Monday, November 3, 2014

"Space Noir"

A review of my novel The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes called the work “space noir.”  I loved that phrase.  And though I didn’t aim for such a label I welcome it and find it accurate.  
The review, by Michael Wellenfels, appeared in his “Book Culture” blog, “The Shelf Life”:

. . . if Star Wars is space opera, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is space noir. For me, noir trumps opera. I love the lone protagonist navigating a complex web of blind alleys, shadowy players and secrets galore – it’s the stuff that really turns pages, and Wendland does it well ( 

Thank you, Mr. Wellenfells!  I love that type of story too, and I’m glad mine worked for you.

But this got me thinking about the possible characteristics of “space noir.” I don’t want to produce a list of requirements—there’s no better way to kill the energy in a sub-genre than establishing a list of “must have’s.”  And I’m sure my own book would not satisfy everything on such a list (I had no list in mind when I wrote it).  But I couldn’t help thinking of the possible associations, and maybe even the background, of such a label.  So let me offer a few basic assumptions on what would permit this phrase to be used. 

First of all, there’s a precedent for noir stories in SF, though not many before the 1970s. The first inspiration (for me, anyway) was the Marvel comic Warlock from Jim Starlin, and then the starker, grimmer tale “Darklon the Mystic,” also from Starlin, that appeared in Eerie in 1976, a story of murder and revenge under an overly starry sky.  It used the standard noir locations of dark cities and grimy bars, but spaceships were included too.  A greater influence was the Dan O’Bannon/Moebius story, “The Long Tomorrow,” that appeared first in Metal Hurlant (1976) in France, and then Heavy Metal (1977) in America. It established the scenario of the hard-boiled detective walking the mean streets of a futuristic but dysfunctional city—with a nasty scene at a spaceport.  The next big example, inspired by the Moebius story, was Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982), the most influential example of SF noir yet.  It was startling to me when it came out—I saw it 8 times within three weeks.  But Bladerunner was limited to Earth, specifically a grungy if futuristic but nearly unlivable urban world, with almost nothing natural in it at all.  Noir, but not really space noir.  And Bladerunner’s type of noir went on to influence most of the cyberpunk stories that followed, starting with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984).  But these books were also often limited to only Earth or near Earth orbit. 
The kind of space noir I was interested in would be more free-ranging.  So here are some tentative, non-restrictive, and never required characteristics of a speculative sub-genre:

1.   As Wellenfells suggests, one common feature would be the “lone protagonist navigating a complex web of blind alleys, shadowy players and secrets galore.”  The person need not be a private eye, but someone who predominately, by choice or necessity, works alone, and thus is often more in danger—and ignorance—than a whole police squad or “galactic patrol.” And the hero could be compromised with a secret past, not eager to share his or her personality.  We get only hints of it, and thus the main character can become as much a mystery as the events of the book.

2.   Most likely, you need a murder, a drastic event to start the story rolling.  It could be several murders or a physical catastrophe that looks too purposeful.  But the murder should not be posed as just an intellectual mystery—this is no cozy, no game or puzzle for a Marple or Poirot to solve.  The murder, or whatever the event is, should be more than just a moral indiscretion; it’s also a slip in cosmic balance, something not right on a bigger interplanetary or interstellar scale. The story’s not just a whodunit, and the villain is not just a murderer.  There’s the hint of greater insecurity and of more going on—beyond the city, and especially beyond the planet . . . even “beyond the stars.”  

3.   The trail of investigation leads into space, not just to orbital stations or habitats but to other planets.  Indeed, as the story progresses, the bigger concerns and wider vistas overtake the simple murder, and the forces and motivations behind the act swell in significance, so the protagonist has to travel to different worlds or different outposts in space.  The involvement or problem can thus span the magnitudes of star-fields and the galaxy, and even, possibly, time itself.

4.   Setting is important in all noir stories; witness how the grunge future of Bladerunner’s acid-rained Los Angeles has become such a visual influence (internet depictions of Neuromancer’s “chiba” look an awful lot like it).  We can get a bright outer side of the future in space noir, but we also get the underside, a short look behind the scenes, at the underprivileged, the “discarded,”  just to show that the culture itself, no matter how progressed or technologically superior, still has its problems, and still tries to hide its seamier self. 

5.   And, as another part of setting, obviously not required but appropriate if included, there could be a scene at a spaceport, preferably at night.  As with most noir stories, there’s a sense of transience, of people dislocated, of old train stations and people on the run.  This spaceport is not just a bright stop with great restaurants and exclusive shops; it also has a seedy underside or underworld where people don’t want to stay hurry on to somewhere else. 

6.   And finally, and here’s where this type of noir would be completely different from more standard urban noir, it needs a touch of the sublime.  In traveling into space, natural (or artificial) phenomena are encountered that have all the characteristics of the sublime:  they’re overwhelming to human observers, they’re often beyond comprehension, they’re near impossible to describe (they challenge our standard means of comparison and understanding), and they’re frightening—and the fear itself can become an attraction.  Whether they’re black holes or crashing galaxies or exploding suns or planetary geologies in upheaval, they can be fascinating because they’re so new and alien, so unlike anything we’ve seen—captivating even when they’re incredibly scary.   

This last quality is important because, in urban-centered noir, the overly-powerful element that the small protagonist must confront is usually some characteristic of the culture—ruthless corporations, out-of-control technology, vast economic or social exploitation. Think of the eye of the cop at the beginning of Bladerunner staring out at the industrial wasteland that is human-made, a world of metal and brutal profit, of poison smog and climate collapse.  But in space noir, it’s something in the larger universe we must confront, something cosmic, some aspect of the way planets and stars and galaxies work, or a manipulation by aliens powerful enough to be gods.  Humans are not up against their own society out of control or their own technology running rampant, they confront some aspect of the whole universe instead, its secrets, its powers, its indifferent violence. There’s just more to deal with. 

I don’t know if that’s enough to define a sub-genre, but it’s a possible type of story I’ve come to love (Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination might fit as a good “classic” example), and I hope to deal more in it.  Each new book would have its own characteristics, like my next, In a Suspect Universe, which won’t be as close as my current novel.  But the next after that in the Ranglen “trilogy” should be more representative—it’s tentatively entitled Galaxy Time.   
All in all, these notions sound fun.  And creating the characteristics of a sub-genre can be almost as interesting as writing the book itself.  


  1. Great post, Al. Richard K. Morgan also writes space noir, I suppose. I call it postmodern cyberpunk.

    1. Thanks, Ceres! All our different sub-genre tags become so entangled after a while. To me cyberpunk was postmodern SF, but now, as you say, maybe it goes one step further--into postmodern postmodernism, so to speak. :-) That all of these genres are always in flux is what makes them so interesting, I guess.