SF&F tragedy, noir, and "defective detectives."
July 8, 2012 4:37 PM   Subscribe

BookFilter: Noir and postmodern fiction in sci-fi clothing. Find me The Big Sleep of science fiction.

I'm reading late-period Strugatsky novels where their themes of the limits of knowledge, the flawed nature of man, and the impossibility of utopia come to the fore. At the same time, I'm realizing that in plot structure and dramatic conceit, the Strugatskys' novels resemble noir mysteries much more than they resemble the Westerns and adventure novels that are the prototypes for their US analogs.

Basically, there are uncanny similarities between the Strugatsky novels I've read and The Big Sleep or other "defective detective" Bogart noir flicks. The hero is posed with a problem or mystery, about which he only has fragmentary or misleading information. The hero sets out to solve the mystery, but suffers setbacks at every turn and is forced to revise his hypothesis again and again. He finally arrives at a final hypothesis, or else despairs in finding an adequate hypothesis, and tries to confront the problem head on. Then something happens, unpredictably or inexplicably, that removes the source of conflict, but not in the way the hero intended or anticipated. This resolution may be unsatisfying and may even represent a kind of failure or defeat on the hero's part, but most importantly it disregards the hero's previous actions, or shows that they were, in fact, counterproductive.

This stands in contrast to stereotypical English-language scifi where the universe is either known or knowable, but definitely in the process of becoming more known, and the conflicts are primarily human, rather than pitting humans against an illogical, impersonal, and possibly hostile world. What we have is modernism and even naïve Hegelianism on one side, and postmodernism on the other.

Things that might be of interest:
  • "big dumb object" books, but not ones with pat explanations at the end (more Rendezvous with Rama, less Rama sequels)
  • books that take place in medias res, or have unreliable or uninformed narrators (i.e., the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of sci-fi)
  • sci-fi tragedies and Kafkaesque phantasmagoria
Things that are definitely not of interest:
  • "merely" depressing SF&F (viz. Peter Watts)
  • SF&F-themed noir pastiche (e.g., Lethem's Gun With Occasional Music, Ford's The Last Hot Time)
  • "slipstream" and metafiction, especially of the hallucinatory or dream-like variety (e.g., Kelly Link)
  • Lovecraftian horror, which does feature an alien and malign universe, but not existential dread or weltschmerz
Note: I've read a lot of Lem and PKD. Something like Crowley's Engine Summer would be appropriate. I know about China Miéville.
posted by Nomyte to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
You might like the Budayeen Series by Effinger. Cyberpunk, but a noir-detective feel, and (IMHO) a good read with interesting characters.
posted by The otter lady at 4:41 PM on July 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Have you read "When Gravity Fails" and it's follow ups by George Alec Effinger? It's been a while since I've read it, so I'm not sure it meets ... Ha! On preview what otter lady said. I'm posting this just to show that her idea is a good one!
posted by bswinburn at 4:43 PM on July 8, 2012

Oh, one more suggestion, "Half the Day is Night" by Maureen McHugh. It's a very noir story where the inability to really know what is going on is a major theme.

My understanding is that it was written, at least in part, as a reaction against all the cyber-punk novels where people were running from giant conspiracies and they were absolutely certain of it. Here the protagonist, as I remember, eventually finds herself on the run from a major, multi-nationally back corporate conspiracy, or at least she thinks she is. She's pretty sure of it. Most of the time. Well, maybe not and she's just freaking out. In any case, she's having a pretty bad time at work.

You know, I may just reread it myself.
posted by bswinburn at 4:53 PM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's been a while since I've read Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, but I'm pretty sure it checks all your boxes. It struck me as extremely hard-boiled/noir version of a PKD story.
posted by emyd at 4:58 PM on July 8, 2012 [7 favorites]

Someone else can probably articulate this better than I can (Oh, some people did) but cyberpunk in general was a postmodern response to what SF had been up to the 1980s or so. Neuromancer is very much in the noir style (with some added technobabble) and I think Gibson did a few noir short stories around that time as well.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:16 PM on July 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton stories by Larry Niven are fun, maybe not exactly noir, but well it's always noir in space!
posted by sammyo at 5:24 PM on July 8, 2012

He's definitely in the "interesting but flawed" category for me, but M. John Harrison's sci-fi is exactly this, especially Nova Swing "An intergalactic noir" (seriously, this is exactly what you're asking for
), and it's prequel of sorts, Light.

ps everyone, he especially said he didn't want Lethem
posted by smoke at 5:25 PM on July 8, 2012

The City and the City is a great example of this--our hero is solving a literal mystery with red herrings, while solving an existential mystery as well. I don't always like Mieville, but I enjoyed this one, and it seems to match your parameters.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:25 PM on July 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure if these would qualify to you, but The Company novels by Kage Bager are excellent examples of how reality is created by its interpreters. The same events are revisited various times as various fragments and iterations start to make more and less sense.

Possibly The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Barry, but this might seem slipstream or meta to you. It's hard for me to judge.

Less possibly, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist. Characters find that little they thought was true about allies and enemies is so.
posted by wintersweet at 5:44 PM on July 8, 2012

That's a pretty dead-on description of Version 43 by Philip Palmer.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:03 PM on July 8, 2012

Chasm City murder mystery set in Alistair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe. Heavy noir feel. Century Rain has the same feel and is also a mystery, but it's not in the same universe and not generally as good.
posted by valkyryn at 6:07 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Carlucci trilogy by Richard Paul Russo.
posted by Joh at 6:11 PM on July 8, 2012

If you're up for a graphic novel, I recommend Warren Ellis' Desolation Jones.

Jones is the P.I. to the community of retired intelligence spooks sent to live in exile within the bounds of L.A. Because violent, surgically altered freaks don't stand out in the City of Angels.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 6:18 PM on July 8, 2012

Slant by Greg Bear
posted by Malla at 6:29 PM on July 8, 2012

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
posted by sweltering at 6:31 PM on July 8, 2012

Iain Banks' "Excession" might fit your "big dumb object" criterion. Otherwise, it's a novel of The Culture. Hmm, I wonder if the first Culture novel, "Consider Plebas" isn't also a good fit. It's about one man's battle within a much larger war against The Culture.

I can see you've read a lot of Lem-- your description alone evokes "His Master's Voice" and "Fiasco" right quickly.

How about Harlan Ellison's classic short "I Have No Mouth (And I Must Scream)"?

Also, the OP didn't say he didn't want Letham, he just didn't want SFesque Ray Chandler pastiches like "Gun, WOM." Not to say "As She Crawled Across the Table" doesn't fit the bill, especially in the "big dumb [lack of] object" criterion, though Lack is more MacGuffin than the story's core.
posted by Sunburnt at 6:31 PM on July 8, 2012

Checkout John Stith's work.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 6:35 PM on July 8, 2012

If we're going to suggest other Lethem, I think Chronic City is closer to what the OP is asking for, especially in re the sense of the plot seeming to establish itself but then coming out from under your feet, again and again.
posted by escabeche at 6:51 PM on July 8, 2012

Seconding Richard K Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies).

Seconding "Excession" by Iain M Banks. IMO, a pretty fair number of his books have unreliable narrators. "Against A Dark Background" and "Use of Weapons" could be considered tragedies, with the first also containing lots of the "hero constantly revising her hypotheses" elements.

Heading into "urban fantasy", try the "Night Watch" series by Sergey Lukyanenko. (Note: Don't be put off by the Wikipedia pages and/or Amazon synopses for these books - they all make a Big Deal about the background & set-up of the fictional world, but the stories are actually mostly told from the viewpoint of, essentially, a fairly mid-level functionary who isn't very interested in the Big Picture.)
posted by soundguy99 at 7:22 PM on July 8, 2012

I think you would really like Paul Auster, even though he isn't generally known as a sci-fi writer (though he did get a Clarke Award nomination a few years ago). In the Country of Last Things is probably all-around the closest to what you are looking for, but he is generally pretty interested in the themes you mention.

Admittedly I can't really justify mentioning City of Glass here since I don't consider it "sci-fi"...but I can't quite help thinking that you should read it too, as it is a masterpiece that pushes many metaphysical boundaries of the noir genre.
posted by susanvance at 7:33 PM on July 8, 2012

The Demolished Man may fit your needs, for the noirish setting, antihero, and question about free will and the ability to exercise as such.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:34 PM on July 8, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far! There's a lot to think about. But maybe let's veer away from overt hardboiled fiction.
posted by Nomyte at 7:41 PM on July 8, 2012

Oooh, how could I forget "Against a Dark Background"-- wonderful read, and excellent twists and turns. Seconded strongly. Also "Use of Weapons," which, whether it fits or not is probably the best Culture book.

I'd like to add "Whipping Star," by Frank Herbert. It's one of two novels featuring the Bureau of Sabotage, a government department designed to throw a necessary wrench into the wheels of a government that has become too efficient with advances in technology. I haven't read the second, "The Dosadi Experiment," but in "Whipping Star," the protagonist must try to understand the nature of an alien that's mostly incommunicado and largely incomprehensible, and yet which struck a deal for its own death.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:00 PM on July 8, 2012

I came in to recommend Iain M. Banks, and I see others have beaten me to it.

I would recommend Queen of Angels by Greg Bear, and strongly second the Takeshi Kovacs books by Richard Morgan (which are as awesome as awesome things).
posted by biscotti at 8:08 PM on July 8, 2012

I'm trying to think of possibilities that don't have an overt "gritty detective" feel to them but otherwise match. What about Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (or less-so A Fire upon the Deep)? I assume you've read them; are they what you're looking for?

What about the genre of puzzle stories that was common in SF from the '30s-'50s? (The kind of thing you'd find in early Asimov or Avram Davidson, for example.) They tick most of the boxes you list, but from the other parts of your description they don't seem like the same kind of thing you are looking for. Are they, and if not, what are they missing?

John Varley's Eight Worlds stories? Walter Jon Williams? (WJW writes in a variety of styles; he does have a gritty-cyberpunk-detective pair (Hardwired/Angel Station) but The Praxis et seq might be what you want.) Karl Schroeder?
posted by hattifattener at 8:37 PM on July 8, 2012

Response by poster: hattifattener, the common thread b/w Vinge and "puzzle sci-fi" (like the I, Robot stories) is that in the end the mystery is solved, order is affirmed/restored, and the hero is satisfied. In the books I mentioned, the mystery goes unsolved, order is impossible, and the hero realizes that his task is futile or based on a misunderstanding. It's a very different kind of book. It also doesn't get published very much.
posted by Nomyte at 8:54 PM on July 8, 2012

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World?

Although people have tried to tell me it's not science fiction, but I don't think I agree.
posted by GuyZero at 9:03 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Naoki Urasawa's manga Pluto meets many of your requirements. It is based in an expanded-universe, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern-esque way on a short story "The Greatest Robot on Earth" from the classic manga series Astro Boy / Atomic Robo by Osamu Tezuka. If you've already read the Tezuka story, great! If you haven't, DO NOT GO DELIBERATELY READ ASTRO BOY FIRST. Pluto works perfectly well on its own, and while it's still possible to enjoy a mystery knowing beforehand that the butler did it, why risk it?

Pluto is about German robot Europol Detective Gesicht investigating the serial murder/destruction of the world's most advanced and high-profile robots, in a context of sentient robots being highly controversial. And typing that out makes it sound exactly like Watchmen and I, Robot, which it is and really is not, as IIRC it predates and follows both, kinda. ("Forget it, Gesicht. It's Asimov.") In order, Asimov } Tezuka } Watchmen } Pluto } Will Smith movie. Make of that what you will.
posted by nicebookrack at 9:12 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it's not immediately disqualified by being fantasy, Neil Gaiman's novella "Murder Mysteries" works.
posted by nicebookrack at 9:42 PM on July 8, 2012

In the books I mentioned, the mystery goes unsolved, order is impossible, and the hero realizes that his task is futile or based on a misunderstanding.

Revelation Space, Chasm City, and Redemption Ark, but more stuff gets "solved" in Absolution Gap.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:00 PM on July 8, 2012

Try The January Dancer by Michael Flynn. A most unreliable narrator, schemes within schemes and a race for a mysterious prize.
posted by N-stoff at 11:09 PM on July 8, 2012

I came here to second Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Also, all of Phillip K Dick's books.
posted by moiraine at 11:34 PM on July 8, 2012

I'd recommend Gateway by Frederik Pohl. Not that noir, but there is a mystery/outcome, and it has an alien component, but this is never fully explained. The rest of the series go into a bit more depth, but this kind of pulls away the curtain.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 4:04 AM on July 9, 2012

I must have really misunderstood either this post or the books, but wouldn't Dirk Gently and Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul fit?
posted by tilde at 5:41 AM on July 9, 2012

I’m not entirely sure what you’re looking for, but how about Noir by K.W. Jeter?
posted by bongo_x at 11:28 AM on July 9, 2012

Seconding the City and the City. I think it fits exactly what you described.

And I kind of agree with Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, though if you are not looking for dreamlike, I'm not sure if Murakami is your best bet.
posted by taltalim at 2:07 PM on July 9, 2012

This is a great list of books. By which I mean that I like seeing recommendations of books I've read. I'll add Finch by Jeff Vandermeer. But really, most of the suggestions I've seen so far are great.
posted by One Hand Slowclapping at 6:47 PM on July 9, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for trying their best to suggest something that matched. It seems that I didn't do a great job of articulating what I wanted, because I got repeated suggestions (now seemingly deleted) of the exact sort of book I do not want: namely, hardboiled detective stories that are for some reason set in spacefuture.

I continue looking for books that take a similar worldview, but not the actual character types, tropes, imagery, or stereotypical language of crime noir. That was the reason why I specifically asked for no GWOM. I'm not looking for novels about space gumshoes in space fedoras, I'm looking for books that read like regular sci-fi until it clicks, "oh, this book is structured like a detective story." Not because the space hero is investigating a space murder; it could ostensibly be about something completely different. There is no space murder in Lem's Solaris, for example.

I will definitely check out the suggestions that are new to me, even though most of them seem to be pretty straightforward crossover sci-fi, for which there was already a great Ask that covered most of the same ground. I'll probably be back with a question that's exclusively about BDO stories, for which I got virtually no suggestions. I think that's a whole genre of sci-fi.

I am going to close this thread with a hearty recommendation that everyone read Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic, which has recently been republished in a new translation. It really is a different kind of book that's structured, plotted, and conceptualized in ways that may feel new and unfamiliar.
posted by Nomyte at 9:30 PM on July 9, 2012

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