On Nightmare Noir, Science Fiction and the Allure of the Gothic ‹ CrimeReads
Best-selling authors have a personal brand. It’s advice I’ve received many times: make sure that when someone sees your name, they have a good idea of what they’re getting. This is the way to find and cultivate an audience.
This is advice that I have very badly followed. My output in the past few years alone includes sci-fi novels, a contemporary romantic comedy for Audible, preschool cartoons, and a true-crime podcast for kids. But for me, the interaction between genres is fascinating, and that’s why I like to work in different genres. Genres don’t exist in isolation: no matter what label we put on something to help it find its audience, there are always blurry boundaries, tropes to borrow and subvert.
My latest novel Drunk on all your strange new words, is both SF and crime. It’s not at all unusual, of course: these two have been combined countless times, in forms ranging from The town and the city at Judge Drdd. SF texts are very often hybrid anyway, as the big SF genre markers provide settings and themes but don’t necessarily give you a story. If it’s set on a spaceship, it’ll be labeled SF, but the story could be a romance or a political thriller. However, there is a fundamental link between SF and crime because they come from the same place: gothic.
We tend to think of SF as a forward-looking genre that seems at odds with Gothic, with its sense of decadence and anxieties about the past. Yet the root of SF is generally recognized as one of the great gothic novels, Mary Shelley Frankenstein– a text that imagines what science could achieve, and the ramifications if it did. He invented the SF tropes that we still use today because they continue to work.
Some have argued Frankenstein is also a detective novel, and it makes a compelling case: Victor Frankenstein spends part of the novel as a detective, tracking down his creation. And other key texts in the development of the detective novel as we understand it today – the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, The woman in white, The Hound of the Baskervilles-are also gothic. There are even detective novel elements in Draculaas the protagonists piece together Dracula’s past and track his movements.
Dracula offers a contrast between the ancient, dark and superstitious world represented by Dracula and the modernity of our heroes, who use trains, portable cameras and gramophones. They are people of rationality and technology – two common characteristics of crime and SF as they developed away from Gothic in the 20th century. Police procedural frequently emphasizes psychology and forensic science as tools to solve mysteries and restore order, while SF is fueled by the possibilities of technology, whether celebrating it or preventing it. . Yet the Gothic still comes back – that’s exactly what he does – and he never really left SF or crime.
I have a long-standing fascination with the noir school of detective fiction, and in fact wrote a book on film noir where I argued that noir and goth have always been close cousins. You can see it in the fatalism, paranoia, and fear of the dark’s past, as well as its particular claustrophobia: there’s a whole subgenre called “dark nightmare,” stemming from the work of authors like Cornell Woolrich. The gothic element of noir that I’ve always particularly enjoyed is the sheer crux of many of its storylines, where events can seem inexplicable, creating their own disorienting effect on both protagonist and audience.
Meanwhile, in SF, we can turn to the work of Philip K Dick, so often marked by ambiguity and uncertainty, questioning the nature of reality. The growing ability of technology to create artificial things brings us back not only into the territory of Frankenstein, it also brings back the essential gothic quality of weirdness. This has become a familiar mode of SF following works like neuromancer and blade runner– which, by the way, also draws heavily from the tropes of crime. (Perhaps the most obvious and successful combination of the three is X fileswhich itself draws inspiration from key gothic crime texts like Thesilenceofthelambs and twin peaks.)
These are the strands of SF and detective novels that I drew on when I was writing Drunk on all your strange new words. I wanted to write a mystery novel where my protagonist – Lydia, translator for an alien cultural attache in a future version of Manhattan – struggles to make sense of her own situation, and chaos threatens to overwhelm her efforts to make sense of it. She finds herself beset by constructed narratives enabled – and in some cases, entirely generated – by technology, which threaten to drown out the truth.
I also turned to noir for the type of detective I wanted to write. I’ve always loved stories where someone who isn’t a detective takes on the role of detective, like Louise Welsh. The cutting room or the Rian Johnson movie Brick. Someone without official status to investigate, but who feels morally obligated to do so, despite the lack of police support. I also liked the idea of my character being ill-equipped and lacking in skills, and having to solve all of this on the fly – I think there were shades of The great Lebowski here.
All this combined well with the framework of the book in the near future. Mysteries are great for examining how a world works, as your protagonist is allowed to talk to a range of people and find the connections between them. That means they’re also perfect for SF, where world-building is one of the main pleasures, but conveying that information to the reader can be hard to do elegantly: the detective is an ideal character for that. But in building this world, I quickly realized the challenge of putting a murder mystery into it.
Contemporary mystery writers are already grappling with how mysteries work in a world plagued by surveillance and data collection. Even a lack information can now be a source of suspicion – a phone turned off at a certain time suggests that someone has something to hide. I was writing a story set about six decades in the future, and the scope of surveillance culture would certainly be greater. So how do you write a mystery that isn’t solved in five minutes flat?
Again, I looked black. The classic Dark Nightmare scenario is waking up in a room with a dead body and not knowing how it happened, or even if he was responsible for it. So when the alien Lydia is translating for is murdered, I decided to make Lydia the one who can’t explain her whereabouts and, in the absence of evidence, happens to be the most likely suspect. This data gap becomes a serious problem for her, making it all the more imperative that she find out what happened.
And so Lydia suddenly went from a sci-fi world where things made sense to her, to a gothic world where she didn’t know what was going on and nothing made sense. While I revel in switching between genres, the experience is far less comfortable for my protagonist, who probably wishes she was in one of those novels by writers who are better at staying on-brand. I can only apologize.