Defining Noir in Science Fiction

What makes a science fiction story noir? The Sci-fi Literature track sponsored a panel at 1:00PM on Saturday to consider the question. Moderator Kacey Ezell started by asking panelists Jon R. Osborne, Stuart Jaffe, Griffin Barber, Marisa Wolf, and John Hartness to give an “elevator pitch” explaining noir. Hartness described as being an aesthetic of shadowy tales and black and white movies as much as a genre. As an example of noir, he suggested The Third Man but added that noir can be hard-boiled, “like grimdark with no sword.”

Wolf thinks of stark lighting, dramatic shadows and honorable men or women doing the right thing even if it leads to their destruction. Barber added that some element of a noir story involves corruption, either of the state, the underworld, or an underworld within the state and that nothing can be accomplished without cost.

Jaffe added historical context, explaining that detective stories were popular and studios lacked the funds to light them as they might’ve wanted, so this led to the style we associate with noir. Ezell suggested that the stark lighting also created a metaphor for light and shadow. Osborne agreed that the classic black and white of noir films reflected the gray morality of the stories.

The panel then moved to discussing science fiction noir. Examples included The Expanse, especially the disgruntled detective Miller, Altered Carbon, which has corruption of the rich and a classic noir detective barely getting by, and the game Cyberpunk 2077, which subscribes to the cyberpunk idea that one can get better at anything if willing to sacrifice one’s humanity.

Elements of science fiction noir they listed included, a central mystery, a voiceover, a clear noir tone in the melding of the science fiction and noir. Tropes include a McGuffin, such as the Maltese Falcon, a gritty detective, a femme fatale, a wise-cracking character, and some sort of civil or business conspiracy. The panel then brainstormed a story incorporating these tropes.

Ezell described Who Framed Roger Rabbit as noir for kids. Other examples of noir the audience listed included The City & the City by China Miéville, Sin City, Watchmen, Gattaca, the 1940s episodes of Star Trek, and episode of Quantum Leap and Cowboy Bebop as well as Timothy Zahn’s Icarus series, Glenn Cook’s Garret Files, Resident Evil (for noir elements) and Minority Report. Everyone agreed Mulholland Falls would be great noir, and Hartness suggested Justified, which Barbour described as a western-noir mashup.

When asked whether the protagonist in noir can be redeemed, the panel said they could but at a cost. Fixing one mistake might lead to another. They couldn’t be the same person they’d been before, but in the end, redemption isn’t required. Once the protagonist is redeemed, the series is over.

An audience member asked about emotional baggage for noir characters. The panel suggested several different kinds of emotional damage, include combat trauma, loss, such as John Constantine’s loss of a child directly to hell from his embrace and a situation that makes the protagonist feel responsible, whether or not they are.

Hartness noted that having a sidekick makes a story of 100,000 words possible, but indicating that those are hard to do with a cast of two, which is why most classic noir was 40,000 to 50,000 words. Jaffe pointed out that the stories are about the people. The mystery is the vehicle. Hartness said that science fiction is also the frame for the story about the people. He suggested that anyone wanting to sell science fiction noir to read classic noir and, to see what sort of science fiction sells now, modern science fiction rather than the genre’s classics.

One member of the audience asked which classic stories the panelists would remake as science fiction if they could. Answers included Casablanca, The Big Sleep, Sunset Boulevard, Season Four of Justified, The Fifth Element, Mulholland Falls, and Double Indemnity, which has already been remade as Body Heat.

The panel concluded that there’s plenty of room for genre crossovers and building tension.


Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.