One could argue until the cows came home about the definition and origins of noir, and many have been known to do so. From the moment that German expressionist movies and cinematographers moved that extra inch into darkness or crime writers combined their vision of cities at night with the despairing existential angst overwhelming their hapless anti-heroes, noir has been with us in many forms. A concept which is also a mood and an emotion.
These days the many faces of noir are bandied about with reckless abandon: we’ve had neo noir, blue collar noir, country noir, retro noir, political noir, urban noir, and so on and so on. And in most cases, these variations work and do encompass a territory which is familiar to all of us fans of atmospheric crime writing (and I say this as someone who has committed a handful of cities noir collections…).
But I would argue that another genre altogether lends itself with admirable efficiency to harbouring the very essence of noir: science fiction!
As strange as it may initially appear, SF is fertile ground for harvesting the tropes of noir and the disconnect between every day reality and the fully imagined alien environment the speculative genre offers is an ideal breeding ground for all that is best about noir.
Of course, SF has long combined successfully with the crime and mystery genre. Randall Garrett in the 1950s created a world where magic was as codified as science and gave us sleuthing wizards, whilst Isaac Asimov in THE CAVES OF STEEL and sequels offered us straightforward investigations in a world where robots were not only present and subject to the sacrosanct Laws of Robotics but also became intimately involved in investigations of cases implicating their kind. Many other SF and fantasy writers followed suit with wonderful results, but this was just an added dimension of crime writing, as the setting of domed or underground cities or castles and dungeons was just incidental to the plot and did not provide the required atmospheric boost to cross over into noir, nor did the characters have the obstinate and often doomed attitude that is also a mark of what we think of as noir. Indeed, the whole Foundation series by Asimov could be seen as an epic investigation, as generations of protagonists seek the location of the fabled second Foundation?
Philip K. Dick was the first SF writer to systematically develop the existential characters that we recognize as our very own tarnished knights or manipulated schemiels in his stories and novels: everyday chumps and anything but heroes swept along by the winds of oppression, conspiracy and fate. As if characters by Mickey Spillane had landed shouting and screaming on the shores of say, Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke and, for the first time, we were able to identify with characters in a SF world because they were real, and the fun -if it could be said that living in a noir universe is fun for any character- was in wondering what we would do if immersed into a similar situation (a world where the Japanese had won WW2, where reality was questionable and a hall of mirrors, where drugs altered perception, etc…). When DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP was filmed by Ridley Scott as BLADE RUNNER, a visual dimension of sprawling, alien cities built on the recognisable foundations of our own was added to the Dickian universe and SF noir truly became an entity of its own.
And then William Gibson created cyberpunk. In NEUROMANCER, he introduced the logical extension of Philip K. Dick cities: vast urban agglomerations with layer upon layer of darkness and light and artificiality, a perfect environment for his grasping adventurers and console buccaneers to move through. In Gibson’s books, the tarnished knight of Raymond Chandler’s world has become a punk with integrity, a pirate of cyberspace whose struggle with the mega-corporations and a host of mysterious foes, unfolds through labyrinthine streets and dark buildings like a runaway train on a course for nuclear collision. William Gibson proves the ultimate SF noir author, combining with adroit intelligence the updated versions of cynical private dicks with a super dash of modernity alongside the teeming background of festering cities born of ALPHAVILLE and BLADE RUNNER. Never has noir been so potent, or scary.
Gibson fostered a new wave of SF authors, many of whom became increasingly adept at giving the genre a new lease of life and a distinct relevance to the complexities of the world we live in. And by bridging the gap between crime and SF, he has also been instrumental in attracting a younger audience of readers to both genres. He has his imitators by the legion, and one side-effect of his innovation has been the flourishing of another sub-genre, steampunk, which right now appears to enjoy great commercial success, albeit with merely a zest of noir to show for itself.
Two more recent SF writers have succeeded in creating original SF noir worlds of note: China Mieville and Simon Morden.
Mieville’s multi award-winning THE CITY AND THE CITY takes the hybrid concept of SF noir and crime past new horizons. The character is a cop, and we are presented with an investigation into a murder, but it is the gloriously-imagined setting that is mind-bogglingly imaginative: two cities (or maybe even three…) that exist on the same space and time plane, both of which studiously ignore each other and the meanders and cracks through which the investigation must move, wearing literal blindfolds and mental obtuseness. A magnificent concept which, in my opinion, is noir at its best.
Simon Morden is a young British author whose previous books were in the young adult genre. The first volume in his Metrozone trilogy EQUATIONS OF LIFE introduces us to a world after unnamed wars and catastrophes have isolated geopolitical masses and created a teeming London full of refugees from all over the globe and a city where poverty and untold riches coexist just miles apart. The main character is a mysterious Russian refugee who is also a computer whiz and in desperate need of a new heart. How much more noir can you get than a protagonist who could die at any minute? Add a mysterious Japanese Yakuza corporation, religious fanatics and a machine-gun wielding Vatican fighter nun and you have a breathless adventure against a carefully-delineated but recognizable future world that combines the better virtues of both crime and SF genres.
A stroll across the science fiction of the past two decades will unveil even further fascinating examples of SF noir. So, leave your prejudices in the decompression chamber and get a healthy dose of a different kind of noir!
Noir is a broad church, not just crime-based.
Maxim Jakubowski is a British writer and editor, once responsible for the Black Box Thrillers and Blue Murder imprints, and owner of London’s Murder One bookstore. He now edits the MaxCrime list for John Blake Publishing and the annual Mammoth Book of Best British Crime Stories, already in its ninth year. His latest books are Following the Detectives, a travel guide to fictional mystery locations, and a new novel, I Was Waiting For You. He lives in London.