Monday 22 February 2021

Round-table: Progressive Speculative Noir

We will be publishing a Noir-themed issue of The Future Fire later this year, guest edited by TFF associate editor Valeria. To get us into the mood, and to help prospective authors think about what the intersection of Noir and TFF’s interest in progressive speculative fiction might look like, we have invited a handful of authors, editors and other friends of TFF to discuss the questions and think about examples. Welcome and thanks to M.L. Clark, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Mame Bougouma Diene, Fábio Fernandes and M. Bennardo. Valeria will kick us off…

Valeria Vitale: Thank you all for joining this virtual round table. We can take the discussion in any direction we like, but I’m particularly interested in speculative noir fiction, and in how a genre that has often hosted the ugliest stereotypes about gender, race, sexuality, disability can be (and has been) used to tell progressive stories, without losing its distinctive character.

I’ll introduce myself briefly: I am one of the editors of The Future Fire magazine, and I have co-edited some of the Publishing anthologies. I discovered Noir through cinema in my teens, and I’ve fallen in love with it since. I think that what attracted me to the genre then was how it seemed to break all the rules about what a successful story should look like: there was no happy ending, no catharsis, no redemption. And yet they were immensely popular and resonated with a very large audience. I think I liked how they put the spotlight on our fragilities and our mistakes. Maybe they made us a little bit kinder to ourselves.

Let’s start with this question: Why does Noir fascinate you?

M.L. Clark: I’m struck by the positivity in your view of Noir, Valeria; mine bears quite the opposite. For me, Noir initially arose from growing cynicism in public institutions, along with mounting anxieties about the loss of secure life prospects for traditional masculinity—both concerns being heavily informed by how The Great Depression shaped the US economy. From classic 30s through 50s films and books of the type, to resurgences in the 70s and 80s, to recent additions like True Detective, Noir consistently depicts a smart, disaffected outsider to the whole facade of ‘normal’ life, who knows (or learns) too much about how broken the world really is to feel that he can do much for it… except maybe fix this one small thing, solve this one little case. And yet, along the way femme fatales, queer-coded men, and other disruptions of a lost ideal (usually “innocent,” nuclear-family America; in speculative variants, often the loss of the fully “human”) leave him wondering if even that one small thing was worth fixing at all. Noir fascinates me because it’s an extremely dangerous storytelling mode, most commonly reinforcing the idea that our damaged world can’t really be healed, even if some of us feel compelled to try anyway. The genre’s remediation is, for me, not an easy task—which makes it all the more interesting a challenge.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew: Noir is traditionally rooted in gender roles of the most restrictive, frequently misogynistic sort. But I find there’s a lot of potential in the aesthetics and atmosphere of it, because bleakness interests me (and I find catharsis in the bleakness itself), and I got really fascinated by the (rare and few) lesbian Noir I’ve come across. The Noir detective is very much a social outcast, who feels othered from social conventions and the social contract; a queer one seems like the obvious choice. And at the same time the Noir format refuses didacticism, the idea that characters have to ‘grow’ and ‘change to become better’ by the end, which is an idea I’ve always found simplistic and stultifying.

Mame Bougouma Diene: I usually think of Noir as a visual genre before being literary, probably because my introduction to it was through Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum. I was struck by the cynical, witty, I-don’t-give-a-f repartee and the bleak outlook on life. Noir is very much the anti-Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Broken characters who usually can’t see the happiness that is right at bay. Kazuo Ishiguro does that a lot: the reader sees all that the character is missing, because his own trauma gets in the way. I like it because there is an absence of idealism that is very common in real life. Most people don’t change, it’s very difficult as individuals to break with our outlook on life, pull a 180 and drag ourselves out of the hole. Mindfulness is not prevalent in real life, even for mindful people, and that realism works for me; often my characters are that cynical, disabused person, whose ideals are motivated less by utopia than sheer spite. A lot of cliches are attributed to Noir: the femme fatale and a lot of 60s gender ideals, but it doesn’t have to be. When people are hurting, even the most beautiful people, how does that play out? I think Noir ask essential questions about happiness, but from the other angle: when you start so low, how far do you get? Not how far can you get. How much control we have over our own lives, is it the events that influence us, is it our past and never shaking it?

Fábio Fernandes: I’ve been kind of fascinated by Noir lately less because of its time-honored stereotypes than because of the possibilities still untapped that steer the narrative out of the usual scenery of gumshoes-and-femme-fatales, of rain-soaked seedy streets at night and all that. I discovered recently the Surf Noir subgenre when I was invited to write for a Brazilian anthology, and I found that I could play with some Noir stereotypes while dismissing others and changing things a lot in the process. I took what fascinates me more about Noir: its rich characters. At its best, Noir presents the readers with fun, snappy dialogue from people from all walks of life, and usually you don’t get to know much about them—all is presented by the writer on a need-to-know basis, a thing which I’m totally fine with, even though I always want to know more. So I tried to put more flesh in these characters, or more color. That’s what fascinates me in Noir: the fact that most of it is in black-and-white only on the surface, but very colorful deep inside.

Valeria: Thank you for your replies. It’s great to see how a genre that is considered so notoriously formulaic still resonates in slightly different ways with each of us. I wouldn’t say my vision of Noir is positive, but, like Mame, I also find Noir often closer to life than other genres. And, even if the main character is usually disenchanted or even cynical, they can’t help trying to fix that one small thing that really starts bothering them, as ML said, even if it may turn out to be impossible or pointless. I like the fact that Noir protagonists never seem to learn. Again, pretty much like us.

I’m not surprised that in a round table with quite a few writers, you’re drawn to the challenges: deciding how much information to devote to the investigation/resolution of the mystery and how much to character development; how to play with the tropes but avoid the cliches; how much to push the witty dialogue without making it obnoxious. But also by the rewards of telling a story that breaks some worn expectations.

Let’s move forward with the second question, that Fabio has already introduced: What does Speculative Noir look like? How has the genre evolved over time, thanks to the interaction with other literary genres and traditions? What are the most interesting cross-contaminations? The most natural as well as the most unexpectedly good?

For me, having grown up with a taste for the gothic and the macabre, the most obvious encounter was with ghost stories and, in general, with the supernatural. I was also introduced to Noir through cinema first, and Hollywood was disappointingly very cautious about adding any non-realistic element. The corpse-narrator in Sunset Boulevard is more a narrative device than an actual supernatural touch. And even though the supernatural element in Vertigo is a part of a con, I always thought it worked well enough as a gothic story in its first part of the movie. The Curse of the Cat People is the only Noir with an explicit non-realistic element I can think of, from those years—though the underlying xenophobic narrative makes it a bit hard to watch. The first novel I read with Noir taken completely out from its familiar contexts was Zoo City. With that I discovered that Noir and magic could go very well together, and I have become a sucker for any good example of this cross-genre that I can find!

What about you? What does Speculative Noir look like?

M.L.: Funnily enough, I’m re-watching The Expanse Season 1 at present, and of course fedora-flaunting Miller is a perfect example of contemporary speculative Noir. Miller is cynical and wise, with a soft spot for petty criminals just trying to get by, and a hard line for those who exploit the vulnerable. He also has a “cute missing girl” he just can’t shake, even when his boss tells him to drop the case, and it leads him to folly the way Noir so often does. His social context is also established through the genre’s two most common reference points for “seedy underworld” (brothels and bars), although he’s figured as a friend rather than an exploiter in both realms.

Just as classic Noir insinuates that the world has been made hopeless by the loss of traditional U.S. white-heteronormative stability, so too does speculative Noir thrive on its own notions of What We’ve Lost. In early cyberpunk, these were shaped around strong loss-of-empire anxieties (i.e. white-coded protagonists adrift in bleakly Asiatic high-tech futures). In a great deal of sci-fi Noir today, transhumanist anxieties persist alongside fascination with new-tech itself.

To my mind, Miller is the best traditionally coded character in the contemporary subgenre—a hapless fallen angel bearing witness to a broken world—but do we need to keep using traditionally coded characters in speculative Noir? Not at all. The real potential of the subgenre, as others have already alluded to and will surely expand upon, lies with altering the nature of its detecting protagonists, along with the “What We’ve Lost” component shaping each story’s moral backdrop.

Mame: I was thinking of how The Expanse started off as well, I liked the detective vibe, and I’m realizing that most of the Noir I wrote has either that detective or seedy underworld thing, perhaps I can’t imagine much beyond what I know, but looking at running TV shows I find that Doom Patrol epitomizes what spéculative Noir can do.

It opens as classic Noir with the Nazi doctor in South America but it’s what it does with the characters. There is that almost inevitable investigative plot but I like how it takes broken and diverse characters and explores how their own attitudes got them where they are. It is witty, dark and cynical, and laced with unresolved genuine feelings. I like how Rita comes to look back at how she was molded into a femme fatal, and the show questions that. Larry was closeted and never came to terms with it. I am glad they explore the complexity of what it really means to be Cyborg, and only as human as he feels he is.

That’s where I see potential for Noir and spec fic. By sublimating the characters, and imbuing them with powers, you detach them and almost force them into being self reflective and question old cliches through the show. I hope it doesn’t get too hopeful though, Noir has to stay noir

Benjanun: Ergo Proxy (2006) is an interesting neo-noir show, centering a female protagonist living in a dystopian shielded city that’s located on a post-apocalyptic Earth. The show opens with her dealing with rogue AIs but of course it soon turns into much more—she uncovers the truth of her city and the world outside, and of the immortal artificial beings that have been created to guard the decayed world. Being an anime it doesn’t engage or have any interest in orientalist tropes, and the visual quality still stands up surprisingly well. It inherits a lot of sensibilities from the 1995 Ghost in the Shell and pushes at the questions of state surveillance, what existence is like when you’re essentially state property. Re-l, the protagonist, dresses a lot like the traditional Noir detective: lots of black, carries a big gun, is technically a cop. She is privileged but also alienated from her society (and, as she later discovers, she’s a clone of one of the world’s immortal guardians). She is empowered and outwardly cold, but at the same time subjected to the genre’s misogyny (is it really necessary that she’s attacked in her bathroom, though thankfully she’s clothed at the time?), positioned as someone close to finding the truth but also too sheltered to confront it. And, unfortunately, heterosexual because despite the show’s self-conscious avant-garde approach it’s still written by people who don’t have much conception of queerness.

But it’s still, to compare to a very low bar, much more interesting and much less misogynistic than say The Dresden Files and its copycats; simply making the protagonist—the very first person who introduces us to the world—a woman rather than a man changes a lot. Here the Noir anxieties are woven into the nascent sapience of ‘infected’ androids, and the truth of the world being too terrible is literalized: everyone in the dystopian cities have been lied to, and no one’s identity is what they think it is. The show concludes on an ambivalent note, part catharsis and part hinting that what comes next will be genocidal war. The scope of it is much bigger than traditional Noir, and its speculative elements give the story a lot more freedom (and a lot less restrictions in gender roles).

M. Bennardo: I was excited to read Valeria’s views on speculative Noir, as she mentions several of my favorite Noir classics. But I have a bit of a different reaction to the cautiousness regarding outright fantasy that she describes. Just as speculative fiction can have a complex relationship with reality, so often does Noir. I wouldn’t like to argue that Noir is a subgenre of speculative fiction (it obviously isn’t), but there are certainly elements of Noir that can scratch the same itches for me that some SFF stories do. Importantly in Noir, the fantastic must exist comfortably alongside the “real world” and cannot break the sense of underlying reality. But rather than disappointing, I find this approach endlessly fascinating because it mirrors how the fantastic fits into my own life. I have certainly had extraordinary experiences that have shaken my views of reality or my own identity, but like the inhabitants of Noir stories I still have to find a way to go on living in the everyday world.

Many others in this conversation have already noted how Noir (anti)heroes are separated or outcast from the “normal” world in various ways, which is a theme that’s right at home in much speculative fiction as well. Others have also mentioned the stunning and distinctive aesthetics of Noir. Noir films, almost by definition, take place in a world where patterns of light and dark, rainy city streets, cocked hats, and clouds of cigarette smoke reflect the moods of the characters and hint at dark conspiracies glimpsed obliquely. When this kind of expressionist visual style reaches extreme heights, as in the famous river sequence from Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, there can be moments in which Noir drifts into a mode that feels closer to fantasy than reality.

The same kind of tweaking of reality happens in Noir-era crime writing as well. The French writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (writing together as Boileau-Narcejac) had an extremely prolific and successful partnership in the 1950s writing the novels that would be adapted into Vertigo and Les Diaboliques, as well as the screenplay for Eyes Without a Face, among others. Just from that list of credits, it’s obvious that they hardly shied away from mixing crime, horror, and fantasy themes into the same story. Reportedly, their writing method involved Pierre Boileau outlining wild plots full of fantastical twists and turns (like the apparent reincarnation of a dead woman in Vertigo), while Narcejac would then write the stories out in the most realistic way possible. As Boileau described it in an interview: “[Narcejac] turns a witch or a ghost into someone you might meet on the Metro.”

If you’re willing to squint, there are many other potential connections between the themes of Noir and SFF, given how often the genre deals with changing identities and dark doubles (see: Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley), or revelations that splinter a previously mundane reality (see: the already-mentioned Out of the Past or Vera Caspary’s Bedelia), or questions about the truth of our perceptions (see: Vertigo or Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, based on Evelyn Piper’s novel) or the ensnarement of an innocent person in a bewildering world of crime and conspiracy (see: any wrong man thriller). Of course, any suggestion of true fantasy is usually explained away by the end… and yet, in these cases and many others, the feeling of the fantastic is often what lingers for me even after the explanations have been given, only heightened by the carefully-drawn reality with which it coexists.

Fábio: The Expanse has already been mentioned here, and, though I’m really enjoying the series (haven’t got to the books yet), its contribution to the Noir subgenre is basically the archetype of the sad, broken gumshoe, but this time in space. I just started rereading one of my favorite Iain M. Banks’ novels, Use of Weapons, and, even if we can’t call it a Noir novel, it certainly shows a few aspects of this subgenre that I enjoy hugely. To wit: the down-on-his-luck spy, Zakalwe, who is called to another mission and does it, even if reluctantly; a dark secret of the past; a femme fatale (though here the concept is quite subverted), Diziet Sma, whose relation to Zakalwe is never made clear, and she doesn’t quite seduce him, but rather prods him in the direction she wants him to go. There’s one moment, halfway through the story, where Zakalwe acts pretty much like David Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and this cloak-and-dagger business is not that different from what Philip Marlowe did in The Big Sleep, for that matter.

Valeria: Thank you again for your replies. And also for feeding my reading/watching list! I really enjoyed your takes on how Noir themes became intertwined with sci-fi, cyberpunk, gothic and speculative fiction tropes more generally. You mentioned quite a few interesting examples, but I’m sure there is still a lot of room for exploration.

Our third (and last) question focuses on progressive Noir. We have all noted how often Noir is built on retrograde narratives. But I believe that these narratives are not prescriptive of the genre, and that they are not a necessary ingredient to recreate the “feeling” of Noir. If an author thinks there is no Noir without misogyny or racism, that probably tells more about the person writing than the Noir aesthetic. There are excellent noirs with women detectives, for example, like Sarah Paretsky or Nicola Griffith’s novels. One of the things I appreciate in those books is how no one seems especially surprised about it. I see more and more noirs that, instead of simply avoiding offensive stereotypes, actively tell progressive stories, exposing racism or xenophobia, for example. The most notable example is probably Walter Mosley, here. What I have been quite enjoying lately in Noir is a certain tenderness towards those “seedy underworlds,” not because they are picturesque/exotic or because they make us feel patronisingly superior, but because they are populated by people who have dignity and deserve respect, and maybe even a loser detective who is ready to listen to what they have to say. What I would really like to see is a Noir story where everything goes wrong, of course (it’s still a Noir after all), but a group of dropouts decide to stick together while they go through it.

Now, over to you: What can make Noir progressive? Have you come across interesting examples of progressive Noir? What did they do well, and what do you think is still missing?

Benjanun: I loved the Aud Torvingen novels—the detective isn’t just a woman, she’s a fantastically wealthy butch lesbian; she is a rejection of Noir’s misogyny several times over. Aud views the world, at the start of her series, almost purely through a lens of violence. She graphically imagines how she could murder complete strangers with her bare hands, which doesn’t make her very nice but then again, why would she have to be nice? As a character she repudiates both the thought that lesbians must suffer from trauma related to either homophobia or sexual assault, and that queer characters must model good behavior to be respectable and acceptable. It’s still all pretty white, but as far as lesbian power fantasies go it’s potent.

Turning back to visual media, and the speculative in particular, Psycho-Pass is a cyberpunk procedural with a lot of the usual elements of Noir (the police officer turned maverick to hunt the criminal who got away in vengeance, a lot of seedy underbelly). It does something interesting by having a sheltered young woman as the co-protagonist while leading you to believe that the cat-and-mouse chase between two men is the primary driving story; by the end this is subverted—she turns out to be the agent of systemic change. Two of the secondary characters are women in a relationship (and who survive the entire series), and the setting is a sharp critique of state surveillance, border control, capitalism, and the suppression of political dissent. Unfortunately the franchise still stumbles into sexist pitfalls, and there’s a lot of graphic violence—sexual and otherwise—where women are the victims. The treatment of its few trans characters is heinous, so even in more thoughtful mainstream works there’s still a long way to go.

M.L.: When it comes to progressive futures for Noir, I keep thinking philosophically. Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1976) makes an important point we often forget because of, well, the kinds of assholes who usually talk about Foucault. In it, Foucault argues that mid-20th-century Western society routinely invoked Victorian mores as oppressive (even though they were far messier and more impassioned than most realize), so that any deviation from them would suddenly make us seem progressive by contrast. In reality, though, the construction of this imaginary Victorianism was just another way of keeping our culture conservative, always pulling us back to a more rigid starting point than we needed to accept in our worldbuilding. We keep putting ourselves in cages, in other words, so that we can seem radical for even just trying to break free.

Noir, I think, falls into this pattern of establishing cages that can make the merest efforts of escape seem radical—which makes a genuinely progressive breakout tough. As I noted in previous responses, there’s a “What We’ve Lost” cadence to huge swaths of Noir, and I think this has to be our starting point for changing the nature of the genre’s “cage”. Rather than fixate on a lost ideal, we need to build Noir that targets a lost commitment to the hard and ongoing work of progress—and the capacity for optimism amid the struggle. I think folks in my North American generation—Gen Y—will resonate strongly with this, too, because when we were kids our TV was strikingly progressive. We had far more mainstream representation of a wide range of cultures and issues, in a wide range of genres, and kids’ shows were allowed to be radically environmentalist in their messaging. 9/11 brought a vicious turn in our media consciousness, very much in keeping with the worst of Noir’s ideas about a “lost white nuclear family ideal” being responsible for the nation’s vulnerability to attack. In the wake of this shift, movies and TV became more conservative, more homogenous and heteronormative, and more stratified. A whole Anglo-Western generation has grown up with that shift to “neutral” and “less political” programming, and only in recent years have we seen more mainstream pushes to reinvent the wheel.

What I want speculative Noir to do today is provide characters who walk through the flaws of the world with pragmatic hope, not cynicism; who look upon the work required to do the slightest good in the world… without despair. To this end, John Wick might be a good example of how such a Noir sensibility can be carried forward—because he’s propelled through struggle by the knowledge that if he dies, the memory of all that was good and beautiful and kind in his love will die, too. That series retains quite a few Noir sensibilities in its criminal hierarchies, weapon and clothing fetishism, and overall filmic aesthetic… but it has love at its centre. I look forward to more Noir with “heart” like that.

M. Bennardo: I love the idea of talking about “the feeling of Noir” as opposed to some circumscribed set of Noir texts that supposedly define the genre. It does feel pretty hopeless to try to find anything truly progressive while limiting a concept of Noir to works produced in mid-century Hollywood, or even works that directly engage with that narrow canon alone. But of course, even in the 1940s and 1950s, that feeling of Noir was impossible to contain in a single neat set of works. There’s always been a big fuzzy halo of noir-ish works created by people from outside that central nexus, and more and more I’ve found it very refreshing to get a different perspective on Noir themes.

These days, I find myself much more excited about the re-release of the 1951 film adaptation of Native Son than about any Humphrey Bogart movie. (No offense to Bogey, but I’ve seen so many of his already!) The adaptation was made in Argentina outside the Hollywood system and stars Richard Wright himself in the main role. The re-release is being marketed specifically as Noir, which I find intriguing and promising as it points to an opening up of the usual understanding of the historical genre.

We don’t usually list Chester Himes’s Harlem Detectives novels or Ann Petry’s The Street as Noir classics either, but they certainly have “the feeling of Noir” for me. Himes’s Harlem is an expressionistic nightmare where violence (both from criminals and cops) always leads to blackly comic chaos. And Petry’s novel about a postwar single mother trying to raise a young child while pursuing a nightclub singing career (and dealing with various lowlifes) has the same bleak view of the American dream as many noirs do.

Other recent reprints that I’ve avidly devoured include a couple anthologies from Sarah Weinman. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin Books) is a collection of short stories by women, all domestic suspense from the 1940s–1970s. And the two volumes of Women Crime Writers from the Library of America together collect eight novels from the 1940s and 1950s written by women. One of those novels in particular, The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, follows a housewife trying to cover up an accidental killing… while simultaneously evading the suspicions and fulfilling the demands of the same family she’s trying to protect.

There’s plenty to find from the same period or the decades after from outside the west as well. Japan has its own long tradition of crime fiction, some of which feels very noir-ish to me. Among my favorites are Akira Kurosawa’s kidnapping police procedural High and Low, and the corporate espionage thriller The Informer by Akimitsu Takagi. Rafael Bernal’s The Mongolian Conspiracy is a raucous brawler of a book about a profane Mexico City hitman trying to stay alive amidst a bewildering possibly-international conspiracy. And Heda Kovály’s Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street details the dehumanizing fallout from a deeply corrupt murder investigation in communist Czechoslovakia, in which the mere presence of the police is enough to ruin everyone’s lives.

The point is not that any one of these works is perfectly “progressive” in itself. (Though I think at least a couple of them get close.) And neither am I prepared to argue with a literary historian that they are all absolutely Noir. But I do think the more we have a broader understanding of what Noir could have been like in the past (if only Hollywood and the critics of the time had been less exclusionary!), the clearer we may see what a more progressive type of Noir might look like in the future.

Mame: Matt’s response has me thinking of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. Goines less so but Slim’s novels would certainly count as Noir. Not speculative in the least but Mama Black Widow is about a gay black man in the south. I wouldn’t call Slim’s work progressive. It’s violent, underworld, and machistic. But it does offer a great counter perspective to white Noir (hahaha) and the historical perspective ranging from WWI through the sixties etc is fascinating. Slim is self reflective especially in Pimp, trying to understand the psychological issues that got him where he is. Perhaps there’s something progressive in that. Without excusing the individual, still appreciating the introspection?

Fábio: There’s a whole lotta pieces we can move on the Noir board. We can do gender-swapping, for instance; we can get rid of the racist and sexist stereotypes (we must!), and we should be more Marxist, since Noir is about the troubles and tribulations of the working-class, poor detective. We should be subversive and very antifa in the future Noir. That, of course, is my take on things. That’s the kind of Noir I want to see in SF, and I’ve been thinking of a few stories I want to write in the near future.

Valeria: Thank you all so much for all these thoughts, recommendations and hopes for speculative or progressive Noir. I have no doubt this conversation will be inspiring, and the suggestions for reading and hopes for new stories are exactly the sort of thing we’re looking for in TFF-Noir. You’ve done a better job of explaining it between you than we could have in a detailed call for submissions.

Dear readers: do you have further comments, questions, examples of speculative or progressive noir, or anything else to add to the discussion above? Please leave your comments below this blog post.

If this conversation inspires you, or if you also write Noir-adjacent fiction that intersects with the speculative or the progressive (or even better both), please consider sending something to our Noir-themed CFS this year.

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