Friday, August 26, 2011

Bowes on the Noir Roots of Cyberpunk

Danny Bowes talks about the noir origins of cyberpunk over at Tor.com. Excerpts:
The link between film noir (and its literary antecedent) and cyberpunk is not a revelation. The influence has been noted by countless critics, as well as cyberpunk authors themselves, most frequently that which Raymond Chandler had on William Gibson. Chandler, who came to writing late, not publishing his first short story until he was in his mid-40s, wrote boldly and flamboyantly. His protagonists were men embittered by the injustices of the American system, but resigned to working either within or parallel to it. ...

Where Chandler lost his job in the Depression, Gibson came of age in the 1960s, as one of many young people in that generation who felt little to no connection to "normal" people, drifting from place to place, identifying with the counterculture and, all too often, with the drug culture (experience which Gibson chronicles vividly in his novels). ...

In the end, what noir and cyberpunk share is a simultaneous, paradoxical status as distinctly past-tense forms that nonetheless keep popping up everywhere in subsequent art. ... Fittingly, as each was widely criticized -- and exalted -- as valuing style over substance, the lasting impact of noir and cyberpunk (connecting the two as one entity, since there is no cyberpunk without noir) is greatest in the visual arts and cinema. For in the shadows lies danger and mystery. Sex and power. The simultaneous thrill and fear of confronting death. Noir, and all its descendants, including cyberpunk, is the shadow.
Read the whole thing. While recently listening to Audible Frontiers' excellent production of Gibson's Burning Chrome, I was struck yet again by how much his stories "Johnny Mnemonic," "New Rose Hotel" and "Dogfight" feel like crime fiction. Bowes is right about cyberpunk's parentage; those high-tech thrillers have noir in at least one branch of their family tree. But I think he misses a big thematic commonality between the genres. True, both share a preoccupation with social injustice (whether real or perceived), the criminal underground and the illicit allure of all types of vice. But they also often touch upon the impulse towards self-destruction, that which the ancient Greeks called hamartia, the bent part of human nature that causes us to indulge in the things we ought to hate. Without getting too spoilery, Neuromancer has a plot shaped like a horseshoe, wherein the protagonist rises from abject lows to great heights only to descend once again in the end. Both noir and cyberpunk know that the darkest places aren't secreted in some distant computer network or crouching in a dingy alleyway. They lie within.

(Picture: CC 2008 by ronocdh)

3 comments:

Ruben Lake said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ruben Lake said...

Dystopian novels

When I was researching/writing for my novel The A-Men, I read a lot of dystopian stories to get just the right balance of future world and collapsing society. I wanted to use the trope of the main character entering a riot-torn corporate-run city while mixing this with strong fantasy elements/stories. Gibson was an early influence for me... but the final list included:

Cloud Atlas*
Nineteen Eighty-Four
Battle Royale
Brave New World
A Clockwork Orange
Count Zero*
Mona Lisa Overdrive
Neuromancer
The Children of Men

The ones with asterisks are my personal favourites.

*But* very early on I also added noir classics especially from the 1940s to my reading list, and in this way created plotlines that were very much in the crime/punk vein. Though few scifi authors cite noir fiction as an inspiration, reading them tells me that they do/were influenced.

Somewhere in the Night, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Nightmare Alley --- almost everything by Cornell Woolrich… the list goes on.

Loren Eaton said...

I'm glad to hear someone not only validate the thesis, but also to learn that you enjoyed Count Zero a bit more than Neuromancer! I'm of the same opinion. Though Neuromancer was more ground-breaking, Count Zero had a better plot and an unambiguously positive ending. I enjoyed it a lot.