Michael Dempsey is a theatre actor, director, playwright, former TV and film writer. His first novel is a SciFi noir thriller called Necropolis.
Don’t snort with derision, but when I wrote my novel Necropolis, I didn’t know what genre it was. Not because I couldn’t decide-because I wasn’t even aware that the genre existed.
Growing up, I loved crime stories; film noir, with its darkness and desperation, its cynical detectives and seedy swindlers. Necropolis initially involved a premise that I thought was cool: a detective trying to solve the hardest mystery he ever could-his own murder. I had to bring him back from the dead somehow to accomplish that, and there were only two ways to do it-scientific or supernatural. Urban fantasy series are wildly popular these days, and I heartily enjoy them. But it seemed to me that bookstore shelves were already sufficiently populated with vampire and wizard detectives. (And don’t kill me, but I was never much of a zombie guy.) So sci fi it was. And if, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” perhaps I could have all the fun of supernatural-noir but in a science fiction setting! Blend femme-fatales with plasma pistols, hardboiled wisecracks with holograms. That seemed like it would be an absolute blast.
I also dug retrofuturism. The recent Captain America film has a scene at the 1939-40 World’s Fair, whose theme was “Building The World of Tomorrow.” Tony (Iron Man) Stark’s father is demonstrating his company’s new prototype hover car (which only briefly functions). This is a nod at retrofuturism: the past’s vision of the future, often expressed in terms of flying cars, talking robots and domed cities. I’ve always had a certain fascination with the psychological tension between this idealized future and our present, which has turned out to be oh-so far from ideal. Retrofuturism evokes a longing for the innocence of a pre-Hitler society that really believed technology could create a utopia, a place where the worst daily problems were the type with which the Jetsons struggled. It must have seemed perfectly logical at the time-by 1980, of course everyone would have a video wristwatch!
Now, despite being a life-long science fiction fan, my professional writing career had been largely spent in the theater and writing sitcoms, where admittedly there isn’t much sci fi. That was where my professional focus had been. Oh, I’d kept up in major trends. For instance, I was a William Gibson fan and knew cyberpunk. But although I’d seen and loved movies like Blade Runner and Dark City and Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow, I didn’t fully comprehend that there already was an evolved and well-explored subgenre that integrated both the noir and retro sensibility with science fiction-alternately called dieselpunk, tech noir, or sci fi noir. So when artist Erik Gist, who did the fabulous cover for my book, said he dug my novel and dieselpunk in general, I was like, “Dieselpunk? Huh?” And I blush in shame to admit that I promptly Googled it.
I like Sky Captain, but it’s a tad cheesy for my taste. From the start I knew that if I was to successfully incorporate retrofuturistic elements in Necropolis, I’d have to find a way to do it that was grounded and realistic. Otherwise it wouldn’t mesh with the hardboiled grittiness of noir. Let’s face it, the idea of Humphrey Bogart firing a plasma Tommy gun sounds a bit ludicrous. To make this retro world plausible, I realized that I had to create a real culture (not some alternate history, like dieselpunk often is), a culture that deliberately chooses retrofuturism.
This is where the needs of the story converged with my stylistic ambitions. The mechanism of detective Paul Donner’s revival is an event called the Shift. Supposedly the unintended side-effect of a botched biological terrorist attack and carried by a ubiquitous retrovirus, the Shift jump-starts dead DNA and throws the life cycle into reverse, so reborns like Donner must cope with the fact that they are not only slowly youthing toward a new childhood, but have become New York’s most hated minority.
I thought about how people would respond to an event as catastrophic as the Shift, an event that challenged our fundamental views about nature and reality (not to mention religion). It seemed plausible that a society that traumatized might seek psychological refuge in nostalgia, and adopt a cultural style from the past-in this case, the 1940s and retrofuturism. And there’d be a real reason to erect a geodesic dome over the city-a herculean attempt at quarantining the spread of the virus. Plus, the science fiction element gave me a chance to riff on the classic noir archetypes, maybe add a new twist. For instance, Donner’s assistant-his “Girl Friday,” is a holographic AI.
So in Necropolis, technology is hidden behind a noir façade: there are maglev Studebakers and you can see Elvis at Radio City every night at 9. In Necropolis, the perps aren’t all human, but they aren’t vampires. Its hero is back from the dead, but he’s no zombie. You’ll find gritty vengeance, but also a wink and a tip of the fedora. There are old friends in new clothes and new friends in old. Hopefully, that’s an alchemy that has allowed me to have my retro cake and eat it, too.