Skip to content

Archive for February, 2012

REVIEW: Ride the Moon ed. M.L.D. Curelas


Title: Ride the Moon
Editor: M.L.D. Curelas
Pub Date: February 29th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An enjoyable, entertaining anthology with a wide variety of new authors.

When I think about the anthologies I have read, I tend to break them out into three different types: exploring a particular style (e.g. Supernatural Noir ed. Ellen Datlow, reviewed here), showcasing a particular sub-genre (e.g. Steampunk ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), or plumbing the depths of a specific theme (e.g. Paper Cities ed. Ekaterina Sedia). Through painstaking editorial curation, anthologists consolidate different voices and stories into a meaningful, unified whole. They can become more than the sum of their parts, and at the same time are packed full of fun, entertaining stories. And while I found that Tyche Books moon-themed debut anthology Ride the Moon didn’t culminate in a deeper insight into human nature, the collection of fantasy and science fiction stories was well-selected, well-organized, and definitely a fun read.

Thematic anthologies like Ride the Moon are, in my opinion, the hardest type of anthology to pull off. A stylistic exploration requires attention to style and tone, a sub-genre survey requires breadth and depth within that sub-genre, but a good thematic anthology necessitates building a TOC of excellent stories that are linked on a superficial level (the ostensible theme) and whose underlying truths are simultaneously unified in some fashion. The best example of this kind of anthology in recent times that I can think of is Ekaterina Sedia’s Paper Cities, which (despite the weaknesses of some individual stories) still managed to offer insight into how cities are employed in modern fantasy.

Ride the Moon is the debut book published by a new Canadian small press, Tyche Books. As their launch title, it is impressive. If I hold it to a high standard, it’s because on most measures I believe it comes pretty damn close to meeting it. Most of the stories are original to the anthology, though the occasional reprint (Edward Willet’s “Je Me Souviens” I recognized) is well worth inclusion. Most of the authors are Canadian, and I strongly recommend readers who might not be familiar with SF/F north of the border to check them out. While I recognized some of the authors (notably Claude Lalumière, Edward Willet, and Marie Bilodeau), most were brand new to me.

As the title suggests, every story in this anthology somehow touches on or deals with the moon as metaphor, god(dess), monster, or setting. With its lunar theme, the anthology skews somewhat fantastical: of the eighteen stories, only six are clearly science fiction. However, the remaining twelve fantasy stories tend to blend nicely between the explicit dark fantasy of Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” to the more science fictional fantasy of Ada Hoffman’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams”.

About half of the stories – most notably C.A. Lang’s “Tidal Tantrums”, Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon”, Keven Cockle’s “The Dowser” and Amy Laurens’ “Cherry Blossoms” – wrestle with the relationships of myth and magic in a modern, technological society. And while it might be tempting to say that therein lies the anthology’s unifying truth, I’m afraid that theory doesn’t hold up when faced with the anthology’s other stories.

The stories that I enjoyed most invariably did something fresh with both the lunar theme and their storytelling. Isabella Drzemczewska Hodson’s “Husks” is a beautifully written dark fantasy. The prose is lyrical and flowing, and Hodson’s imagery just draws you in. Her use of omniscience in the storytelling works to great effect: despite the omniscient narrator, I found myself embedded in the characters and their experiences. A. Merc Rustad’s “With the Sun and Moon in His Eyes” employs excellent characterization with tight prose. Both the subject matter and story structure reminded me of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, and appealed to me in many of the same ways. Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon” and Ada Hoffman’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams” both do a great job of drawing the reader into their characters, though I found the plot resolution of “Aloha Moon” a little too convenient. The biggest stand-out for me, however, had to be Edward Willet’s “Je Me Souviens”: a quiet, emotional, and intensely powerful story about mourning, loyalty, remembrance, and faith.

Some of the other stories, notably Krista D. Ball’s “On the Labrador Shore, She Waits”, Tony Noland’s “Sunset at the Sea of Fertility”, and Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” didn’t work for me. In most cases this was because I found their characters and plot structures fairly predictable. They were well executed for what they were…I just found that they didn’t appeal to me, and were otherwise unmemorable and unremarkable.

In sum, I would say that Ride the Moon is an entertaining, well-written, and well-structured anthology. Despite their significant differences, the stories flow into each other nicely. I enjoyed reading it and – perhaps most importantly – it has turned me onto a number of authors who I might not otherwise have encountered. This is an anthology well worth picking up if only for those two traits. And as a debut from Tyche Books, it makes Tyche a small press that I’m going to be paying attention to going forward.

Post-scarcity and Realistic Utopia: Where’s the fight?


One of the WIPs I’m working on right now is a far future SF novel inspired largely by Le Guin’s classic The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. As I’ve observed before, utopian novels are hard to pull off because an ostensibly perfect society removes – in most major ways – meaningful (read: existential) conflict. But I think I might have been wrong about that.

Fictional utopia and dystopia are tools through which we negotiate our society’s ethics. They are, in a very real sense, a debate about the values our society holds. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, or James Morrow’s City of Truth all ask us what price we are willing to pay for a perfect/harmonious society. In all utopian/dystopian stories, conflict occurs at the levels of logos and pathos, and traditionally, there are two structures through which that conflict gets expressed: the Outsider, and the Dissident.

The Outsider: Conflict in Utopia

A utopia is ostensibly a perfect environment, and that perfection tends to make society somewhat static. Lacking conflict, debate, the society becomes relatively unchanging. In some utopian environments, like Iain M. Banks’ Culture or John C. Wright’s Golden Oecumene, “constant change” may be the most static characteristic. But lacking internal debate, most authors positing a utopia turn to the borders of that perfect state to find conflict.

Older utopias, like Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Skinner’s Walden Two, tend to adopt the structure of a travelogue/fish-out-of-water story, and they typically prioritize logos over pathos in their conflicts. What little conflict they generate is produced by putting the utopian society’s values into conflict with an Outsider: typically a guest who comes to visit the perfect society, and thus disturbs – to some extent – that society’s equilibrium. More modern utopias, like Banks’ Culture novels, also rely on the Outsider to produce conflict. However, these stories focus on where the utopia’s remit ends, and where it comes into contact with different value systems. As such, it presents the utopia as being in constant conflict, to a greater or lesser extent, with the world outside its borders.

The Dissident: Conflict in Dystopias

Dystopias are generally characterized by their lack of defined borders. Look at any of the great dystopian novels, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Morrow’s City of Truth or even Collins’ The Hunger Games. The ostensibly perfect society is all-encompassing. Borders in Orwell are political and expedient, as opposed to ideological. Elsewhere, the totalitarian state controls the entire planet save for some few wild places that lack any structure through which the One State can be opposed. The classic dystopian narrative arc takes a character inside the dystopia, and translates them into an Outsider. These stories derive their tension from the fact that there is no Outside. Which is why their conflict stems from the creation of a Dissident.

The Dissident plays a more violent version of the Outsider’s role. His or her purpose is to oppose the dystopia’s value system, to express the nature of that opposition and to either withstand or fall beneath the system’s crushing totalitarian jackboot. And it is precisely that totalitarian, militaristic dimension which sets a dystopia apart from a utopia.

Characteristics of Dystopian and Utopian Environments

A utopia is generally a society which operates harmoniously, effectively, and perhaps most important, equitably. Historically, utopian fiction has been heavily influenced by the 18th and 19th century anarchist and socialist movements. But the basic premise underpinning all utopias is that within their borders, they function effectively and smoothly. Because utopian fiction tends to put value on its utopian precepts, it is typically a given that the society is internally cohesive. There is no dissidence, and nobody falls through the society’s cracks. Utopias are defined by the fact that, in their fictional universes, they work.

Dystopias, however, do not. They present the superficial appearance of effective operation. But that veneer hides the stick that the regime uses to enforce its values. Without the totalitarian police/military force, it would be impossible to concretely express the Dissident’s conflict with their society. When faced with internal opposition to its values, a dystopian regime cracks down, and does so violently, and it is from this conflict that we get a fun, action-packed narrative.

And yet, in thinking about it in light of the United States’ current economic troubles, I think we’re at a point in our societal development where a new type of utopian fiction can be proposed, and one which opens a third source of potential conflict: the Post-scarcity/Realistic Utopia, which can derive its conflict from the Marginalized.

The Realistic Utopia

Post-scarcity science fiction has been around for awhile, and lots of people have talked and written about it before. Much of the philosophical debates around post-scarcity society stem from anarcho-capitalist philosophy, which I’m going to leave to one side. Instead, I’d like to make the case that in essence, the developed world is today already a post-scarcity society. We produce more food than our population could ever consume. Consumer goods are available at a lower economic cost than ever before in the history of our species. We have access to healthcare that would boggle the finest minds of our great-grandparents’ generation. If there is a problem with our post-scarcity society, it is that the benefits of that post-scarcity are not evenly distributed.

Unlike the anarcho-communist utopias dreamed of yesterday, our society today still retains a division between the haves and have nots. And as a species, we have never been able to scale an equal distribution of societal benefit (whether we’re talking economic wealth, military power, healthcare, standard of living, etc.). As a result, the debates of today – as exemplified by the Occupy Movement – are less about ensuring economic equality, and more about negotiating how our society interacts with individuals or groups who otherwise fall through the current system’s cracks. The folks protesting in the Occupy movement are, to a great extent, either the Marginalized or the voice of the Marginalized in what by most measures can be considered a near-Utopian society.

If the past hundred years have taught us anything, it is that it is naive to believe that society will ever eliminate crime, or completely eliminate poverty, etc. These are ills that will always plague human society, and any utopia that tries to dream them away fails my plausibility test. Yet the mere existence of these societal ills is less important than how we as a society respond to them. And this, I believe, is fertile ground for utopian SF to explore. By focusing less on the economics of the utopian society, and by turning a lens on the values of that society through its marginalized constituents, we can gain greater insight into the human condition, and at the same time develop conflicts through which to tell compelling stories.

While it isn’t a perfect example, I believe that Samuel Delany’s Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, his response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, presages this future. His Bron Helstrom is ostensibly an Outsider, coming to the heterotopia of Triton from much more conservative Martian culture. In his new home, he is marginalized through his own value system, which is inimical to that of his new home. Yes, Delany also uses an Outsider structure in this novel, pitting his Triton against Earth in a devastating interplanetary war. And yet, it is Bron Helstrom’s narrative and personal experience of trying to adjust to his new – ostensibly Utopian – home that takes focus. Triton is not a perfect example of the kind of realistic utopia that I’m talking about here, but the focus on a marginalized individual who falls through the cracks of a supposedly perfect society is exactly what I believe utopian science fiction needs.

And I think it is exactly the kind of philosophical discussion that our society needs as well.

Romance as the Emotional B-Plot in Speculative Fiction


If you live in the United States, then no doubt all of the chocolate manufacturers have made damned sure that you know today is Valentine’s Day. I know plenty of people who grumble that it’s a made-up holiday, developed and popularized with the sole purpose of schilling chocolate and greeting cards. That may be true, but I like it anyway. And since romance is in the air, I thought I’d briefly ruminate on how romance can provide the emotional core of a story.

The Ubiquity of Love

There’s a reason why most stories are – at least in part – love stories. The cynic in me says it’s because sex sells, but I think the reality is a little more complicated. While we might read for very different reasons at different times, the capacity for love and affection automatically promotes emotional engagement. Don’t believe me? Check out this photo:

Kitten & Bunny, via The Sound of the Nosing Machine thru Google Images

When we see pictures like that, our response doesn’t end on “Awww, cute!” We engage with their subjects emotionally because we automatically feel affection for any living being that does the same. And the same holds true for characters in our fiction. Cheryl Klein, executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books and author of Second Sight (which I reviewed here) lists Fourteen Qualities of Attractive Characters (they’re mid-way through the linked post), and it is telling that six out of those fourteen can be shown through romantic attachment.

The reason why love works so well is because it immediately exposes the emotional core of our character. By its very nature, love puts their motivations, fears, and value systems on display. But in speculative fiction, the love story rarely drives the action. How does the emotional journey relate to the adventure?

Love as the B-Plot

In realistic literary fiction, love is often the central pillar of the story. Conflict is internally generated by the characters, and with its emotional highs and lows, love is an effective source of both conflict and pathos. In speculative fiction, however, we have much wider options for generating conflict: the fate of the universe can and often does hang in the balance. And with tremendous adventure, danger, and excitement it’s tempting to quote Short-round and say “No time for Love, Doctor Jones!” but as Indy shows us: there is always time for love, even if it’s just a side plot.

That’s because when it is shunted into a story’s side plot, the romance can then buttress the story’s entire emotional journey. I found a great example of this at work in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Ostensibly, it’s a fun epic fantasy adventure, stuffed to the gills with monsters, magic and mayhem. The action of the story centers on Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, an aging ghul hunter who rather than retire must instead battle a threat greater than any he’s ever faced before. The danger is physically and spiritually existential, but Ahmed uses his characters’ romantic relationships both to structure his story and provide emotional depth.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is principally told from five perspectives, and it is notable that four of these five are matched pairs: Raseed with Zamia, and Dawoud with his wife Litaz. Our central character, Adoulla, is pointedly alone. His love interest, Miri, has basically given him the old heave-ho. Structurally, his companions’ relationships present varying stages of Adoulla’s (now failed) relationship with Miri: Raseed/Zamia are young love, nervous and fiery. Dawoud and Litaz are the settled, comfortable love of long-standing companionship. Adoulla has neither of these, precisely because Miri has kicked him to the curb. And why has she done so? Because despite the fact that he’s getting old, Adoulla still insists on haring off after monsters out of his sense of duty.

Now that paragraph provides a neat summary of the romantic relationships in the book. But you’ll note that it doesn’t really touch (at all) on the action of the story. That’s primarily an adventure / mystery, where our heroes must figure out who is creating these monsters, why they’re doing it, and then stop them before they destroy the city (and eventually the world). But the romantic relationships add depth to all of the characters, and get us to invest in them. Without that romantic dimension, the characters would be cardboard.

Adoulla’s relationship with Miri employs a classic device when romance is a side-plot: duty versus desire. Adoulla wants to stop adventuring, to retire to a life of domestic pleasure and comfort with Miri. But his innate sense of duty will not let him. And through this opposition the first chapter of Throne of the Crescent Moon already provides us with a profound insight into Adoulla’s character.

By complicating his hero’s love life and then structuring his characters’ relationships in contrast to that emotional conflict, Ahmed creates an emotional resonance chamber: each supporting character individually gains depth through a deeper understanding of their motivations, desires, and values. And together, they escalate the hero’s emotional conflict by dangling an emotional brass ring before the hero and the reader. It is an elegant structure.

The Structure of Love and Thoughts on the Love Triangle

Structures like Ahmed’s are only effective when the emotional arcs they produce are either reflected or opposed by the action of the main story. In this case, Adoulla’s duty (the action) opposes his desires (the emotion). Another example is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, where Katniss’ emotional desire for familial security is intrinsically bound up with her conflicting feelings towards Gale (a hunter/provider type) and Peeta (a feeder/reliable type). Unlike Adoulla, Katniss’ emotional arc and the story’s action are not in opposition: the relevant themes reflect and amplify each other, where decisions in Katniss’ emotional life mirror those in her political life.

Collins’ love triangle is also an excellent example of a classic romance structure executed well. I love the love triangle as an emotional structure because when done right, it has a multiplier effect on the story’s emotional and thematic resonance. However, it is not without significant risk: the failure mode for love triangles is utterly atrocious. And since one can’t swing a cat in a bookstore’s YA section without knocking over a bookcase full of such triangles, Sturgeon’s law takes hold and most of the those I come across these days fail.

Love triangles only work when they mirror or oppose the themes of the story expressed through its action. When I look for classic triangles, there’s no one better than Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables both feature amazing love triangles that are packed with emotion…and which reflect the story’s broader action.

Hugo is interesting because his love triangles (in particular that of Marius/Cosette/Eponine) simultaneously reflect and oppose the action-oriented themes of the student revolution. Hugo is often called melodramatic for that reason, but c’mon…is there any way to have a love triangle avoid melodrama? Either in life or fiction, I don’t think it’s possible. And melodrama can and does add to many stories.

But if a love triangle fails to oppose or reflect the action-themes of the story, I find that my engagement with the characters is destroyed. Characters who would otherwise be engaging and interesting, suddenly become incredibly self-centered. If a love triangle, or even a love story, has no thematic or emotional relationship to the story’s action, it just becomes an exercise in narcissism. I love well-constructed narcissistic characters: they often make amazing villains or foils, and their emotional journeys can often be incredibly fun. But there’s a world of difference between aiming for and hitting a narcissistic character, and trying for engagement and getting a dreadful jerk.

When it comes to romance — triangular or not — unity is absolutely essential (see my earlier thoughts on unity here).

Techniques for Expressing Love

Honestly, there are so many ways to express a love story that trying to outline some of them is rather daunting. While I continue to try and put together a concise set of notes, I’m constantly reminded of Kipling:

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!

As I try and put my notes together, I’d really love (terrible pun absolutely intended) your help:

What are some stories that you’ve found do a good job with romance? And why do they do a good job?

The Aesthetics, Structure, and Themes of Noir Speculative Fiction


Last week on Twitter, I got into an interesting discussion on whether noir fiction is inimical to science fiction. The original conversation got fairly involved, and while we reached few conclusions (substantive discussions in 140 chars are tough!) the conversation made me wonder: is there something about the aesthetics, tropes, and themes of noir that make it oil to speculative fiction’s water?

The Components of Noir Fiction

In thinking it through, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we think of as “noir” is like any other genre: a broad spectrum of storytelling methods that at their basic root share some combination of the following traits (there may be more, but this is the list I came up with over lunch):

Stylistic / Tonal
  • Sparse prose lacking in emotional qualifiers (e.g. Dashiell Hammett).
  • Heavy use of juxtaposed similes rather than metaphor (e.g. Raymond Chandler).
  • Focus on realistic characters, plot, and and mimetic description (all).
  • Characters mired in a particular setting, situation, or themselves (all).
  • Sensory and simile-laden descriptions of atmospheric settings (all).
  • Hyper-localized (usually to a particular city) scope and setting (all).
  • Frank / mimetic treatment of violence and sex (all).

Structural Tropes
  • Innocent protagonist is wrongly accused of a crime.
  • The protagonist’s action is incited by competing interests who want the same thing.
  • The protagonist is betrayed by someone (typically a lover) he had trusted.
  • The love interest in need of saving turns out to be just as bad as the bad guys.
  • The femme fatale who excites self-loathing, pity, anger, and distrust.
  • The detective with a violent past.
  • Taciturn, bitter, damaged heroes.

Thematic
  • Moral protagonist at the whims of an amoral world.
  • Moral trajectory (clawing upwards or sliding downwards) of the flawed hero.
  • Unimportance of individual lives/crimes to the broader world.
  • The supposed futility of moral action.
  • The fraying of an outdated moral code in the face of changing values.

Can all of these traits – or any of these traits – work in speculative fiction? Are there some that cause the narrative to break if combined with aspects of speculative storytelling?

Noir Stylings in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Noir is often called a style, rather than a genre, precisely because of its stable set of stylistic tendencies. It’s easy to spot a noir sentence: “The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel” (Raymond Chandler from The Big Sleep). Noir owes much of its stylistic roots to the 1930’s obsession with mimetic fiction. Yes, the stories are lurid and over-the-top. But that doesn’t change the fact that classic noir writers eschewed metaphor in favor of journalistic storytelling or colloquial simile. At the level of world choice and sentence construction, this aesthetic stands in sharp contrast to the way much speculative fiction is written.

Whether we’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or horror, we are working with realized metaphors. Sure, sometimes a sword is just a sword. But Bilbo’s Sting is much more than a sword. Colonies mining selenium three in the asteroid belt? That’s an aspirational metaphor, a conceit, that the author asks us to accept for the sake of the story. While all fiction is – at some level – a metaphor, speculative fiction brings that metaphor forward: the very world in which it operates is meant to function according to different rules. For all we know, the physics and morality of that fictional universe are very different from our own. And it is the author’s job to engage us in that strange world.

The most common technique for establishing this world-building is to use an extended metaphor: to treat the unreal as if it were real. If the characters accept it, then so too will the reader. However, there is an inverse relationship between the familiarity of the story’s world and the work that the prose must do to communicate that world. Speculative fiction uses simile and metaphor to make the unfamiliar world understandable. Sparse descriptive prose works for the traditional noir story because it is – by definition – set in a world familiar to its readers. But in speculative fiction, layering simile upon simile and metaphor risks turning the story into a stylistic house of cards. Executed poorly, the story collapses under its own stylistic pretensions.

Applying a noir style to speculative fiction is an exercise in careful and precise balancing. On the one hand, we need to employ metaphor and simile to communicate our world-building. Yet on the other hand, we need to use sparse and carefully selected simile to give the story its emblematic noir feel. I suspect that achieving noir style is more difficult in fantasy than it is in science fiction.

Beneath its core speculative conceit, much science fiction aspires to a mimetic presentation of plausible action. As such, science fictional prose generally tends to rely less heavily on metaphor (besides its central world-building) than fantastical prose. Which is probably why I can think of many more science fiction novels which employ noir style than fantasies (George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran novels, William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, Richard Paul Russo’s Lt. Frank Carlucci novels, and A. Lee Martinez’ The Automatic Detective all come instantly to mind). Because fantastic prose relies more heavily on metaphor, it approaches noir more through its reliance on the classic tropes than through the style of its prose.

Tropes and Structure as a Window into Noir

We all know the noir hero when we see him: he’s wearing a trench coat beneath a streetlamp in the pouring rain, the smoke from a cigarette curling around the brim of his drenched fedora. You can see the weight of his history in his eyes. And while this kind of description is cliché, it is no less accurate for all that.

Noir and speculative fiction both share their roots in the pulps, and thus derive many of their stock characters from the same sources. It is hard not to see the connections between the tough-but-sensitive private eye, the cowboy with a past, or the scruffy space pirate. Noir structural tropes play well into the traditional independent ethos of much speculative fiction, which is probably one of the reasons why they so often get co-opted. And when the noir writing style won’t really work (as in much fantasy) then this puts that much weight onto the tropes and themes.

Consider for a moment Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. The basic premise behind them (the only wizard in the phone book) is straight out of hard-boiled crime fiction. In fact, much urban fantasy relies on the structure of the classic noir story to shape its plot. Of course, such urban fantasy tends to straddle a spectrum of storytelling: for every horror-tinged Southern Gothic (like Southern Gods by John Horner Jacobs – see my review here) you have a PI tale (Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, Glen Cook’s Garrett PI, etc. ) or a criminal-as-good-guy (Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces).

However, it takes more than just using plot structures or character tropes intrinsic to the genre to make a speculative fiction story noir. Those that do it well (like the ones I just mentioned) start with other noir devices. For example, Butcher and Connolly both tend to employ fairly sparse, descriptive prose. Connolly and Jacobs both have frank, bare-knuckled approaches to violence. Hamilton is just as frank when it comes to sex, itself an “innovation” often laid at the feet of noir. Their books also tend to oscillate around themes familiar to readers of noir.

However, there are plenty of times when fantasy stories tack on the structures and tropes of noir as mere window dressing. For example, in Ellen Datlow’s enjoyable anthology Supernatural Noir (see my review here) there were a couple of stories which failed to go beyond the most superficial employment of noir tropes. And as a result, for me at least, they neither worked as noir, nor as good fiction.

The Thematic Dimensions of Noir and Speculative Fiction

In our Twitter discussion, Kip Manley raised the argument that science fiction, fantasy, horror, and noir can all be characterized by their relationship to modernity. And while I agree with that statement on its basic tenet, I think that the thematic exploration of all four genres can go much deeper. In particular, noir has always been much more concerned with the individual than with a broader generality. This was not always true of science fiction.

People often call science fiction the “literature of ideas”, and it is often criticized for prioritizing concept and technology over characterization. And for a long time, this criticism was pretty accurate. In our time, this type of idea-focused science fiction tends to reside in the “hard science fiction” sub-genre written by Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Ben Bova, and Gregory Benford. Fiction which places its thematic focus on the ideas (technological or sociological) is to a great degree inimical to noir. And that’s because noir‘s central thematic concern has always been the individual, who typically gets lost in hard SF.

And yet. Noir themes show up frequently in “less hard” science fiction, be it in space opera (Alastair Reynolds comes to mind), cyberpunk (William Gibson, George Alec Effinger) or near-future science fiction (Ian McDonald, Lauren Beukes). Alone, themes focusing on the individual and their struggle in an amoral universe are not enough to make a work of speculative fiction “noir“. Too much fiction – let alone speculative fiction – focuses on the individual. But where those themes appear with other nods in the direction of noir, whether in structure or style, then I think it is safe to call a work of speculative fiction noir or at least noir-inspired.

But what about fantasy? Just as hard science fiction is made inimical to noir through its central concerns, so too are certain branches of fantasy. For example, epic fantasy – by its epic scope – breaks noir‘s reliance on hyper-localized concerns. Even if, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels or N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy (see my review of the second book here), an epic fantasy’s themes focus on the individual, by elevating that individual above the concerns of the everyman, an inherent trait of noir gets broken. Yet in plenty of other fantasy (and especially in urban fantasy), the hero’s everyman status is maintained and the story can safely be called noir.

How to Write Noir Speculative Fiction

In other words, I believe that there is no inherent reason why noir cannot be melded with speculative fiction, either in science fiction or in fantasy. The genres are not, as some would believe, mutually incompatible. However, it takes more effort on the writer’s part to take a piece of speculative fiction and give it a noir sensibility. If noir is composed of a combination of certain stylistic, structural, and thematic devices then the use of any one of those devices isn’t enough to give speculative fiction a sheen of noir. To really meld the genres, the writing needs to combine multiple dimensions of noir: style and tropes, or style and themes, or themes and tropes. Which is why doing that kind of noir mash-up well is so bloody difficult.

And because I love me some lists, here are a bunch of excellent speculative fiction books that I consider to be rather noirish:

Science Fiction Fantasy

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 134 other followers

%d bloggers like this: