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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  • The fraying of an outdated moral code in the face of changing values.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

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. This post confirms that my subscribing to your blog was an excellent decision. This idea — if and how to meld fantasy with noir — is something I’ve toyed with for a few years. I tried hard a few years ago to write a short noir story that was also urban fantasy, but I’d never written either before (having mainly written stories in the high fantasy genre). I got some neat similes and atmosphere out of it, but my plotting and characterization totally failed. I hadn’t a clue how to write a mystery, much less how to write one that could accommodate the fantasy backstory I was trying to invent. A year or so later I tried again, remaking it into a flash fiction that was not only shorter but also less ambitious, and it worked much better — but I’m still not sure if it succeeded. I tend to be wordy, and I didn’t realize that noir prose is typically sparse. I also have difficulty staying with a cynical POV, since it’s so opposite from my own.

    But I think that if I were to try again, I could probably do much better. You’ve given me some great tips and ideas here, things to remember, authors to read first. At base, it’s important to remember that noir is always about a mystery, and about its protagonist coming very close to death and mangling in its pursuit. I’ll have to read some Chandler and Hammett to see how they handle their mystery plots; I may also brush up on my Doyle and Christie. After all, part of me really wants to try to make a high fantasy noir story work!

    (Actually, one of my more promising story series that I’ve been working on is urban fantasy with some light horror elements, and it may end up accommodating some noir later on. One can hope.)

    February 7, 2012
    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Good luck with the fantasy noir! While brushing up on some classic mysteries, I’d also recommend some of Chandler’s non-fiction. His essay “The Simple Art of Murder” is awesome, as is the intro to Trouble Is My Business (the latter dealing specifically with his thoughts on the aesthetics and structure of pulp mysteries).

      February 8, 2012
  2. Chris,
    Enjoyed this article!
    I’d like to add a few possible noir speculative fiction works. Steven Brust’s Jhereg series always seemed to be pretty noir to me, more so early in the series. Have just re-read Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks, I would suggest that this too is pretty noir, although it doesn’t have a number of the external features of noir, notably being written in third person. Less noirish, but still having many of the elements you identify, I’ll add another favorite of mine, Steve Perry’s The Man Who Never Missed.
    Fritz.

    February 10, 2012
    • @Fritz – Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’d never really thought of Consider Phlebas as having noir elements, but I’m definitely going to have to go re-read it and pay closer attention now. And thanks for the recommendation on Steve Perry – I haven’t read anything of his yet, but it’s on my list now.

      February 10, 2012
  3. Great piece — how about Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music

    March 25, 2012
  4. As the editor of WEIRD NOIR and NOIR CARNIVAL (both from FoxSpirit.co.uk) I wholeheartedly agree. While purists might require more specific elements, I’ve always been happy enough with the duck test.

    September 28, 2013

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