[GUEST POST] Patrick Swenson on The Marriage of Sci-Fi and Noir


Patrick Swenson began Talebones magazine in 1995, and in 2000 started Fairwood Press, a small SF book press. Ultra Thin Man is his first novel.

The Marriage of Sci-Fi and Noir

by Patrick Swenson

My novel The Ultra Thin Man has readers likening it to Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, and in truth, Hammett’s novel is a definite influence, as is the film of the same name. I’ve also seen a number of comments along the lines of: “I hope Nick and Nora at least have a cameo!” They do not, I’m afraid. In fact, only one character makes a cameo, and it was quite by accident. Dorothy, the daughter of the prime suspect in The Thin Man, is often called by a shorter name. In the first chapter of The Ultra Thin Man, I introduce “Dorie,” a supposed terrorist movement sympathizer. The spelling of her name is different, however. I’d forgotten about her name in Hammett’s book until a year after I finished writing my own. I reread Hammett’s novel after that, and then I remembered.

The Ultra Thin Man doesn’t follow the plot of The Thin Man in any way. My novel gives homage to the 1930s and 1940s noir novel, however, and the later noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. A fedora here, a nightclub there, some strong alien booze, a femme fatale . . . and a couple of detectives intent on solving the mystery that threatens their very existence. In early drafts, cigarettes made an appearance. In editorial rewrites, it was decided that in 2113 we’d really be done with those things. Instead, I chose to include a few scenes with “flashsticks,” featuring a holographic mist. Since then, we’ve seen a recent push toward e-cigarettes, although it seems these might be similar to the flashsticks of 2113: destined for obscurity or, at best, shown off as a fun gimmick.

If you include The Thin Man as an influence, you have to include D.O.A., one of my favorite noir films, starring Edmond O’Brien as a man who’s desperately trying to find out who poisoned him-and why-before he dies.

Blade Runner, and the novel it’s based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, also influenced the writing of The Ultra Thin Man. Did you see the wonderful noir-style trailer of Blade Runner from October of last year? That’s it. That’s exactly it! Sci-fi noir. Here’s the link if you missed it. Many of Dick’s SF novels touched on aspects that slipped into my novel: paranoia, schizophrenia, drugs, and free will.

Recently, a reviewer called my novel an example of “space opera noir,” and I really love that designation. Naturally, then, influences include a great number of space opera novels from the days of the Golden Age. Consider Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel or his Foundation books. Also consider one of my favorite science fiction novels, Dune by Frank Herbert, which is completely to blame for my love of the genre. I’d also point to C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe for its space opera wonderment, including her Hugo Award-winning novels Downbelow Station and Cyteen, although my favorite novel of hers is probably The Pride of Chanur. Space opera novels like these were less interested in big space battles, and focused more on manipulation and politics, as happens in The Ultra Thin Man. It’s even more noticeable when an alien species is involved, causing any number of opportunities for miscommunication, which ultimately leads to distrust.

Add in Star Trek the original series, throw in Star Wars and dozens of other films and TV shows I saw during my formative years, and you start to see how defenseless I was against the barrage of ideas that led me to write a novel with an interstellar canvas. Add in the mystery and noir of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald-to name a few-and you have The Ultra Thin Man: space opera noir.

You’ll just have to forgive me for not giving Nick and Nora Charles cameos. They’re there in spirit, though, cheering on the marriage of sci-fi and noir, cocktails in hand.

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