Friday, November 13, 2015

Noir and Science Fiction

In a recent round-up of new science fiction novels for The Hamilton Spectator, Alex Good remarks that
The strange bond between noir and science fiction has never been thoroughly explained. What is it about trench coats and laser pistols that make them work so well together?
It's certainly something worth thinking about. It strikes me as relevant that both hard-boiled crime, and science fiction, coalesced as genres at about the same time--the late 1920s, the 1930s.

However, I suspect that their appearing at the same moment is not the only reason for the sense of their kinship, but reflects something deeper, which we may find easy to overlook today, or simply prefer to overlook, namely the political radicalism in which they each had their beginnings. Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and company in the case of the former; H.G. Wells in the case of the latter; all had a sense of there being much wrong with this world, but not because of the traditional, conservative, tragic view of the universe as metaphysically rigged (the Fall, etc.), but because of an inconstant social reality that they believed could and had to be changed for the better.

Granted, Hammett gave way to Mickey Spillane. And when people think of early science fiction, they are apt to remember the more out-of-date attitudes of figures like Astounding editor John Campbell. Still, the old radicalism remained, perhaps more conspicuously in science fiction. Man of the right that Campbell indisputably was, he largely carried forward Wells' ideas about science fiction and how it ought to be written.1 Indeed, in what may have been the fullest expression of his own view in a critical essay, his 1959 editorial "Non--Escape Literature," the great virtue of science fiction was that, unlike the "literature of eternal verities" (for which he had such disdain), it grappled with the reality of that inevitable change, helping prepare us all for the "things to come," the bigotries of the highbrows be damned. Moreover, for all that has undeniably changed in the field since then, that idea has never gone away (however much it may have appeared marginalized). Nor is it imaginable that it could, so long as science fiction continues to be written.

1. I discuss the views of Campbell, and his considerable debt to Wells, in Chapter 2 of Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry.

Preview After the New Wave
8/3/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15

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