What is Speculative Noir Fiction?
Speculative noir is not a new literary genre. There are many examples of speculative noir in both movies and books. However, there is a recent surge in the literary world around speculative fiction and noir. There are many reasons why we are seeing a return to storytelling styles like noir and genres like speculative noir.
But first, the definition. What is speculative noir?
Generally, speculative fiction refers to any kind of fiction which contains otherworldly phenomena or is set in an entirely different world. Examples range from LOTR to the Foundation series and Brave New World. Speculative noir refers to typical fantasy, sci-fi, or horror stories told using noir as a style of storytelling.
For a detailed analysis of Speculative Fiction as a super-genre, check out out piece: What is Speculative Fiction
In many pieces on this website, we have covered how noir is not exactly a genre but a style of storytelling. This makes noir transportable to many other genres. For instance, books and movies which place themselves as sci-fi noir books or fantasy noir films are actually examples of speculative fiction using noir as a style of storytelling.
The question of liking speculative noir is subjective. Some people like it and others don’t. However, the increased popularity of this particular genre of fiction is very interesting from a historical perspective.
In this piece, we will cover the reason behind the recent uptick in noir and similar styles of storytelling. Furthermore, we will discuss some examples of speculative noir.
Dark Times – A Return to Noir and Hardboiled Fiction
One of the most successful TV shows in recent memory is Breaking Bad. After a long time since the likes of The Sopranos and The Wire ended, a TV series captured the imagination of the public. For all its intrigue, Game of Thrones never matched the deeper revelations of Breaking Bad (and one didn’t botch the final season entirely).
Breaking Bad is a story about a Chemistry teacher who enters the drug business after getting diagnosed with cancer. He takes this step because he feels his family won’t be able to survive financially if he dies.
For many viewers, Breaking Bad is a very relatable series. That is perhaps a great indictment of the world we live in. If a man has to become a drug lord to support his family, there is something wrong with the incentives of the prevailing system and society.
The resurgence of noir is best felt within this historical context. The golden age of noir was prevalent in the 40s and 50s. These were times after WWII when countries were finding it difficult to emerge from losses during the war.
In these dark times, noir books and movies were popular.
Now juxtapose the year 2020 with the situation described earlier. The pandemic is only the latest seismic event in an entire spate of history-altering events.
Times are dark again. Optimism is low and people no longer believe in a bright future. Just look at the number of dystopian tech noir movies and novels you come across.
A situation like this is perfect for people to yearn for the dull numbing feeling noir provides. Speculative noir fits right into the same narrative because it heightens the despondency and delusion even more.
If writers should convey the prevailing sentiment, the resurgence of noir fiction is natural.
Examples of Speculative Noir
People generally associate sci-fi crime books with speculative noir. In some cases, this association is correct. However, calling all sci-fi crime novels as speculative noir is a mistake. Crime fiction is a large genre in itself and can encompass many sub-genres which are neither speculative nor noirish in any way.
The best way to understand speculative noir is studying some examples of the same. Here are some popular examples of speculative noir.
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For all futuristic novels and movies made, the conversation will always come back to Blade Runner. The stoic Deckard gets caught in a battle of identity and the nature of existence itself. The story, released in 1982, is set in fictional Los Angeles in the year 2019 (surprise surprise).
The writers at the time overestimated the scale of progress civilization would make within nearly four decades.
Blade Runner is an example of speculative noir because of its deep roots in a sci-fi dystopia and overt use of noir tropes and themes.
Keeping the presence of a femme fatale aside, Blade Runner’s cynical take on life and the artificial nature of existence alone make it an example of noir fiction. It is speculative fiction simply on the account of being a sci-fi crime drama.
The movie is based on Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The dark dystopian take on the future in Blade Runner inspired many similar works in both films and literature. It is one of the few movies which managed to inspire a generation of writers and filmmakers.
Many classify Minority Report as a typical example of tech noir. This classification is accurate, as is its categorization under speculative noir.
An interesting fact – like Blade Runner, Minority Report is also inspired from a Philip K Dick story.
Like many tech noir films, Minority Report follows a free will against determinism plot. The movie covers a deterministic system which manages to catch a criminal before they commit a crime. The same system predicts one particular human (Tom Cruise), the one using the system to catch criminals, will commit a murder within 36 hours.
Cruise, in a race against time, has to defeat the system by not murdering a man, thereby choosing free will over determinism.
Minority Report is also about a struggle for power. In Tom Cruise’s case, the struggle is over the power of one’s own actions. The highbrow sci-fi elements of the story firmly place it within the speculative noir category.
Altered Carbon sets a high bar for speculative noir, challenging writers to think above and beyond.
Like most sci-fi noir novels, Altered Carbon is set in the future. In the book, humans are capable of downloading their memories to a new body after the decay of their existing body. However, there is a disparity here as the rich can afford to keep transferring their memories to new bodies repeatedly.
Without getting into much detail, it is safe to place Altered Carbon in the speculative noir category. An ex-veteran investigating the murder in the near future where the rich can live forever is a perfect situation for a speculative noir story.
Altered Carbon was also converted into a TV series recently by Netflix. In my personal opinion, the book is a much better work of speculative fiction, period. It also offers a much better overall experience, especially if you’re looking to immerse yourself neck deep into a dark, brooding, and dangerous work of fiction.
For more, check out our piece Ten Speculative Fiction Books You Should’ve Already Read
Final Words – Speculative Noir
This piece was a brief dive into speculative noir and some of its examples.
We also covered the different examples of speculative noir. As a genre, speculative noir is not new. In fact, many old sci-fi novels, especially those by Philip K Dick, fall under the speculative fiction label.