I’ve been slowly reading the Eve Dallas mysteries by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), a few at a time, and recently passed number 25 in the series. Even while reading the first in the series, Naked in Death, I’ve thought the future New York City Robb presented was a “Jetsons Future.” By the way, this is not a critique. It’s more me musing about a concept, and how Robb put it into practice; how she used science fictional trappings within the context of a noir detective series, while keeping the science fictional elements accessible to readers who are not afficionados of sf.
To me, a “Jetsons Future” means several things. First, that there’s a retro-futurist feel – in the Eve Dallas series, the future technology depicted feels, to me, very like the future as it was depicted in the 1960s. Exhibit A, flying cars. Exhibit B, very advanced household robots (called droids, but they don’t seem self-aware). Exhibit C, the autochef (similar to a device shown in Star Trek). These signifiers of the future don’t change much over the course of the series; however, Robb adds a smear of noir to the worldbuilding, for example, a rundown droid as the clerk in a pay-by-the-hour flop, or flying cars that don’t run properly.
I feel that in this series, the retro-futuristic elements–the droids, the autochefs, the flying cars–are stage dressing, there for visual interest or sometimes for humor, as when something malfunctions. The future technology constantly appears in the stories, but it isn’t the reason for the stories.
A common definition of science fiction is exploring the results of a hypothetical change, whether that change be technological, environmental, or social. The Robb series, however, is primarily mystery, sub-genre detective fiction, sub-genre noir. Its plots thus follow the conventions of mystery, not science fiction. The science fictional elements are there only in service of the setting and mystery plot.
For example, there are in-series references to “The Urban Wars,” a time of major social upheaval; the older generations alive in the time of the series would have experienced these wars in their youth. However, the cause and direct effects of the Urban Wars are never explained or explored. For example, a character sees a building, which is cheap and ugly because it was quickly erected after the Urban Wars, or a character’s wife was killed in the Urban Wars. It’s implied these wars were worldwide, but never confirmed. To me, the main purpose of the Urban Wars in the series is to add noir. The series is set in the future, and the future isn’t shiny. Why? Perhaps the Urban Wars wiped out all possibility of such a future. But that’s not explored in the series – the point is how that event in the past affected the mystery plot.
Another aspect of the worldbuilding is the mixture of future tech of different levels. In Eve Dallas’ world, there are fabulous satellite resorts with fabulous technology; these are contrasted with decaying neighborhoods of New York City, whose tech is either broken, out of date, or nonexistent. The implications of an economy that can support such satellites is not deeply explored, even though one of the early novels uses such a resort as a setting. Again, the resorts are there in service of the mystery plot.
The police work in the series is made much easier by future tech: spray sealant so police can work directly with crime scenes; advanced laboratory techniques for uncovering trace evidence (mostly not described); voice-activated computers that run complex potential scenarios. The latter, especially, is useful for the mystery plot because it saves story-time. The reader can be offered possible solutions to the murder without having to read all the steps leading to those conclusions; having those computer probabilities can make the mystery more complex and enjoyable.
Other future tech in the series seems purely recreational, and again is used as background, such as a holographic projector that creates a realistic beach scene that, apparently, is real to the touch as well. As a science fiction reader, I’m sometimes thrown out of the story a little when I wonder, “is that possible with this society’s technological level?” Even though it’s clear from the text that this type of tech is meant to be a throwaway, merely an interesting setting for a sex scene or background for relevant dialogue.
I enjoy these books, but I think I would enjoy them even more if the science fictional aspects were more firmly integrated with the mystery plots.