former self.
Now he’s a hitman.
In a near-future New York City split between those who are wealthy enough to “tap in” to a sophisticated virtual reality, and those who are left to fend for themselves in the ravaged streets, Spademan chose the streets. When his latest client hires him to kill the daughter of a powerful evangelist, he must navigate between these two worlds—the wasteland reality and the slick fantasy—to finish his job, clear his conscience, and make sure he’s not the one who winds up in the ground.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami
Across two parallel narratives, Murakami draws readers into a mind-bending universe in which Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters collide to dazzling effect. What emerges is a novel that is at once hilariously funny and a deeply serious meditation on the nature and uses of the mind.
When Gravity Falls – George Alec Effinger
Set in a high-tech near future featuring an ascendant Muslim world and divided Western superpowers, this cult classic takes us into a world with mind- or mood-altering drugs for any purpose, brains enhanced by electronic hardware with plug-in memory additions and modules offering the wearer new personalities, and bodies shaped to perfection by surgery. Marid Audran, an unmodified and fairly honest street hustler, lives in a decadent Arab ghetto, the Budayeen, and holds on tight to his cherished independence.
Then, against his best instincts, he becomes involved in a series of inexplicable murders. Some seem like routine assassinations, carried out with an old-fashioned handgun by a man wearing a plug-in James Bond persona; others, involving whores, feature prolonged torture and horrible mutilations. Soon the problem comes to the attention of Budayeen godfather Friedlander Bey—who makes Audran an offer he can’t refuse.
Sci-fi noir, with its blend of technological speculation and moody ambiance, certainly holds a unique allure. But the literary universe is vast, and there are many other genres that resonate with the same depth, intrigue, and atmosphere. If the neon-lit streets and futuristic mysteries of sci-fi noir captivate your imagination, you may also find the following genres intriguing:
Cyberpunk: This genre delves deep into high-tech futures dominated by corporate entities, exploring the societal consequences of technological advancements. With a similar gritty atmosphere and a focus on the darker side of human nature, works like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” are quintessential examples.
Hardboiled Detective Fiction: If it’s the investigative aspect of sci-fi noir that you love, then classic detective fiction will be right up your alley. Dive into the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, where morally complex protagonists navigate a world of crime and intrigue.
Space Opera: For those enamored by the vastness of space and the intricate plots of sci-fi noir, space opera offers epic tales set against the backdrop of interstellar civilizations. Series like “The Expanse” by James S.A. Corey expertly mix political intrigue with vast cosmic settings.
Steampunk: A blend of historical settings, typically Victorian-era, with speculative tech inventions, steampunk offers atmospheric stories where steam-powered machinery meets detective tales and adventure, as seen in works like “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
Dystopian Fiction: If the societal exploration and cautionary elements of sci-fi noir resonate with you, then dystopian fiction offers grim futures that critique present-day issues. Novels like “1984” by George Orwell or “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley are cornerstones of this genre.
Urban Fantasy: This genre marries elements of the magical and supernatural with modern city settings, often with a noir-esque feel. Series like Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files” showcase a detective motif, with wizards solving mysteries in the heart of Chicago.
Remember, while each genre has its distinctive flavor, it’s the intertwining themes of humanity, morality, mystery, and the unknown that often captivate readers. So, whether you’re walking the rain-soaked streets of a future metropolis or venturing into a steam-powered alternative history, there’s a myriad of worlds waiting to be discovered.
Frequently Asked Questions
What makes a book noir?
A noir book is characterized by its moody, dark, and pessimistic atmosphere, focusing on themes of moral ambiguity, crime, and corruption. The protagonists in noir stories are often flawed or doomed and the setting is usually urban and shadowy.
The term “noir” originated from the French term for “black” or “dark”. The genre gained prominence with hardboiled detective fiction of the 20th century, often touching on societal ills and the darker side of human nature.
What does noir mean in books?
In books, “noir” refers to a genre that combines crime fiction with a bleak and pessimistic worldview. It showcases morally complex characters, intricate plots, and a tone that emphasizes cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.
The noir genre is often associated with film as well, leading to the term “film noir” which encompasses black-and-white Hollywood crime dramas from the 1940s and 1950s.
What is neo-noir books?
Neo-noir books are a modern evolution of the classic noir genre, retaining the essential elements of crime, moral ambiguity, and a dark atmosphere but often incorporating contemporary themes, settings, or narrative techniques.
While traditional noir might be rooted in the urban settings of the mid-20th century, neo-noir can venture into different eras or even speculative settings, blending with other genres like science fiction.
What books inspired LA Noire?
“LA Noire” is a video game heavily influenced by the classic noir and hardboiled detective fiction genres. While not directly adapted from any single book, it draws inspiration from the works of authors like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Ellroy, among others.
The game’s narrative, characters, and settings are reminiscent of classic noir films and novels, emphasizing the corrupt underbelly of post-WWII Los Angeles.
As we draw the curtains on our exploration of sci-fi noir books and their literary kin, it’s evident that the allure of shadowy streets, futuristic mysteries, and morally complex characters is timeless. These genres, with their nuanced blend of past, present, and speculative futures, invite readers into worlds where every dimly lit alleyway holds a story, and every turn of the page promises intrigue. Whether you’re a seasoned fan of sci-fi noir or just beginning your journey, the literary cosmos is vast, and there are always new horizons to explore. Happy reading, and may your literary travels be ever illuminated by the neon lights of imagination.