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Noir Through Space And Time

There's always a girl and there's always a gun: the Hero-Blaster used by Harrison Ford's character in the movie <em>Blade Runner</em>. The gun was up for auction in 2009.
Mark Ralston
AFP/Getty Images
There's always a girl and there's always a gun: the Hero-Blaster used by Harrison Ford's character in the movie Blade Runner. The gun was up for auction in 2009.

Spade's arms went around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging through his blue sleeves.

That line comes from The Maltese Falcon and the guy with the blue sleeves is none other than Sam Spade. I read those words in a worn paperback copy my dad loaned me when I was 18 and I was quickly hooked. I'd fallen in love with the dark world of the noir detective. But who hasn't?

What is it about these world-weary detectives that makes their stories so compelling that they can be told over and over again? More to the point, what makes noir so perfect for narratives of the future? Why are there so many detectives spread out across space and time?

The hard-boiled detective genre is remarkably flexible. It's been cast in a suburban high school (the remarkable Brick), it's been a done as literary comedy (Bored to Death) and it's been done a post-modem meta-fiction (Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy). All you need are the genre's fundamental elements: a dark city that knows how to keep its secrets; a dangerous woman with a past; rich kids caught up in the underworld and the powerful family that wants them back. At the center of it all is the detective.

He (it is usually a he) is a man intimate with loss, carrying the weight of a backstory we may never fully see. But that past is what lets him move so easily from one side of the law to the other, all the while guided by a moral compass of his own making. Through double-crosses too numerous to count (noir is renown for its inscrutable plots) and seduction to steamy to recount here, the detective prevails (or doesn't).

We have seen it a thousand times and never, ever seem to tire of it. Then the detective shows up in our visions of the future and we see it all again with fresh eyes.

The two most important appearances of future noir occurred at almost the same time. The first was Blade Runner and its hero Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), a cop working in a bleak, over-crowded, decaying Los Angeles where the rain never lets up. Deckard's job — running down replicants (artificial humans) — takes an unexpected turn into the dark heights of corporate power and the arms of a woman he should know better than to fall for.

The second critical piece of future-noir was the epoch-making Neuromancer in which William Gibson helped set the stage for our collective imaginings of cyberspace. Neuromancer's protagonist Case is not strictly a detective. He is a damaged but brilliant hacker. His own quest for truth and redemption takes him through many noir-genre staples, including confrontation with a family of stratospheric wealth and power (they actually live in orbit).

Neuromancer and Blade Runner served as ambassadors to a new kind of future — the dystopian world of cyberpunk. Gone were the gleaming silver starships of Star Trek's final frontier. Cyberpunk represented the earliest recognition that the digital future we were building might be something other than a free-flowing utopia.

It's a future full of giant, data-rich corporations running the world for their own benefit. It's a future full of cyber-ghettos, where people living at the margins serve the needs of their corporate overlords. It's a place where you don't want to find yourself on the wrong side of the line between power and powerlessness. It's a world where power is held by those who control information. It's, in short, the world the noir detective has always inhabited.

The years since Neuromancer and Blade Runner have been full of fiction that fit the noir mold. There was the fantastic novel Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan. In film, I Robot kept the form but lacked the deeper vision. More recently we saw Looper and Surrogates (both with Bruce Willis, if that says anything).

So what are we to make of the detectives of the future? It may be that they tell us something useful about the future. Their darkness may reflect a new understanding of progress and its price.

Or it could be that it's just all about the form. That is because nothing, absolutely nothing, beats a story about a guy, a gun, a mystery he can't shake and a city that knows how to keep its secrets.

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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