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  • The fraying of an outdated moral code in the face of changing values.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

Writing an Episodic Genre Series (part 2 of 3): Episodic Plots and Pacing


NOTE! This is the second in a three-part series on writing episodic genre series. The previous installment discussed the episodic hero, while the third installment (planned for Tuesday) will focus on the hero’s emotional journey.

This past Tuesday, I wrote about how episodic heroes are constructed in contemporary science fiction and fantasy series. While an episodic series relies on that hero, it is each individual book’s plot that keeps the reader turning pages. A good episodic plot will avoid formulaic writing, while providing an escalation in tension so that the reader keeps turning pages. The key to this is to establish momentum, and as the series progresses to vary the structure of each book’s plot. This keeps the reader interested in the book they’re holding in their hands right now, while the hero’s emotional journey (discussed in the next installment) keeps them buying the next book.

Pacing: Hitting the Ground Running

By leaving the character’s backstory off-stage, episodic books typically open with the hero actively starting the adventure. This is a page taken right out of the detective novel playbook. When we first meet Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, we find her turning down work from a shadowy vampire organization. We first encounter Ray Lilly traveling to his latest case, or Harry Dresden getting a job. Episodic series sprinkle the hero’s backstory here and there, but no time is wasted by delving narrative-style into the hero’s psyche or providing an infodump on “what-came-before”. Episodic series hit the ground running, and they tend not to let up until the mystery is solved, the monster is slain, and the hero can put his feet up.

Middle-grade novels especially establish the stakes early on (often on the first page!). I strongly recommend reading middle-grade episodic novels (like The 39 Clues series) to find some tricks on how to establish stakes and simultaneously establish the hero’s characterization. From conversations I’ve had with children’s book editors, the speed with which readers are drawn into the story is one of the most important characteristics they look for. Adult episodic series, with their tendency towards functional prose and page-turner status, can learn much from the pacing techniques used by children’s authors.

The Shape and Structure of Episodic Plots

Most episodic series rely on mysteries for their plot structure. Many employ the classic mystery plot: clear identification of the mystery, broadening suspicion, a sub-plot intrinsic to the hero’s emotional arc, discovery that the hero has been on the wrong track, re-focusing of the hero on the right track, explanation, climax and denouement. This type of plot may seem a bit cliched, but the practical reality is that if it worked for Agatha Christie, it’ll work for people writing today. The originality and inventiveness of the individual authors shines through in how they flesh out these bones to create their books.

Urban fantasy series like The Dresden Files or the Twenty Palaces novels rely on a combination of characterization and world-building to enrich their basic plots. Paranormal romances like the Sookie Stackhouse novels or the later Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books combine mystery plotting with the techniques of romance. Episodic adventure series like Artemis Fowl or Vlad Taltos invert traditional tropes (criminal vs sleuth, commit a crime vs solve a crime).

The Sense of Escalation

As the series progresses, building a sense of escalation becomes critical. Think of it this way: if the hero saves the universe in book one, what’s he going to do in book two? Many episodic series avoid this pitfall by focusing the plot on rather narrow concerns: if an epic hero saves the world, an episodic hero is more likely to save an individual. By keeping the scope focused, it makes it easier to escalate the stakes as the series progresses.

With her experience writing children’s books, Kate Griffen does an excellent job escalating the stakes across her Matthew Swift novels. In the initial installment (A Madness of Angels) Matthew Swift is focused first and foremost on his own survival. He is looking out for Number 1, and if others get swept up in his fight for survival that is their problem. In the second book (The Midnight Mayor) Swift has the (magical) mayoralty of London dumped in his lap, and he must deal with the consequences. At stake is the entire city of London and England itself.

Connolly uses a similar tactic to equally good effect: in the first Twenty Palaces novel (Child of Fire), the primary stakes are the hero’s life. Sure, there’s a town involved but Ray Lilly is focused on his own survival. In the second book (Game of Cages), his focus shifts to that of the town where a ravenous predator has escaped. What makes Connolly’s execution so strong is the unity he achieves between the explicit escalation of the stakes in the plot, and the escalating tension/stakes on Ray Lilly’s emotional journey (more on this in the next installment).

This kind of thematic and tactical escalation across books in the series can also tie into the character’s experiential growth: if the inexperienced hero can do something, it stands to reason that as their capabilities and understanding grow, so too will the stakes they fight for. The Harry Potter novels, themselves straddling the fence between epic and episodic, manage this experiential escalation very well.

The Danger of Formula and Using a Change-Up to Avoid It

The danger in all of this is that a plot model that works for the first, second, and third book in the series may seem formulaic and dull by the fourth, and fifth book in the same series. This is a point where the best episodic writers introduce what I call a “change-up”, a device which imbalances the hero’s routine and changes the plot structure of the books.

Different authors employ different change-ups: Steven Brust took away Vlad Taltos’ fortune, profession, and family by the fifth book. Jim Butcher introduces varying changes into Harry Dresden’s personal life (roommates, family members, etc.) while weaving strands for a super-plot that ties into Harry’s backstory and extends across the series.

By introducing such new elements, or by subverting the formulas employed in the earlier books, the plots can remain fresh for long-time readers and the momentum can be maintained throughout the series. But to be effective, the change-up has to do more than just intensify the predominant theme. For example, the Sookie Stackhouse novels are centered around romantic relationships. The characterization of Sookie represents the series’ greatest strength, with an iconic and engaging character and a distinct narrative voice. But as the series progresses, Harris attempts a change-up by complicating these romances through the introduction of new paramours and the removal of old flames. Because the books were already centered around relationships, the change-up rings flat and fails to build a sense of increasing stakes. As a consequence, the books rely upon the reader’s prior investment in the character and the world of the series. In Harris’ case, this gamble might work due to the audience’s strong emotional involvement with Sookie. But it is a big risk to take.

Plot versus Emotional Arc

This discussion of plot is centered around one book, within the context of a broader episodic series. The defining characteristic of episodic series is that each installment stands alone, and in order for that to work, each installment’s plot must stand alone. However, it must balance its independence with the foreshadowing and references necessary to link subsequent books and preceding installments. The key to this, I believe, is the hero’s emotional changes over the course of the series. This emotional development is not confined to any one book, and it represents the glue that binds the books to each other. The next installment (Tuesday) will focus on this.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for the third and final installment which focuses on using the hero’s emotional arc to keep readers engaged across books in the series.

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