by Don Sakers
One type of science fiction that’s been in vogue recently is noir SF. It’s a type that’s notoriously maddening to discuss—mainly because it combines two terms that defy definition: science fiction and noir. I’m going to pretend that we all know what science fiction means, but what is noir?
The word comes to us from the cinematic category called “film noir” (French for “dark film”), and refers to a style of (mostly) crime dramas that fuse aspects of German Expressionism with influences from hardboiled detective books.
In critical circles, there’s much argument over whether noir is considered a genre, a format, a style, a fashion, a flavor, a tone, a storytelling mode, or something else entirely. No matter how we classify it, noir usually involves a number of common elements. Noir is usually set against a background of crime and criminality, often involving the criminal underworld of a big city or other urban-like setting. Protagonists are frequently involved in the investigation or commission of crimes, particularly murder. These protagonists tend to be cynical, flawed characters, alienated from society, and with various addictions and vices. At the same time, protagonists are often cool under pressure and given to witty repartee.
Noir plots are frequently intricate and even convoluted, with flashbacks and interior monologues common. Plot surprises and reveals are de rigueur: no one and nothing in noir are what they appear at the start. Plot elements such as mistaken identities, betrayals, double-crosses, false accusations, conspiracies, and sordid love affairs are common.
Noir has been described as having a fundamental pessimism, a view in which the world is corrupt and people are just puppets in the grip of uncaring fate. The morality of noir is ambiguous; even when the “good guys” triumph in the end, it’s at tremendous emotional cost. Some critics go so far as to say that hopelessness is a defining characteristic of noir.
Although here we’re most concerned with written SF, noir SF (like noir in general) is inseparable from film. In the cinematic universe, what we’re calling “noir SF” is usually referred to as “tech noir” or “future noir.”
Through both the mystery and horror genres, elements of noir trace back to Edgar Allan Poe, who was also an ancestor of science fiction. Although some elements of noir appeared in early and Golden Age science fiction, the first acknowledged example of noir SF was The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1953). An interesting side-note: Asimov reportedly conceived this book in response to John W. Campbell’s stated belief that a true science fiction mystery story was impossible—which likely explains why noir SF didn’t debut in the pages of Astounding. One can only mourn a wave of unborn 1940s noir SF stories by the likes of Asimov, Alfred Bester, Lester del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Malcolm Jameson, Henry Kuttner, William Tenn, Jack Williamson, and other Golden Age greats.
By taking a step back and squinting, one can divide the history of noir SF into three major periods. In the first of these, which we might call the Hardboiled period, there was little to no consciousness of noir SF as a separate thing—if anything, specific works might be said to have a “hardboiled detective” flavor. Besides The Caves of Steel, other books in this period include Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1952), Robert A. Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer (1957), The Rithian Terror (Damon Knight, 1965), Galactic Effectuator by Jack Vance (1980), and some of Philip K. Dick’s work, particularly A Scanner Darkly (1977) and the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966). Some popular writers of the period who used noir-ish elements in their fiction are Ron Goulart, Murray Leinster, and Mack Reynolds (all of whom also wrote mystery fiction).
Movies of interest include Decoy (a 1946 B movie that’s worth seeking out), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Alphaville (1965), The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), and Soylent Green (1973).
The next period could be called the Cyberpunk period; here noir SF appeared mostly as part of the cyberpunk movement, and traces back to the same common ancestors—films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), and Brazil (1985). Noir SF books in this period include Dover Beach by Richard Bowker (1987), George Alec Effinger’s Buyadeen series (1987), Nightside City by Lawrence Watt-Evans and the manga Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow (both 1989), Quarantine by Greg Egan (1992), Robert Sheckley’s Hob Draconian series (1993), Gun with Occasional Music (Jonathan Lethem, 1994), Flatlander (Larry Niven, 1995), Tea From an Empty Cup (Pat Cadigan, 1998) and K. W. Jeter’s aptly-titled Noir (1998). Among the movies of this period are The City of Lost Children, anime Ghost in the Shell, Strange Days, and 12 Monkeys (all 1995), Gattaca (1997) and Dark City (1998).
Noir SF came into its own in the current period (call it the Millennial), with publication of Alastair Reynold’s Chasm City (2001) and Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002), as well as the appearance on movie screens of The Matrix Trilogy (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (also 1999) and particularly Minority Report (2002).
Since then there’s been a steady stream of noir SF books, including the Retrieval Artist series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (2002), Century Rain (Alastair Reynolds, 2004), The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (Michael Chabon, 2007), Warren Hammond’s KOP series (2007), The Automatic Detective (Lee Martinez, 2008), The City and the City (China Miéville, 2009), Robert Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues (2013), Limit (Frank Schätzing, 2013), Change Agent (Daniel Suarez, 2017), and Warren Hammond & Joshua Viola’s Denver Moon series (2018).
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Richard K. Morgan
Del Rey, 528 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $13.99 (e-book)
Genre: Noir SF
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If anyone is most responsible for the current popularity of noir SF, it would be Richard K. Morgan. A British SF and fantasy writer, Morgan made a splash in 2002 with his debut novel, Altered Carbon. Originally marketed as cyberpunk, Altered Carbon helped to define noir SF as a separate entity. Followed by two sequels (Broken Angels, 2003, and Woken Furies, 2005), the book was the basis for a very successful Netflix TV series of the same name, launched in 2018. The series brought further attention to, and demand for, noir SF.
Morgan’s later work moved in the direction of science fiction thriller and science fantasy.
Thin Air is Morgan’s first novel since the Netflix series appeared. In it, he returns to his noir roots.
On Mars in this not-too-distant future, Earth-based corporations battle for control (and profits) while a growing independence movement among human workers mounts a sometimes-violent opposition.
One unwilling resident of this pressure cooker planet is Hakan Veil, formerly a professional enforcer now gone freelance. With body enhancements of military technology that make him a deadly killer, Veil is sick and tired of Mars and wants to return to Earth. When the Earth Oversight commission offers him a ticket home in exchange for a simple bodyguard assignment, Veil can’t resist.
The woman Veil is hired to protect is Madison Madekwe, an investigator for Earth Oversight. She’s come to Mars to track down a missing lottery winner. Veil figures the job will be easy—but as Madekwe digs deeper, she starts to uncover secrets that others want to remain buried. Others who are perfectly willing to kill to conceal the truth. A simple assignment turns deadly serious as Veil sinks deeper into the morass of the Martian criminal underground.
The Mars of Thin Air is oppressively claustrophobic, with all the pessimism and moral ambiguity that noir SF demands. Hakan Veil is a fascinatingly flawed protagonist, a man trying to find what good he can in situations well beyond his control. Madekwe starts as a simple client, then her relationship with Veil deepens and becomes more complex. The action keeps moving through a plot with enough twists and turns to keep Raymond Chandler happy.
If you like noir SF, and especially if you enjoyed Altered Carbon, this is a no-brainer . . . and if you’re wondering what all the excitement is about, Thin Air is a good book to start with.
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Vintage, 688 pages, $16.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
Genre: Dystopian Futures, Psychological/Sociological SF, SF Mysteries
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Here’s a book that isn’t strictly noir SF, but certainly uses some of the same elements.
Nick Harkaway is a British author of books that straddle the line between SF and thrillers. His first novel, The Gone-Away World (2009), was a post-apocalyptic thriller; Angelmaker (2013) was a Cold War espionage thriller of the James Bond variety. Tigerman (2014) was set on a Third World tropical island and dealt with a superhero, the Tigerman of the title. Harkaway also authored a 2012 nonfiction book called The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World.
In addition to all that, Harkaway is also a son of megastar author John le Carré.
In the near future of Gnomon, the System provides safety and security through ultimate transparency. Everyone and everything is under constant surveillance, continuously recorded and stored. Even citizens’ memories and thoughts are observed and recorded.
Mielikki Neith is an inspector, one of the State operatives called in when the System needs to enforce tranquility. She’s good at her job, and firmly believes in the goals and methods of the System.
When a dissident called Diana Hunter dies in the middle of a routine interrogation, Neith is assigned to find out what’s going on. As she reviews the case, reliving the neural recordings of Hunter’s death, she finds a collection of odd personalities rather than the individual identity she expects.
Digging deeper, Neith uncovers hints that Diana Hunter is much more than a simple dissident. Indeed, the attempt to pin down Hunter leads to questions of the nature of identity and of reality itself.
Gnomon isn’t an easy book, and I mean that in the very best way. It’s filled with digressions and tangents, all of which inform the story and its complex worldview. In some ways, I’m reminded of some of the more psychedelic works of Philip K. Dick or Christopher Priest. If you’re in the mood for something much deeper than a casual adventure book, give Gnomon a try.
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The Sky Woman
Flame Tree Press, 277 pages, $14.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
Genre: Psychological/Sociological SF
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J. D. Moyer is a California-based SF author and producer of electronic music. His short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Stranger Horizons, and other venues. The Sky Woman is his first novel. Among his previous jobs he lists event promoter, deejay, movie extra, martial arts instructor, dolphin cognition researcher, and Renaissance Faire fish hawker.
The Sky Woman is an enchanting story that rings changes on the familiar notion of future human anthropologists studying alien worlds. The anthropologists are human, all right, but the primitive world they’re studying is Earth, a good three centuries after the collapse of technological civilization.
Car-En Ganzorig is a citizen of the Stanford, a ringstation populated by the descendants of those who left Earth before the collapse. Under the authority of the Repop Council, Car-En and her fellow scientists study the few remaining societies scattered across Earth.
Currently, Car-En is on field assignment in a valley in what was once Germany, observing the newly-discovered village of Happdal. The people of Happdal live like the ancient Vikings, and although Car-En is forbidden to reveal herself or interact with the villagers, she gets to know them fairly well . . . especially a bow-hunter called Esper.
When a strange, otherworldly man shows up and abducts Esper’s sister Katja, Car-En decides she can’t stay hidden. Rebelling against her superiors, she reveals herself to the villagers—knowing full well that this act could doom her career.
At first the people of Happdal are suspicious of Car-En. After she saves Esper and his brother from attacking mutants, she wins their trust. The three of them, Car-En, Esper, and the brother, set off to rescue Katja and solve the mystery of her abductor.
First, they’ll have to survive the dangers of the mountains. . . .
A well-told story reminiscent of Ursula K. LeGuin or Karen Lord, The Sky Woman is definitely worth picking up
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James L. Cambias
Baen, 304 pages, $24.00 (hardcover)
Genre: Adventure SF, Alien Beings, Other Worlds
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In the olden days, science fiction writers would usually get their start with short fiction in the magazines. After establishing a reputation and building readership, the new writer would graduate to books. Nowadays many more paths are open to new writers; it isn’t uncommon for newcomers to debut with novels, through TV or movies, and even from the gaming world.
It’s almost refreshing to see an author follow the traditional way. James L. Cambias is one of those authors.
Beginning in 2000, Cambias published more than a decade’s worth of well-regarded short fiction, mostly in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He was nominated for the 2001 John W. Campbell Award for best new writer.
In 2014 he moved into novels with A Darkling Sea, followed by Corsair in 2015. Both were fine, thrill-packed hard SF tales.
Arkad’s World is a deceptively-simple story of a quest across a strange planet in search of a priceless treasure. With such a familiar plot skeleton, what counts is the body and clothing an author adds. Cambias fills out this body with some pretty nice details.
Teenage Arkad is the only human inhabitant of Syavusa. Orphaned as a child, he struggles to survive on the lawless streets of the city Ayaviz, surrounded by various aliens and menacing machines.
Arkad’s life is interrupted by the arrival of three other humans: Jacob Sato the historian, Ree Bright the ex-spy, and the enhanced cyborg Baichi. From them Arkad learns that Earth was invaded and conquered by the alien Elmisthorn. The trio is on the trail of a starship called Rosetta, a ship that bears a powerful weapon that could help liberate Earth.
Arkad has vague memories of his mother talking about the Rosetta, and offers to guide the others to it in return for passage offworld. They agree, and soon the little band is off on their quest.
There are just two problems. First, Arkad isn’t sure exactly where the Rosetta is to be found. And second, they need to cross half a hostile, frozen world filled with alien miscreants and deadly environmental challenges.
There are alien cultures aplenty, strange creatures, magnificent landscapes . . . as well as secrets, hidden loyalties, and betrayals. Those who fondly remember Jack Vance’s classics Big Planet and The Dragon Masters won’t be disappointed.
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Blackstone, 263 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
Genre: Literary SF, Psychological/Sociological SF, Visitors From Space
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Cadwell Turnbull is a fairly new voice in our field. He’s had short fiction in Nightmare, Lightspeed, and our sister publication, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The Lesson, his first novel, is a parable of cultural conflict, conflicting moralities, colonialism, and the costs of being a decent person in the midst of desperate times.
The book is set in the near-future U.S. Virgin Islands. Five years ago, a technologically-advanced alien race called the Ynaa arrived, parking their mothership above Water Island, a small residential island just south of the main island of Saint Thomas. The Ynaa claim to be on a research mission, but refuse to disclose any more information.
The Ynaa ambassador, Mera, has studied humans for centuries. Her human assistant, Derrick Reed, is a misfit who finds real companionship in Mera. Called a traitor to his own people, Derrick is drawn more powerfully toward his alien boss.
An uneasy peace reigns between the humans and the Ynaa, a peace that is enforced by the Ynaa’s policy of countering any aggression with overwhelming retribution.
When a Ynaa kills a young human man, his family responds by assassinating one of the Ynaa. The situation quickly spirals into widespread violence, leaving Mera and Derrick to choose how to respond.
This is one of those books in which the setting becomes almost a character in itself. The Virgin Islands and their people are drawn in vibrant detail, and their struggle is as much a part of the story as the relationship between Derrick and Mera.
Turnbull has been compared to Octavia Butler, and in his case I think the observation is a valid one. The Lesson isn’t just a serious, important book—it’s also a fun and rewarding one.
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18 Wheels of Science Fiction: A Long Haul Into the Fantastic
Edited by Eric Miller
Big Time Books, 309 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $3.99 (e-book)
Genre: Original Anthologies
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And now, as they say, for something completely different.
Transportation systems have long been a topic of science fiction stories. Rolling roads, flying cars, jet packs, teleportation, transatlantic tunnels, space elevators, interstellar wormholes, dimensional gates—the list is endless.
The latest excursion along this well-traveled highway is 18 Wheels of Science Fiction, an anthology of SF stories concerned with long-haul trucking. Editor Eric Miller has put together eighteen original stories by eighteen authors, and if you think you’d never be that interested in the world of the big rigs, this book may show that you’re mistaken.
The big names in this anthology include Terry Bisson, John DeChancie, and Gary Phillips. A number of the authors, like Analog’s Paul Carlson and Bond Elam, have worked in and around the trucking industry, lending their stories an extra bit of authenticity.
With highly specific theme anthologies such as this one, I’m always amazed at the enormous breadth of stories. The authors have each gone in a totally different direction (which I suppose is how trucking works, after all). As you might expect, autonomous trucks figure into a number of tales, but in surprising ways. There’s also an alien fuel additive, cyborg truckers, time-traveling trucks, post-apocalyptic delivery routes, and various trips beyond our reality.
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Today I Am Carey
Martin L. Shoemaker
Baen, 336 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
Genre: Artificial Intelligence, Psychological/Sociological SF, Robots
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Another concept that’s been a staple of SF stories is the household robot. If the first robots were Karel Capek’s factory workers, it wasn’t long before robots became butlers, maids, babysitters, and all manner of domestic servants. Eventually the real world even got into the act: today’s robot vacuum cleaners may not be the friendly androids we envisioned, but they’re something.
Today I am Carey is a household robot story that deals with questions of identity, senility, and love.
Mildred Owens, Alzheimer’s patient, is assigned a full-time android assistant. Carey, the android, is designed with a changeable outer shell and internal emulation network that allows it to take on the appearance and behavior of people from Mildred’s past and present. This lets Carey comfort and care for Mildred, as well as to preserve her fading memories. Fundamentally, Carey is a medical instrument, an appliance, much like Mildred’s phone or microwave oven.
Yet as Carey continues to serve Elizabeth, taking on more of her memories and emulating more people, something changes. Carey begins to develop a consciousness, a sense of being an independent entity.
When Mildred passes away, Carey must find a new mission. It broadens its purpose to caring for Mildred’s family: scientist-entrepreneur Paul, teacher Susan, and their young girl Millie. Carey is particularly suited to serve and protect the Owenses, because in a way Carey is each of them.
But even Carey can’t prevent the passage of time, and as decades go by, as Millie grows up and changes come to the family, Carey must adapt and learn to create its own destiny.
Carey is one of the most delightful robots to come along in quite a while, and Today I am Carey is a fine addition to science fiction’s century-long conversation about our mechanical servants.
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Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creatures and Tech
edited by Selena Chambers and Jason Heller
Hex Publishers, 418 pages, $19.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (e-book)
Genre: Biomimicry, Cyborgs, Original Anthologies
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In real-world science and technology, biomimicry is the big new thing. Robotics, medicine, optics, construction, transportation, urban design—these days it’s hard to find an industry that isn’t taking inspiration from nature.
Of course, science fiction was way ahead, from Doctor Who’s robotic dog K-9 to various flavors of Transformers, we’re had artificial animals and other technologies derived from nature for a good sixty years or more.
Editors Selena Chambers and Jason Heller are right on top of this trend. In Mechanical Animals they collect twenty stories and two essays by twenty-three authors, all on the theme of biomimicry.
In addition to original stories, the anthology reprints classical work by Hans Christian Andersen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Jules Verne. Current familiar names include Aliette de Bodard, Nick Mamatas, Delia Sherman, and Carrie Vaughan. The essays are by artist Mike Libby of Insect Lab Studio and SF scholar Jess Nevins.
Once again, the sheer breadth of stories is amazing. From AI technology based on beehives to a post-apocalyptic world full of robot scavengers, from an old man creating artificial farm animals to an urban artists turning junk into fantastic menageries, there’s something in here for everyone.
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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
Random House, 304 pages, $18.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (e-book)
Genre: Frankenstein Revisited, Teen SF
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Has it already been two hundred years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published? How time flies.
In celebration of the famous monster’s bicentennial, Random House has issued Kiersten White’s reimagining of Shelley’s classic tale. Over the years there have been too many derivative works to count. In SF alone, everyone from Brian Aldiss and Fred Saberhagen to Dean Koontz have tackled the story; you might remember 2018’s Frankenstein in Baghdad by Almed Saadawi (reviewed here in the July/August 2018 issue). The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is a worthy addition to the list.
Elizabeth Lavenza is the archetypal 17th-century forsaken waif. When she escapes from an abusive caretaker, she’s taken in by Judge and Madam Frankenstein. She becomes part of their family, sheltered and schooled and given a security she never knew.
Elizabeth is fascinated by her adopted brother, Victor Frankenstein, and as years pass she becomes devoted to him. Victor is brilliant but solitary, and Elizabeth is his only friend. But Victor has a wicked temper and disturbing obsessions. Before long, Victor’s pursuit of knowledge starts to lead in some very dark directions . . . and Elizabeth is behind him every step of the way.
Except that there are monsters, and Elizabeth’s world is getting more and more dangerous. As she watches Victor’s progression into insanity, Elizabeth feels that her own survival is at stake. But can she oppose the brother she loves?
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is being marketed as a children’s book, but don’t be deceived: it’s a multilayered and sophisticated story of psychological horror suitable for any adult.
And now, I do believe I’m out of space. See you next time.
Copyright © 2019 Don Sakers