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  • The fraying of an outdated moral code in the face of changing values.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

Leaping the Chasm of Imagination: Verisimilitude, Historical Fiction, and Speculative Fiction


The borders of genre are famously porous. Devices that start in one genre will get adopted, subsumed, and then modified in another. Then the cycle starts again, with the “new” device trickling back to its original progenitor. This tendency is why asking whether realistic or speculative fiction developed first is meaningless: anthropologists and fans can probably debate this ’til the heat death of the universe, and even then the answer won’t matter. But I’m curious as to how and why certain narrative techniques make this leap and others don’t.

Verisimilitude is the Heart of Storytelling

Every single genre – regardless of how speculative it is – relies on some degree of verisimilitude to enable comprehension. Sure, it’s theoretically possible to write a science fiction novel entirely in a made-up alien language with concepts for which there is no human analog…but who on this planet would actually read it? At the most basic level of language, we rely on mutually comprehensible words to communicate. This is the point where I call shenanigans on the pseudo-linguistic (read: intellectually irresponsible) school of critical theory that argues that text/words/language are inherently meaningless. If that were true, then we would not only never have fiction, we would also lose all written correspondence and spoken conversation. Community relies on communication: note their similar roots.

The sentence “John opened the door.” could appear in a hard science fiction story, an immersive secondary world fantasy, or in mimetic chick lit. Sure, we might need to replace the character’s name, and call John “Blaghosan” or something to maintain the illusion, but the act of opening a door can apply in any of these fictional modes. The richness of our lexicon and its corresponding flexibility enables us to assemble more complex, interesting, and layered sentences. But fiction (and any communication) relies on a shared ontological foundation.

At Viable Paradise (which I attended a couple of weeks ago), the amazing Teresa Nielsen Hayden said something utterly profound: “The subject verbed the object, and it was good.” The particulars might vary, but at the sentence level that basic principle underlies all communication, regardless of its realism. The fancy stuff (metaphors, similes, neologisms) that speculative fiction authors love is really a set of clothes hung on this incredibly flexible frame.

The Basic Devices of Fiction: Simile, Metaphor, and Neologism as Genre Markers

All writers use a certain basic arsenal in an infinite variety of combinations to communicate and manipulate their audiences. The most basic tools are such an indelible part of language, communication, and thought as to be near inseparable. But how we use them can actually be one of the markers of speculative fiction.

When we employ a simile (“John scuttled like an ant”) we are establishing a sense of apparency. The use of “like” indicates that John is not in actuality an ant. He merely acts with characteristics more commonly associated with one. Such a use of apparency can take place in any genre and is likely as old as language. Metaphor (“John was an ant scuttling across the floor.”) and neologism (“John the antyman scuttled”), however, are a little more complicated.

If we’re reading a work that is by definition realistic, then we recognize metaphor as a stronger way of evoking apparency. If we’re reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, we know that John hasn’t actually become an arthropod. But if we’re reading something speculative than lacking other markers in the text, our hero John may have suddenly literally transmogrified into an insect (hey, it worked for Kafka, right?).

When we come across a neologism (“antyman”) we now have to decode the new word and incorporate it into our lexicon. Its semantic meaning may be unclear, and needs to be gleaned from context. In speculative fiction, that context may support fantastic concepts (antyman – the hybrid of a human and an ant) or merely extend our realistic lexicon (like Shakespeare coining terms like “assassination”).

This decoding process is part of what we love about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Decoding where a given work’s fantastic borders are is an intellectual puzzle that gives us no small degree of satisfaction (whether escapist or otherwise). Traditionally, literal metaphor has been the plaything of speculative fiction writers. Realistic writers might have dallied in it a bit, but it is only with the relatively recent rise of magical realism and literary fiction’s “discovery” of science fictional devices that this technique has been fully appropriated. A similar process has happened over the centuries with narrative structures.

The Many Structures of the Novel

While many hardcore genre fans might disagree, I would argue that most innovative novel structures first appeared in “realistic” fiction. Whether it is the epistolary novel, the framed narrative, stream of consciousness, or non-linearity it probably appeared first in the realm of realistic mimetic fiction. There’s a good reason for that: like speculative fiction, innovative structures require effort on the part of the reader to decode and process them. To expect the reader to decode an innovative structure and process the speculative elements is likely expecting too much.

Consider the history of the epistolary novel. When it first grew to prominence in the seventeenth century (check out Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister), we had to learn how to consume realistic epistolary novels before fantastical interpretations could flourish. As far as I know, it was not until 1818 that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus successfully introduced early science fictional elements into the epistolary structure, and not until 1897 that Bram Stoker’s Dracula did the same for the nascent genre of horror. I suspect these novels owe much of their continued longevity and relevance to being early examples of speculative stories that made the imaginative leap and successfully appropriated a mimetic/realistic structure.

The pattern is quite similar for other innovative narrative structures. Could Delaney’s Dhalgren have appeared without the innovations of Kerouac? Or would Effinger’s When Gravity Fails have the same resonance without Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett? As readers, we don’t need to have read the realistic taproot texts to experience and enjoy their speculative descendents. Because their structures are successful, they spawn a multiplicity of children: they become part of the cultural zeitgeist that soaks into our awareness.

This pattern actually holds even for the most basic taproot texts of literature. At the start of this post, I asked whether realistic or speculative fiction came first. And the answer is that they both appeared at the same time in the form of historical fiction. Wikipedia dates the first piece of historical fiction back to the 20th century BC. In those ancient days, there was little distinction between what today we characterize as “myth” and what they called “history”.

Even the earliest historical fiction had the same world-building challenges as speculative fiction. History is a foreign country we can never visit, and ancient Greece or Regency Britain are as foreign to our twenty-first century sensibilities as Middle-Earth or the Sagittarius Arm. The world-building techniques for the two genres are identical. Look at how Patrick O’Brian pulls us into his Napoleonic-era nautical understanding in his Aubrey and Maturin books. Then compare his methods to how Arthur C. Clarke introduces us to space-age technology in Rendezvous With Rama. The challenge is the same, and the craft to address it is the same as well.

Does the Pendulum Swing Both Ways?

With the rise of the modernists in the early twentieth century, we saw the fantastic get relegated to a pulp ghetto that we still struggle to escape. Yet even then, there were some “mainstream” authors who looked to fantastic fiction as a source of inspiration (Kingsley Amis and Shirley Jackson both come to mind). The last several decades have seen fantastical techniques gain acceptability within the realistic fiction community (provided they’re labeled “magical realism”). With post-apocalyptic texts like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or blatantly science fictional novels like Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel being published as “mainstream literary fiction” we may be living through the pendulum’s reversal as we speak.

Which are the fantastical devices that will now hop back over that imaginative chasm? What are – and what will – contemporary “realistic” writers learn from their speculative peers? That the cycle will keep going I have no doubt, but I’m curious what lessons realistic authors are learning from those of us who like to mess about with elves and space ships and zombies. Regardless of the genre, my own predilections suggest that writers who want to innovate structurally should read widely and extensively across genres to internalize others’ innovations wherever we come across them. T.S. Eliot nailed it when he said “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.”

What should we be stealing nowadays?

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