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  • The fraying of an outdated moral code in the face of changing values.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

O Canada! Travels in Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror


As I mentioned last week, I’m off on my honeymoon at the moment. What I don’t think I mentioned is the fact that I’m honeymooning in the United States’ neighbor to the north. When the Professor and I mentioned honeymooning in Canada to most people, their reaction was usually one of considerate bewilderment: why not go someplace with warm, sandy beaches and fizzy drinks with little umbrellas? Well, both of us like rocky coastlines, lighthouses, cabins in the middle of nowhere, and tons of wonderful used bookstores. All this makes Nova Scotia pretty ideal.

And with a couple of days spent wandering through the stacks of some great used bookstores in Halifax, I thought I might give a shout-out to some of the Canadian genre creators who I’ve enjoyed:

Author Comments Good Titles to Start On
Margaret Atwood Putting aside Atwood’s semantic quibbles as to the definition of science fiction versus speculative fiction, her novels tend to be solid sociological treatises reminiscent of the 1970’s New Wave in science fiction. Her writing often reminds me Ursula K. Le Guin’s, although with a more starkly dystopic sensibility.

William Gibson Gibson’s name is synonymous with the cyberpunk sub-genre, and he is often hailed as one of the luminaries of early steampunk. His cyberpunk novels combine noir storytelling techniques with an often-prophetic depiction of near-future technologies, with his more recent works relying more heavily on prescient sociology sensitivity.

Guy Gavriel Kay Kay is an excellent fantasist who models his secondary worlds on real-world historical settings. Whether it is medieval Spain, Italy, Byzantium, or 8th century China, Kay’s depictions of settings and character paint a vibrant picture of times and cultures that most of us only know from history books.

Claude Lalumière Lalumière tends to produce dark fantasy short fiction notable for eliciting a quiet sense of unease. Language and characters are put to deft – though dark – use. His most recent novella (The Door to Lost Pages) stands out as particularly compelling.

Robert J. Sawyer Sawyer is a prolific science fiction author whose novels utilize hard science to probe more humanist concerns. His work tends to deal with the relationship between science and religion, as well as focusing on issues of self-identity. His books are fun, fast-paced reads whose seriousness sneaks up on you (at least they did on me when I first discovered his work some fifteen odd years ago).

Karl Schroeder A hard science fiction author who – for whatever reason – is grouped in my mind with Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson, Schroeder writes action-packed, fast-paced novels which rely on hard scientific conjecture for their settings and underlying premises.

Peter Watts Watts is a hard-SF author whose particular passion seems to be the biological sciences. If “genepunk” were a subgenre (and I think it damn well should be), then I would argue Watts for its doyen. His novels tend to be fairly dark and hard-hitting, and while they are not light on the science, they still manage to play effectively with the tropes of related genres (horror in particular).

Robert Charles Wilson Most of Wilson’s work is hard SF, though his earlier works veer towards the softer side of hard. My particular favorites are some of his earlier novels which play delightfully with concepts of time travel and most importantly reader expectations.

So without having the benefit of browsing through my bookshelves, that’s a list of fun Canadian genre authors I thought I’d share with all of you. Anyone have any others they’d like to recommend? Since I’m in Canada at the moment, I’d love to hear of any Canadian authors whose work has yet to appear in the United States. Does anyone have any suggestions?

The Future is Now: Is Hatsune Miku William Gibson’s Idoru made real?


There’s a new top-selling vocalist in the J-Pop genre: Hatsune Miku’s voice has been featured on gold-selling albums with Japanese bands like Supercell and Livetune (all links are to web sites in Japanese). Her singing has graced anime credits, and she has her own video game out from SEGA, and perhaps most impressively she’s performed live before crowds of 25,000 screaming fans. Of course, compared to the likes of Lady Gaga or Hannah Montana that’s not terribly impressive. But there’s a big difference between those standard pop-stars and Hatsune Miku: Hatsune Miku is not alive. She’s software. Think about that for a second: software, singing “live” to thousands of (real life) screaming fans. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the video:

Designed by Crypton Future Media, Hatsune Miku is the most popular of a type of software called vocaloids. These are programs designed to work with Yamaha’s vocaloid (vocal + android) software to synthesize human song. However, Hatsune Miku is more than the lines of code and signals that make up her synthesized voice. Her basic “look” was designed by the illustrator known as Kei, and features visual sensibilities familiar to fans of anime and manga. With this visual design and a distinctive (synthetic, mind you) singing voice capable of expressing complex emotions, Japan’s vibrant dojinshi music sub-culture soon developed the MikuMikuDance software to design 3D dance animations and music videos. The result is a complex community of lyricists, composers, illustrators, and choreographers/animators who collaborate and compete to create songs using their shared “instrument”.

The Consensus Mythology of Hatsune Miku

I freely admit, it is difficult for me to understand much of the nuance of this sub-culture as I (alas) don’t speak Japanese. However, from what I’ve been able to gleam from several hours of Internet research, Hatsune Miku is the logical meeting point of many Japanese sub-cultures. Her visual roots lie in manga and anime, but her initial genesis lies in the dojin music community. From there, Miku has spawned manga, anime, prose, itasha, and figures.

In the dojin music community, Miku is seen as an instrument first, not a character. And rightly, songwriters like Ryo (Supercell) are the true artists, since Miku sings what they write. Songwriters have utter control over every aspect of her performance: when she sings a note, she will always sing it the way the songwriter wanted (emotion included!). In this, she is no different than a keyboard or a guitar. The community collaborates through video and file sharing services, posting their work and soliciting feedback from other creators and fans. When Japanese media discusses Hatsune Miku artists, the focus is always on the songwriter: rarely the instrument.

But outside of the dojin music community, this “instrument” begins to resemble more popular manga, anime, and aidoru trends. With the plethora of (popular) dojin manga and fan-fiction, creators and fans build a consensus mythology around the character. Her history, her personality, all is built through the multi-faceted strands of her fan-base. Like many aidoru, she has publicized (and authorized by Crypton Future Media) measurements, the content of her songs is (in theory) limited by the license the creators agree to when using the software, etc. While it started with songs and videos, the Hatsune Miku community now creates stories, manga, and video games (Sega Hatsune Miku: Project Diva for PSP) that make use of this shared character.

Is Hatsune Miku William Gibson’s Rei Toei?

Fourteen years ago – long before the vocaloid technology was even close to possible – William Gibson wrote Idoru, the second novel in his Bridge trilogy. Set in an early 21st century Tokyo, Idoru examines a variety of cyberpunk themes, most particularly the relationship between artificial life and humanity which he explores through an artificially intelligent pop-idol construct named Rei Toei (after the Toei Company, one of Japan’s leading film and music studios).

In Gibson’s cyberpunk vision, Rei Toei is a self-actualizing adaptive composite intelligence. The point is that there are as many versions of Rei Toei as there are fans. Each fan builds a personalized album, songs, videos, performances, photographs, etc. of Rei based upon his or her particular preferences. When Rei performs in public, her style represents an averaging of the individual preferences across each fan in the audience, effectively becoming a consensus character. In a very real sense, Rei Toei represents the ur-idol: an “artist” with a perfect collection of traits that allow her to appeal to every single person in general, and to appeal to each fan in specific.

The parallels to Hatsune Miku are obvious. Like Rei, Hatsune Miku is a composite character: with the plethora of dojin songs, videos, and manga fans can gravitate to and select the content that specifically appeals to them. Don’t like a particular style? There are plenty more to choose from. In this sense, Hatsune Miku’s fans can consume their own concept of Hatsune Miku, selecting for a mythology and set of characteristics that appeals to them. No two Hatsune Miku fans will have the same preferences, but both can be equally pleased with what they get. In terms of predicting technology capabilities and the fan-base’s reaction, Gibson nailed it.

However, the differences between the two characters deal directly with some of Gibson’s (and cyberpunk’s) primary themes. Gibson painted Rei Toei as being strictly overseen by her owners. While her style and persona may be adjusted to the tastes of individual fans, it is the mega-corporation who enforces constraints on her choices. They provide her with the songs to perform and determine the types of behavior she can get into. Very purposefully, Gibson took the classic aidoru model of circumscribed managers, handlers, and controllers and applied it to an AI character. While the details of her public persona may be crowd-sourced and the personal consumption of her products personalized, the shared foundation for Rei Toei is prescribed by developer edict. In response, much of Gibson’s book focuses on Rei’s attempts to break free from the constraints imposed on her by the mega-corporation. Hatsune Miku, by contrast, is already free.

Every aspect of Miku’s “behavior” is determined by the distributed community of her creators. There is no single overseer who cashes in on her performances. Even Crypton Future Media – Miku’s ostensible “creators” and the owners of her code – do not try to limit the ways in which Miku can be expressed. As a result, Miku’s performances and behavior become just as crowd-sourced as her fan experiences become personalized. In dojinshi world of music, anime, manga and fan-fic there are no practical limits as to what Hatsune Miku can do.

Yet despite this freedom, Rei Toei is adaptive and self-actualizing, meaning that she represents an actual artificial intelligence that responds to human interaction, can converse freely, and can make independent decisions. She has become an emergent intelligence, capable of (seemingly) independent thought and action. Hatsune Miku – at least today – does not have any such properties. Modern technology has so far been unable to create emergent intelligence and as a result, Hatsune Miku is patently unable to choose her own destiny. Every choice is made for her by an individual and distinct creator.

The Ethics of Consensus Character Emergence

Is Hatsune Miku any more free than Rei Toei? On the one hand, Rei Toei is a perfectly adaptive self-actualizing AI. She is partially constrained by outside forces (her owners/creators), but she retains freedom of choice in certain limited arenas. Gibson’s book suggests that this represents slavery, despite Rei Toei’s artificial nature. Hatsune Miku, however, is perfectly constrained. She is not adaptive, not self-actualizing, and so is technologically unable to make any choices for herself. As a result, her creators maintain complete and utter control over her.

At first blush, this might seem like more oppressive slavery than what Rei Toei is subjected to, however I think the reality a little more complex. As anyone can create anything using the Hatsune Miku character, her range of effective choices is far broader than Rei Toei’s. She can do anything, so long as someone tells her what to do. This is at once more liberating and constraining, as it places the onus on the fans to determine who their consensus character will become. Many creators have a vested interest in the Hatsune Miku character, whether they are songwriters, music labels, authors, or publishers. The well-funded, well-organized creators have a far larger megaphone than the individual dojin working on their home computers. Will they hijack the Hatsune Miku character? Will they enforce their vision on her mythology? On the one hand, this may help popularize the Hatsune Miku character by making her more accessible to everyone. On the other, it will constrain the emerging consensus. Which would be better for art involving the character? What would be better for the fans?

I don’t have any answers, but I think we’ve entered a fascinating future where questions like this become practical concerns. When William Gibson wrote Idoru it was pure science fiction, set in a relatively near future, but involving technology so far beyond 486 processors and 32 MB of RAM that it was scarcely imaginable. But today, that science fiction has become very real. As a result, the questions that Gibson raised in 1996 have become much more relevant. How we answer them will affect the relationships between art, technology, and society. I don’t know if Gibson is aware of Hatsune Miku’s existence, but I hope he is. And I’d love to know what he thinks.

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