Monday 14 June 2021

Noir special: Conversation with Curtis C. Chen

Six years ago we published an urban fantasy/political thriller novelette by Curtis C. Chen, titled “Godwin’s Law,” that we now look back on as one the great instances of speculative noir that we can point to as an example. As we’re currently reading for the Noir-themed issue of The Future Fire due at the end of this year (see Call for Submissions here), we invited Curtis to come and chat with our guest editor Valeria about the genre, setting, and progressive values in fiction.

Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen (陳致宇) now writes stories and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. He's the author of the Kangaroo series of funny science fiction spy thrillers and the showrunner for Echo Park 2060 on Realm.

Valeria Vitale: “Godwin’s Law” stood out for us at TFF for its fairly uncommon genres-crossing that involved noir and magic. Even though it sounds like a less likely literary avenue to explore, we think it is actually a very interesting blend. How did you come up with this idea, and what do you think the crossing adds to both genres?

Curtis C. Chen: A lot of my favorite stories involving magic are about keeping secrets, usually magicians hiding their powers from the mundane world. And noir, as a genre, is also deeply concerned about people's secrets and how they try to protect themselves from exposure. I thought it would be interesting to explore that overlap.

VV: The setting of “Godwin’s Law” is not a very classically noir one. Not only for the presence of the magical and futuristic elements, but also for the absence of many of the recognisable noir tropes (the rainy city, the PI in a raincoat, the femme/homme fatale and so on). But what we have tried to define as a sort of “noir feeling” definitely comes up, in our opinion, in the nuanced morals of some of the characters, and, ultimately, in the lack of resolution for the protagonist. Did you conceive this story as a noir?

CCC: This story started out focused on the idea of wartime espionage, but as I worked on it I decided that making everything intensely personal for the characters was ultimately more interesting. I think that's what leads to the "noir feeling," especially when people are forced into situations where they have no good choices. For me, the moral ambiguity of noir really grows out of exploring individuals' wants and desires, especially when they don't line up with what others want.

VV: One thing that we especially liked in this story was your use of an explicitly unrealistic plot (with magic, portals and shapeshifters) to bring attention to less acknowledged historical atrocities, like the Japanese internment camps in the US during WWII. Do you think that fantasy and other speculative genres are an effective means to talk about tragic historical events?

CCC: I certainly hope so. One encouraging recent example is how the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was featured in two different HBO series, Watchmen (inspired by the comics) and Lovecraft Country (based on Matt Ruff's novel). I know people who had never heard of that real-life atrocity, and were moved to go learn more about it afterward. The other side of the coin with respect to secrets is knowledge being suppressed by those in power, and that's also important to explore in fiction. (Look up "Chinese massacre of 1871" if you want another depressing dose of reality.)

VV: As much as we love Noir, it is undeniable that it has very often been plagued with very misogynistic, racist, and homophobic stereotypes. One of them is the use of East Asian characters (and elements of their culture like the language or food) as means to give “colour” or “atmosphere” especially in very grim and dystopian settings. Do you have any thoughts about the exoticisisation of East Asian cultures in the noir genre?

CCC: It's definitely still a problem, but there has been progress. We've come a long way from the 1974 film Chinatown, which used an entire community as a mere punchline, to Henry Chang's and Ed Lin's novels exploring the complexities of immigrant identity. My small contribution to that conversation will be Echo Park 2060, a collaboratively written noir serial involving human clones in a future Los Angeles, forthcoming from Realm Media. Our writing team also includes Sloane Leong, Millie Ho, Monte Lin, and Jenn Reese. Look for that this fall on your favorite podcast platform!

Coming soon: ECHO PARK 2060 season 1 on Realm podcasts

If you write Noir short fiction that you think we might like, please see our Call for Submissions and give us a try.

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