Thursday 27 May 2021

Speculative Noir retrospective: Damien Krsteski’s “Siv Delfin”

In anticipation of the Noir-themed issue of TFF due later this year, we’re thinking about some of the stories we have published in the past that fit the bill. First up, we have invited Damien Krsteski to come and talk to us about his 2016 story, “Siv Delfin”—if you don’t remember it, please read the story before the rest of this post, to avoid spoilers…

Illustration by Miguel Santos © 2016
TFF: This was a dark and almost nihilistic story that struck us from the moment we first read it, with its underworld grit and the existential dread of the premise, with the permanently consciousness-altering drug and the powers-that-be (both official and otherwise) pretty much impotent to do anything about it. Although the protagonist was a cop, the Noir aesthetic comes through in her powerlessness, her (ultimately fruitless) alliance with the crime lord, her grief and desperation. There is no resolution to the crime investigation: (some) understanding, perhaps, but no justice. And it is also, as the best Noir—and the kind we’re looking for in our forthcoming themed issue—consciously both philosophical and political: What does it mean to have no fear of death? What does it mean to be a counter-culture with no central organisation or leaders? What society are you trying to protect if all you’re doing is preserving the status quo? It doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it knocks the cop protagonist’s certainty apart on all fronts…

Damien: Thanks for the great words on the story; I think you’ve perfectly expressed the thoughts that were swirling in my head around the time of the writing of the story. To add to that, a bit more context:

There was a point in my life where I became obsessed with the fear of my own death. What probably started as sophomoric musings on the nature of our existence (nudged by some unfortunate events from real life) quickly turned into a gripping anxiety, into a fear of falling asleep, into an obsession with remaining alive. And I started to think, and I realized how much our actions, both as individuals and as a society, are driven by this fear of our own mortality. Our biological imperative to stay alive has fashioned and shaped scientific, sociological, artistic processes, to the point where I wondered: what would happen if we remove it? If we forget about Death, would we care about science? Would we care about resources, territory, cures for diseases? Would we be moved by art? And what’s more, would some completely different set of societal processes emerge, orthogonal to the ones that we currently take for granted?

I wanted to explore these questions in “Siv Delfin.” I wanted to see what would happen on a macro level, to see what “progress” would look like, what kind of new world the characters would build. And, on the individual level, Claire is the perfect character through which to look at this new world; I needed somebody tragic, broken. Someone straddling these two societies, and tempted to hop over to the other side. That period in my life slowly passed and I no longer obsess over Death. I like to think that writing “Siv Delfin” was one of my ways of draining the pus and letting the wound heal slightly.

TFF: We’ve always found it interesting that people find speculative fiction (of whatever flavour) a useful medium for exploring political, philosophical or ethical questions—perhaps because the distance from “realist” work gives us permission to focus more on universal truths without worrying about exposing ourselves or others in the stories to too raw a self-representation. Do you think the Noir genre or aesthetic also serves this sort of function?

Illustration by Miguel Santos © 2016
Damien: Writing SF is a very liberating way of exploring philosophical questions. My favorite SF reads like a natural extension of philosophical and scientific thought experiments—and vice versa, from Plato’s Cave to Maxwell’s Demon—and I believe that’s because you need an element of the strange in order to imagine and understand Truth, to expand your mind a tiny bit in a particular direction and make space for reality. If you stick to so called “realism” (which sometimes can be shorthand for “mundane”), and extrapolate only from your “real” experience in the “real” world that you see and feel with your eyes and hands, can you imagine that spacetime is curved, that time is relative, that biology changes and evolves and that we grew arms and legs when we crawled out of the seas?

Noir SF is capable of the same, except this strangeness is a background to characters that are powerless against it, or consumed by it, or sometimes, unwillingly, its perpetrators.

TFF: Building on what you said before about Claire being a “broken character,” I was wondering if you would like to share some thoughts on the tension between the lack of resolution and the feeling of defeat that are so characteristic of noir fiction on one side, and the desire to explore the genre to tell progressive stories that invite to resist and fight back on the other. In brief: do you see progressive noir as an oxymoron or as an exciting opportunity?

Damien: A progressive message can be conveyed even in a story steeped in despair and depravity. If a broken protagonist gives up the fight, that shouldn’t always be taken as an example to follow. Alternatively, it shouldn’t always be taken as a lesson, either; sometimes authors like to be sadistic, plain and simple, and write horrible characters and put them through misery as a way to vent and to exorcise their own demons. I personally find value in both approaches, and in a way, I consider both progressive—in the sense of pushing boundaries, whether personal and emotional or societal. Noir SF seems to exist at an interesting intersection, and the genre can take different shapes in different hands.

Damien’s latest story “Slow Eshtyca” appeared in GigaNotoSaurus in March 2021. You can also follow him on Twitter @monochromewish where updates on his publications are posted.

If you would like to try your hand at some speculative Noir, why not hit up our Call for Submissions, which is open now.

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