Tech Noir Reposted
What is Tech-Noir?
*AUTHOR’S NOTE 2011 Several people have asked me to repost this article I wrote for a friend back in 2003. I was attempting to label a sub-niche of the dystopian SF genre with a title of its own, which never really caught on. This is strictly my opinion and it predates my first fiction publication. I don’t know why so many people want this article back up; Personally I suspect a lot of them just want a quick-and-dirty reference for their high school and college papers, but… whatever. This is what I was thinking back in 2003 when the Dangerous Days project still had some kind of life in it. I have to say this now, from the perspective of 2011: I may have been–probably am–full of shit. This has not been edited at all from the 2003 original posting. Also, I’m not responsible for the bad links to other articles that their own authors have abandoned or pulled down. Sorry, nothing I can do about that, though I do much regret the loss of Kathryn D’Alessandro’s articles on film noir–they were excellent. But here is my babbling on the subject of “Tech Noir”:
Originally created: October 6, 2003
In the beginning was the film, and it was dark, brooding and disaffected…. But, no. This really goes back a bit before that and is far more broad and complicated than the stylistic definition of “film noir.”
I have noticed that the word “noir” has started to crop up as part of a genre-name or style definition in several places. Ironically, it has become a style definition for many mystery and suspense tales, which are, historically, linked to film noir, from which the single word, “noir” is now being borrowed. More about this later.
Another area in which I, myself, have an interest, is the Speculative/Science Fiction genre which is evolving and being referred to as “Tech Noir.” This is what I want to discuss, but, to do so, we’ll have to look a bit at film noir, its origin and development, the style as it has become codified or recognized and applied outside of film, itself, and the implications made by attaching the word to a subgenre of Speculative or Science Fiction.
Why all this?
Recently, I ran across an article online, written 12 years ago, by Australian professor of International Communications, McKenzie Wark, in which he defines “Tech Noir” as “black technology”: a body of film which revolves around the concept of “technofear”; literally an expression of underlying societal technophobia. I disagree with this interpretation of the term, which I believe has a stronger identity, now, with the stylistic definitions and historical contexts of film noir, married to the speculative and socially-critical nature of Science Fiction.
What is it, then?
Tech Noir is a presentation style or genre which marries the technologically-looking details, hallmarks and devices of Science and Speculative Fiction to the underlying premises, themes and style which we now identify as Noir, beyond its mere “look” on film.
What the Hell does that mean?
As I don’t think we need to define what tech-y science or speculative fiction is, let’s start with the harder side of this question: what makes a presentation–be it book, film or computer game–“noir”?
Everywhere I look, I see people claiming that “noir” is difficult to define, but they know it when they see it. I must be weird, then, because I have a very clear idea of what it is which causes us to label a presentation “noir.” Noir presupposes and takes place in a dark world, one of moral and emotional bleakness. Everyone involved is either corrupt or will be corrupted. Good and evil have no pure “zero-point” evident. Everything is gray and the “good guys” are just the characters who are the most successful survivors of the moral degradation in which they live. It has an Existentialist mind-set. This seems to tail with many other observers who use terms like “moral darkness” corruption, confusion or “upset of traditional gender roles” in their definitions of films noir. These terms are as applicable to non-film as to film, itself. The world of this context roils in a feeling of ambiguity, alienation and moral uncertainty. In Noir, the assumed natural order of things within society is turned upside down. “God is no longer in His heaven. All is not right with the world,” according to Kathryn D’Alessandro.
In her first article in the Noir series (An Overview of Film Noir), written for Audience Magazine Online in 2002, D’Alessandro says “…original noir and its newer offspring explore the tantalizing dark side of the human psyche, maintaining that decay and decline are the natural state of human beings. Happiness is fleeting in noir films; worse yet, it is a cruel illusion, a twist of fate which promises power, sex, and money but which delivers only suffering.”
Noir in all its permutations relies on this view, no matter what the presentation, genre, medium or subject. It is the world, itself, which is inverted. In part 3 of her series (Existentially Yours), D’Alessandro says, “Common spaces–grocery markets, trains, office buildings, middle-class neighborhoods redolent with the smell of overheated flowers–take on a sense of alienation. The middle class, the housewife, and the door-to-door salesman have gained an Existentialist edge that reminds us that hell consists of other people.”
And that’s what Noir is. It is an outward expression of the Existentialist hell we all carry within ourselves.
Where did it come from?
The sensibility of Noir is drawn from what French critics of the 1950s and ’60s called “films noir“: exclusively American films, originally, drawn from the American hard-boiled and suspense pulps beginning in the 1930s, and offering this signature bleak worldview along with a physically dark look. The “black films” were dark in both their emotional and their physical presentation. They evolved from a combination of German Expressionist art and early silent films, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Freudian psychology, and European Existentialism, all of which came together in American film under the hands of Eastern European film technicians interpreting the angst, paranoia and disaffection of American crime and suspense writers working in the shadow of the Great Depression and events in Europe which would soon erupt into the Second World War. The first recognized film noir is The Maltese Falcon which appeared just as the War was becoming an undeniable reality to Americans and is based on a book by the master of American hard-boiled fiction, Dashiell Hammett.
Among the other now-revered writers of the period who contributed to the development of Noir as more than just a film style were Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Ernest Hemingway and, later, Mickey Spillane. Other now-forgotten writers, such as Fredric Brown and Thomas Walsh, shaped the early “hard-boiled” school which gave birth to American Pulp and has colored parts of the fiction world “noir” ever since.
So, how do tech-fiction and Noir come to mate?
It’s really not all that strange that Science or Speculative Fiction should happen to meet up with Noir. They have some crossing roots and influences in the pulp magazines of the 1930s through ’50s and SF has a long tradition of social commentary and polemic. This is particularly obvious when you look at Dystopic fiction, such as Brave New World, 1984 and Lord of the Flies. But even in less-obvious books, social, ethical and political issues are brought up and possible scenarios, solutions or disasters projected in settings in which such speculation is “safe” from political attack because, after all “it’s just Science Fiction.”
Many people might argue that this Noir sensibility in Science and Speculative Fiction first rears its head in Cyberpunk with stories like those by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. But it really predates Gibson and even Bethke, who coined the word “Cyberpunk” in 1980 with a short story of that title. It begins in the pulps and grows increasingly obvious as you encounter books like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination or Vernor Vinge’s paper “Singularity” and his book True Names and becomes undeniable in the work of Philip K. Dick, whose “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was adapted into the most stylish and recognizable of all Tech Noir films: Ridely Scott’s Bladerunner.
Now, with all of this in mind, we come back to the beginning wherein I argued with Professor Wark’s assertion that Tech Noir is the fiction and film of technophobia. Clearly, it isn’t, because it isn’t technology, itself, which is feared. Instead, it is a body of Speculative and Science Fiction work in many media which reflects, not a fear of technology, but an inversion of the normal order of the world, placed in a tech-y setting. It’s still Noir, it’s just wearing modern clothes. It is a presentation drawing on that historical film context of moral ambiguity and a world-view which cannot reconcile absolutes of “good” and “evil”, wherein the “good guys” are simply the ones who survive the pressures and temptations of the morally gray world in which they operate, without–hopefully–sacrificing their own, personal integrity, as we also hope to do, in an increasingly complex modern or future world which is shaped by our advancing knowledge and uncertainty, aided and abetted by technology, good or bad. It is not the technology which is “black” but our own uncertainty in the face of this great unknowable thing which is The Future. In this new subgenre, we see that there is much to hope for but, where there is Hope, there is also the possible bitterness of Hope defeated, of Humans enslaved or devalued, of the natural order as we believe it should be, inverted by our own striving. We fear, not technology, but ourselves.
That’s Tech Noir.
Original Author’s Note: I wrote this on the prompting of a friend who was struggling to understand the connection between noir film and Science Fiction, which was easy to spot, but hard to understand. I’ve been watching films noir since I was a kid, so I had a lot of information in my head about it, but had never written about it, nor could I find any sources online at that time that really discussed it. I’d like to do an expanded version of this article, some day, with deeper research. However, this article is now used as a reference by other people to help explain Future Noir, Tech Noir and other cross-over forms of Science Fiction which are principally the children of Bladerunner. What comes around goes around, I guess….