The game is always afoot: The SFnal adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Gautham Shenoy April 14, 2019 9 min

Arthur Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes enough to kill him.

And so he did, sending the detective plummeting to his death in the 1893 story, The Final Problem. But by then it was already too late. Because Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t stay dead for in six short years since his exploits were made public by Dr. John Watson, he’d amassed enough fans and admirers who wouldn’t let him die. If not Conan Doyle, other writers would pen Sherlock Holmes adventures. Like the creator of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie who, by the time Conan Doyle sent Holmes to his death had already written two stories starring the detective – My Evening with Sherlock Holmes (1891), The Adventure of the Two Collaborators (1893) – and would write a third immediately after reading about the events at Reichenbach Falls, The Late Sherlock Holmes in which Dr. Watson is arrested for the murder of Holmes. The story ends with an extraordinary rumour that, ‘Mr. Sherlock Holmes, at the entreaty of the whole British public, has returned to Baker Street’. This was indeed how it came to be ten years later, when in 1903 Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back to life in The Adventure of the Empty House, due to intense public pressure and the small matter of his overdue and unpaid bills.

Since then – and especially after the stories came into the public domain – Sherlock Holmes has never looked back, to become one of the world’s most beloved, recognisable and ubiquitous characters and the subject of hundreds of plays, radio dramas, films and television series. And of course the subject too, of thousands of stories – from pastiches to parodies and beyond – in every conceivable genre, including science fiction and fantasy. Here’s a quick look at just some of Sherlock Holmes’ SFnal adventures on the printed page in their collected avatar.

Left: The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes. Right: The Science-Fictional Sherlock Holmes.

The first Sherlock Holmes collection was 1944’s The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee under their pseudonym, Ellery Queen. The stories were by ‘Devotees of Doyle and Sycophants of Sherlock’ as the editor describes them and included authors such as Mark Twain, O Henry, Vincent Starrett and Agatha Christie. While this collection did include some stories with elements of the fantastic, the first collection that was exclusively science fictional in nature was 1960’s The Science-Fictional Sherlock Holmes published by The Council of Four, a branch of the Baker Street Irregulars, an organisation made up of Sherlock Holmes fans.

The Science-Fictional Sherlock Holmes containing a total of seven stories, each a science fictional pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, and an introduction – ‘Sherlock Holmes and Science Fiction’ – by the mystery writer Anthony Boucher and writer of many radio dramas featuring the detective. Two of the stories featured August Derleth’s detective Solar Pons, a character inspired by and based on Sherlock Holmes. While science fiction legend Poul Anderson’s solo story, The Martian Crown Jewels, featured Holmes as a Martian solving an impossible heist in outer space, his other story, co-written with Gordon R. Dickson, The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound, features the Hoka, a race of bear-like aliens who have recreated a replica of Victorian England and the Sherlockian mileu on their home planet. The Science-Fictional Sherlock Holmes has long been out of print, but three of the stories from this collection have since been reprinted in the 1989 anthology, The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Sebastian Wolfe. Not to be confused with the 1944 collection of the same name, this anthology also includes Sherlock tales by writers such as P.G. Wodehouse, Philip José Farmer and a pastiche featuring a detective named Womlbs called, ‘The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield’, a story that’s only notable because it was written by a certain John Lennon.

Left: Sherlock Holmes through Time and Space. Right: Sherlock Holmes in Orbit.

It is natural to see why science fiction authors would be drawn to detective fiction and mysteries Sherlock Holmes and especially his ‘science of deduction’ they operate at some level on the same principle of ‘what if’. One such SF author who was a fan of Sherlock Homes and would also write mystery stories was the Baker Streeet Irregular, Isaac Asimov who, along with Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh, would edit the 1984 anthology, Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space, which includes not just Conan Doyle’s own The Adventure of The Devil’s Foot but also the Hoka story mentioned above, and tales in which Holmes is an intelligent dog, amongst others by writers such as Fred Saberhagen, Philip José Farmer, Gene Wolfe and Mack Reynolds. Asmiov’s contribution to this anthology meanwhile is a short story featuring his puzzle-solving members of the Black Widowers club – The Ultimate Crime – a story concerning a treatise on astronomy called The Dynamics of an Asteroid, written by Professor Moriarty.

One of the co-editors of this anthology, Martin H. Greenberg would return to Sherlockiana in 1995, again as co-editor, this time with Mike Resnick with the anthology, Sherlock Holmes in Orbit. Divided into four sections depending on the time period that stories are set in: Past (in his own time), the Present, the Future and After Death, this anthology contains 26 stories that treat with Sherlock Holmes and the rest of the characters in science fictional terms. A little uneven in terms of the quality and treatment, this is nonetheless an essential read for any Sherlockian not least for some stories that stand out. These include the late, great Vonda McIntyre’s ‘The Adventure of the Field Theorems’ in which Sherlock must work with Conan Doyle himself to solve the mystery of the crop circles (termed in the story as Field Theorems); David Gerrold’s ‘The Fan Who Molded Himself’ ( a pun on the title of his most famous novel, The Man Who Folded Himself) in which we learn that Holmes was in truth, a time traveller; George Alec Effinger’s ‘The Musgrave Version’ about Sherlock’s encounter with Sax Rohmer’s villainous Fu Manchu and told through the point of Reginald Musgrave from Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual; Ralph Roberts’ ‘The Greatest Detective of All Time’ in which both Holmes – and Moriarty – consult with their respective colleagues across time and involves paradoxes and cunning traps, and Robert J. Sawyer’s ‘You See But You Do Not Observe’ in which Sherlock tries to solve the Fermi paradox itself.

Batman meets Sherlock Holmes in the 50th Anniversary issue of Detective Comics

It’s not just books that Sherlock Holmes has made his appearances in, but also on the pages of comics, most notably in Warren Ellis’ Planetary in which Sherlock Holmes is the mentor of the series’ protagonist Elijah Snow with whom Holmes shares the secrets of the world he helped shape.
Another landmark comic appearance was in 1987 – the year the world celebrated the centennial of ‘the greatest detective of all time’ – when Sherlock Holmes helped Batman, often dubbed ‘the world’s greatest detective’, with a problem involving Moriarty’s descendants in the Golden Anniversary issue of Detective Comics, the title that first introduced the caped crusader. At the conclusion of the story, Sherlock Holmes attributes his longevity to ‘a proper diet, a certain distillation of royal jelly and the rarified atmosphere of Tibet’, his primary residence. Sidenote: For readers interested in knowing about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Tibet during the great hiatus, ‘The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet’ by Tibetan political activist and writer, Jamyang Norbu is recommended reading.

Left: Shadows Over Baker Street. Right: The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

To return to Homesian anthologies, 2003’s Shadows Over Baker Street sees Sherlock Holmes in the midst of Lovecraftian mysteries and eldritch forces – with his ‘science of deduction’ pitted against the supernatural – over the course of 18 original stories that blend the world of Sherlock Holmes with the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. Edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, this anthology works on the presumption that the reader is familiar with Lovecraft’s stories and their characters thereof. That said, there are stories that can be enjoyed with even a passing familiarity, and standouts include Elizabeth Bear’s ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ with Irene Adler as the major character along with Sebastian Moran, Tim Lebbon’s ‘The Horror of Many Faces’, Barbara Hambly’s ‘The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Niece’ an action packed tale that also features William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective, Thomas Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder and most of all, one of the finest Sherlock Holmes pastiches of all time, Neil Gaiman’s Hugo-award winning story, ‘A Study in Emerald’, a superbly-crafted and ingenious tale with a surprise twist at the end.

Three of the stories in this anthology – including Neil Gaiman’s story mentioned above – are collected in 2007’s The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams, along with some stories from anthologies mentioned above – such as the stories by Vonda McIntyre and Robert J. Sawyer – and other collections of Sherlock Holmes stories for a total of 28 of the most entertaining pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. Featuring authors such as Stephen King, the author of the Temeraire series, Naomi Novik, the writer of the Elric saga, Michael Moorcock, Stephen Baxter, Mary Robinette Kowal, Tanith Lee, this anthology – that deserves to be on the bookshelf of every Sheerlock Holmes fan – also includes the Hugo award-winning story, The Singular Habits of Wasps Geoffrey A. Landis.

There are of course many individual books that can be classified as Sherlockiana, including the book that’s recently been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for 2019 – Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and the Detective which features a gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes in space, with Watson as the grumpy AI of a traumatised ship that brews tea. But all of these are a topic for another day, another column. As is the subject of the many science fictional adventures of Sherlock Holmes on screen.
But there is one instance I’d like to leave you with, which comes to us from a film directed by Nicholas Meyer, the author of one of the most famous and bestselling Sherlock Holmes pastiches – the 1974 novel, ‘The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.’. The film is ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’, based on a story co-written by Leonard Nimoy, in which, during one of the most famous scenes in Trek history, Spock quotes Sherlock’s famous aphorism from The Sign of the Four, “An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the solution.” I’ll leave it you dear reader to deduce the obvious. Live Long and Prosper!


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