Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Noir: A review

K.W. Jeter's Noir is a cyberpunk novel set mostly along the North American West Coast where a  small remnant of a parasitical corporate economy stationed in great loop around the Pacific Basin still "thrives".  The tale alludes to (presumably economic) collapsed areas, but as it is taking place within a brutal mercantile remnant, it's overall flavor is more dystopian than apocalyptic.

K.W. (Kevin Wayne) Jeter has an interesting mix of novels.  He was a friend of the Philip K. Dick, and wrote one of the earlier cyperpunk novels.   A novel with sufficient violence and sexual content that it took ten years to get it published  (Doctor Adder 1982).  He has also been a very successful author within mass-media inspired worlds:  Star Trek, Star Wars,  and Blade Runner.  Although not the inventor of the genre, he is the person who first coined the term Steampunk when describing that odd brand of Victorian era based science fiction. His literary output is highly varied and includes both horror  and contemporary action-adventure novels.
One item of note is that K.W. Jeter hates people who infringe on copyrights, and takes a highly moral stance on the personal property rights bestowed by copyright statutes.  That there is a bit of ephemeral quality to this type of ownership doesn't seem to figure within his philosophy on the subject.   So while it might be surprising that the main "hero" of the novel goes out and violently pursues the future dystopean equivalent of your college student pdf-pirates, it is not surprising that if such a protagonist should appear, that Jeter would be the originating author.
So we have McNihil, your typical physically enhanced cyberpunk style hero.  Most of his enhancements don't seem to be all that particularly helpful.  Most noteworthy is that he has surgically installed black mirror shades instead of eyes, which through elaborate software turn the world around him into a 1940s style noir film.  But the enhancement is a bit problematic for a detective, so he has to keep cheating and look into mirrored surfaces to figure out what he is really looking at.  We also have his dead wife, who he still visits from time to time.

His dead wife? Much like today's student loans, the debt of the future is difficult to be rid of.  If you die, and your in debt, your creditors will use various (not well explained) technical means to bring you back so that you can keep paying off your debt.  Since McNihil's wife owed money she was brought back and placed in the land of the dead (down south somewhere around Argentina I gather) to start paying off her debts.
The story has some of the feel of an old noir detective novel.   A young executive is killed in a seedy part of town, under unusual circumstance, and an over preening, overly powerful ubber-boss wants our copyright killer-cop to find out what happened, and more importantly, get back the intellectual property the executive is thought to have had on his persons when he was killed.  For reasons that are not particularly well explained, the copyright-cop doesn't want the work, so a large portion of the story is spent with the cop running around this dystopia while the executive keeps leaning on him harder and harder to do the job.  The author makes sure he adds in all the appropriate cyperpunk themes.  Adventures in a somewhat unreal web-matrix like world. The pretty young cyper gal assassin with the deadly high tech sneak attack weapon, and of course that mix of high tech impoverishment as best depicted visually in the movie Blade Runner.
The author throws in some talking points from classical literature, and there is a bizarre extended rant sequence where the author seems trying to convince of the necessity of copyright, while indicating that all the beneficiaries of these copyrights are extremely evil, and that copyright is likely to fade in the dystopia that the future brings in any case.
Did I like it?  Would I recommend it?  I am ambivalent.  I like the cyberpunk genre as a whole, but this one wades through some pretty serious muddy waters for what in the end is a relatively thin plot.  Bad guys using their power to do bad things, mixed in with a little bit of what I gather are some Jungian archetypes, as the collective public unconscious, brings to life disturbing entities/religions through their myopic lusts.  While it has its interesting moments, the collective pieces don't always add up well together, and while the ending had its nice little gotcha surprise, I am not sure how much most people would care by that point.
We move on to our two descriptive ratings:  Realism and Readability:  1 to 7, with 4 in the middle and 7 being high.
Realism in our case is intended to indicate how close the novels subject matter is to today, or a near future's struggles and difficulties.  In this case the apparent cause of collapse - economic myopia - is believable enough.  But while the world is supposedly in a relatively near future collapse, the storyline runs more within the theme of the more moody film noir movies of the 1940s.  There is more mood than plausible story.  I guess in theory, all the characters are worried about making money.  But its not because they worry about starving so much as they worry about being turned into undead zombies to pay their bills.   Most of the implanted gadgets are underwhelming in their effectiveness.  It is a three.
Readability is literally how straightforward the novel is to read.  It is not necessarily a mark of literary merit.  Cyberpunk novels tend to like to hold back their storyline to cause mystery and suspense, and this novel pretty much fits the bill.  There is a fair amount of philosophic discussions, which keep this from being a simple, plot driven, action-adventure.  Again it is a three.


Archer Garrett said...

Dystopian cyberpunk (a la Bladerunner) and Victorian steampunk (with a focus on southern postbellum reconstruction era-esque settings) are both works that I would love to experiment in.

I hate that the book was sort of a let down. Cyberpunk Noir sounds interesting.

russell1200 said...

Archer: Cyberpunk is generally fashioned in a modern version of noir sensibilities. Thus all the young women with razor claws, et cetera. Steampunk has far more legs than I would have credited possible. It is not a genre I have paid much attention to.

And yes it could have been a better book.