There’s just no point in thinking that you’re picking up things that don’t exist, or talking to people that are just part of some dummied-up sensory load. The kind of stuff died out back in the mini-theme-park days. Kids standing around with big ugly goggles on, swatting at nothing. That kind of stuff’s crap. But seeing the same things that everybody else does, but just seeing them differently… hey, that’s the way it is for everyone.
Jamais Cascio recently posted a call for more social-cultural futurism. This is a theme I’ve been thinking about a bit lately, particularly as it fits within my ongoing research about cyberpunk science-fiction and its role in creating capital imaginaries. It’s also an interesting thing for futurists and science fiction writers to focus on, with the emergence of a narrative about the supposed end of generational fashion, culture and music.
I want to look at a cyberpunk novel that examines different perspectives rather than different technology, and gives us a vision of a post-cyberpunk world that has passed its initial hyper-acceleration, and settled/devolved into stasis. It shows us how people engage with the shock of the new psychologically – by constructing belief systems and ‘ways of seeing’ that interpret the world in ways that make sense and allow them to function.
Noir by KW Jeter functions as an interesting examinations of noir tropes, but also as an examination of false consciousness, ways of knowing, ways of doing and critical inquiry outside the bounds of modernist scientific investigation. The plot hinges on an alternative investigatory heuristic that is enabled by McNihil’s (surgically implemented) ‘way of seeing’.
The science fiction novel in this case is a ‘lens’ system. It allows us to view what is already here, from a different perspective or a different level of focus. Of course, all fiction does this to some extent, but it’s usually implicit rather than explicit. Literalising the change in vision allows us to see things from a different perspective without having to adopt a worldview that we’re aware of but dislike. It’s hard to get inside the worldview of a white supremacist, but it’s not so hard to imagine seeing the world in cinematic noir.
McNihil’s lenses function in an interestingly self-aware way. McNihil has them implanted because he’s more comfortable in the eternal night of the black and white world of noir film. He’s not happy, by any means – but the lenses function as a cushion. He’s well aware of the reality of what he’s seeing, but his lenses translate it into a visual language that better fits his image of himself and the world around him. Certain objects do not translate into his world, though. Some items do not have appropriate analogues within his noir visual system, so they take on extra import because they don’t fit.
In this way, Jeter puts us in the mind of someone who, despite knowing the truth, returns to the comfort of his way-of-seeing because it makes sense to him, and indeed it is only way he can function. Even though he knows it is false, and even though he is reminded of its falseness when reality forcefully intrudes, even though he has learnt tricks to see through the noir vision and see reality when he wants to, he falls back to his way of seeing. He cannot not fall back to his way of seeing, because to see reality as it is would require rewiring his head.
McNihil acquired his lenses by choice; he wanted them, he paid dearly for them. But he has become so used to them, he may not be able to function without them. And despite the knowledge that he does not see ‘reality’, he functions within the world effectively.
I think Noir functions as a nuanced critique of the science-god clear-eyed barrel-chested hero of golden age science fiction, but also the march of progress modernism that runs through that body of literature. It’s a dystopia, but not a conventional one. It’s not a dystopia because of the conflict between great forces, but because that’s where we ended up.
I keep coming back to Noir for a couple of reasons. Jeter is an underrated science fiction author, partially because much of his output has been within other people’s universes. He’s written in the Star Trek and Star Wars universes as well as a criminally underrated set of sequels to Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. His Blade Runner sequels delve deeper into the questions of identity and memory that were raised in Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in a way that prefigures a lot of the themes and plot points in the recent Battlestar Galactica remake. He also manages to draw the Blade Runner film and the Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep discontinuities into the same universe in a way that feels satisfying.
Noir is set in the same universe as Jeter’s earlier novel, Dr Adder. Dr Adder was, but for the cowardice of publishers, one of the the first cyberpunk novels. It prefigured the obsession with communications technology, surgery and body modification as personal expression, weird sex, post-corporate societal breakdown and leather and chrome that exemplified cyberpunk style. Noir includes elements of this, but it’s set much later in the same universe. The characters have gotten past the shock of the new, and have started to cobble together their own styles, belief systems and ways of living. If Dr Adder prefigured the hyper-acceleration of early cyberpunk culture, Noir sets out a vision of a mature, semi-static cyberpunk culture.