In one sense, noir is rooted in a very specific time and place. Noir sprang out of the hardboiled detective fiction that emerged in the United States around the Great Depression as the veneer was chipping off the mythic American dream. Prohibition had empowered organized crime, political corruption was rampant, and the gap between the poor in bread lines and the robber barons in gilded palaces was a growing chasm. The cynical antiheros of writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett spoke to that specific time.
In another sense, noir is timeless and adaptable to any place real or imagined. Noir films and novels have been made in countries all over the world, and the style can be mashed up with almost any other genre. When I wrote my novel The Body Scout, I knew that even though it was a science fiction novel set in a futuristic baseball league a noir style would suit the material perfectly. Corruption, darkness, and mystery never seem to go away. So for this list, I’m going to talk about some fantastic noir novels that happen to take place in science fiction and fantasy worlds.
My favorite Murakami novel does double duty for this list as it is split between two narratives, one fantasy and one science fiction. The first, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland,” takes place in a cyberpunk future where a man who works as a kind of human encryption computer falls into a plot involving a mad scientist living in the Tokyo sewer. The other narrative, “The End of the World,” instead takes place in a fantasy realm, albeit a dreamy Murakami-ish one where unicorn skulls show dreams. The mysteries of the two storylines come together in a surprising way that I won’t spoil. As the title implies, the novel is in part an homage to American hardboiled fiction.
Yoss; David Frye (Translator)
Yoss is the premiere Cuban science fiction author writing today, and every novel of his I’ve read has been a wild and hilarious ride. Red Dust is both his most recently translated novel and almost tailor-made for this list. Our hero is Raymond, a robot police detective who speaks in a hardboiled style and named himself after—you guessed it—Raymond Chandler (“Unfairly forgotten today, but my favorite writer all the same”). The today of the Red Dust is a far future when capitalist aliens control the galaxy and humans are allowed only minimal freedoms. It’s a rollicking fun ride through a noir-tinged space opera future.
Hardboiled turns horror in Khaw’s 2016 novella about a monster-hunting P.I. whose body is controlled by an ancient being. While the antihero is monstrous, the case he’s on will take him to far darker, more stygian, and more grotesque places. This is a mystery with monsters and noir that’s splattered with red. If you ever wondered what H.P Lovecraft would look like combined with Dashiell Hammett, give Hammers on Bone a read.
Philip K. Dick
It seems obligatory to put the Dick’s ground-breaking SF noir novel on this list. But just because it’s expected doesn’t mean it isn’t deserving. The novel follows an android bounty hunter in a dystopian future San Francisco. In this future, animal life is scarce and robotic replicants of both animals and humans are common. Like most Dick novels, it deals with questions of identity and the human consciousness, but here they are wrapped up in a thrilling hard-boiled plot.
Moreno-Garcia is one of those authors who can nimbly move between genres, excelling in a variety of styles and forms. Her best-selling 2020 novel Mexican Gothic is, as the title implies, a haunting Gothic novel set in Mexico while her latest, Velvet Was the Night, is a noir set in the 1970s. However, for a SFF noir check out Certain Dark Things. This 2016 novel combines neo-noir (“neon-noir” the author calls it) with vampires, reinventing both genres in the process. After the novel’s original publisher went under, it was resurrected this year by Tor Nightfire.
While Piranesi isn’t exactly written in a noir style, it’s definitely a dark mystery novel. It’s also one of the best fantasy tales I’ve ever read. We begin with the titular Piranesi trapped in a strange world filled with marble statues and sloshing water. Every now and then, a sorcerer visits him then disappears. Occasionally he stumbles upon a pile of bones. It’s unclear how he appeared in his demonic version of Plato’s realm of the forms, but he’ll have to uncover the mystery of his own past if he is ever able to escape.
In Thompson’s newest book, he crafts a locked-room mystery in a surprising place: a spaceship. The Ragtime docks after light-years of traveling, bringing colonists to a new world. But when the first mate wakes up, she finds the computer system has been damaged and dozens of the colonists have been killed while they were sleeping. There are a lot more twists from there in this gripping space opera noir.
Like Dick in Do Androids Dream, Sternbergh mixes noir with a dystopian future American setting. This time though it’s NYC in the wake of a dirty bomb nuke. The (anti)hero is Spademan, a former garbage man who now works as a hitman in a Big Apple split between the ragged poor masses and the rich who have plugged into a virtual reality paradise. Sternbergh offers a dark and gritty portrait of the future, with a noir style to match. It’s a punchy and propulsive read for anyone who likes their dystopia with the hardest of hardboiled prose.
About the Author
Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press, 2015), which was named a best book of the year by Buzzfeed and reviewed in the New York Times; Vanity Fair; O, The Oprah Magazine; Tor.com and elsewhere. His fiction and poetry appear in The Paris Review, Granta, Tin House, Strange Horizons, Vice’s Motherboard, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His essays and criticism have been published by The New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone, and The Guardian. He is the former editor-in-chief of Electric Literature. He is the co-editor of the science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds (Gigantic Books 2015), the flash noir anthology Tiny Crimes (Catapult, 2018), and the forthcoming horror anthology Tiny Nightmares (Catapult, 2020). He teaches speculative fiction writing in the MFA programs at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.
In the future you can have any body you want—as long as you can afford it.
But in a New York ravaged by climate change and repeat pandemics, Kobo is barely scraping by. He scouts the latest in gene-edited talent for Big Pharma-owned baseball teams, but his own cybernetics are a decade out of date and twin sister loan sharks are banging down his door. Things couldn't get much worse.
Then his brother—Monsanto Mets slugger J.J. Zunz—is murdered at home plate.
Determined to find the killer, Kobo plunges into a world of genetically modified CEOs, philosophical Neanderthals, and back-alley body modification, only to quickly find he's in a game far bigger and more corrupt than he imagined. To keep himself together while the world is falling apart, he'll have to navigate a time where both body and soul are sold to the highest bidder.