Sci-Fi Neo-Noir

Sci-Fi Neo-Noir—
Bildungsroman Notes

“I want to tell you about the
first Science Fiction story I ever
read—or at least remember
reading—as a pre-teen.”
—Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies
of the Future: The Desire Called
Utopia and Other Science Fictions

The boyhood bildungsroman story Jameson discusses—is the classic sci-fi noir “Black Destroyer” by A.E. Van Vogt. It appeared in the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

In many ways it was like the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet—with its ancient Krell civilization and killer Monsters of the Id. In this sense “Black Destroyer” was a form of almost precog allegory about otherworldly psychic functions—the Monster of this early sci-fi story living off a substance described as “organic id” on a desolated barren planet.

Van Vogt’s panther-like being with its preternatural intelligence and strength—lives among the ruins of a long-dead alien Krell-like civilization.

According to the sci-fi critic Jameson, the publication of “Black Destroyer” was a bombshell—it changed the “still poorly articulated field” of the Science Fiction pulps by coming up with a story that virtually single-handedly restructured the dominant literary paradigms in the genre.

Henceforth, the Golden Age of Science Fiction would begin—with Van Vogt and a small group of younger writers like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

It resulted in a “tremendous burst of narrative production and paradigmatic innovation” from the end of the ‘30s—to the beginning of the ‘50s. Aided, of course, by John Campbell’s unique seminal role as editor of Astounding.

Before getting into Jameson’s discussion of Van Vogt—I too have a somewhat literary confession to make. It’s about my own bildungsroman sci-fi novel experience back in the seventh grade in 1957.

The name of the novel was Time For the Stars by Robert Heinlein. It was published by Scribner’s in 1956—as one of Heinlein’s juvie sci-fi novels. Along with his other juvenile science fiction works—like Space Cadet and Have Spacesuit Will Travel.

Time For the Stars involved something called the “twin paradox.” The Long Range Foundation ("LRF") funds expensive, long-term projects for the benefit of mankind that nobody else will touch. It’s built dozens of exploratory starships (torchships) to search for habitable planets to colonize.

The thing that got my attention back in 1957 when I first read Time For the Stars—was the Twin Paradox. Apparently an amazing discovery by the LRF that identical twins and triplets not only could communicate with each other telepathically—but that the process was instantaneous.

This twin brother telepathy wasn’t effected by distance, even lightyears—which meant that telepathic twins could communicate with each other in starships traveling many light years away from earth.

Testing showed that teenagers Tom and Pat Bartlett had this talent—and the novel develops the twin paradox idea through many fascinating and advernturous chapters. The starship twin doesn’t age as quickly—as the Terra-bound twin does. So that one of the twins stays much younger—than the other. And the older twin—needs to be replaced by subsequent communicators such as sons, daughters, nephews and neices.

Like adolescent Jameson who came up with what he thought was a powerful interpretation of Van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer” back in 1939 when he read Van Vogt’s short story—I too thought I was picking up on the Heinlein’s clues about teenage boyish psychic functions.

And the explicit and didactic aspects of what these psychic divisions of labor meant. And how to overcome them—as I went through the major paradigm shifts so many in my generation were going through. Iin terms of thinking about science fiction—versus the so-called cold hard facts of Sputnik and the sudden push toward science and technology that Sputnik provoked in ’60 America.

Some of the best minds of my generation—as Allen Ginsberg said in his seminal poem “Howl”—ended up going to MIT and pursuing the Krell “mind-boost” that lured so many postwar youth into that late capitalist push of postmodern science and technology.

On the other hand, there were a few like me—more enamored by the romantic science fiction aspects of what was going on. Fifties and Sixties pulp fiction paperbacks and slick magazines like Astounding and Fantasy and Science Fiction seemed to trigger a different more literary dimension—than hardcore calculus, astronautics and military/industrial applications.

The kind of hardcore sci-fi noir that interested me—probably had its origins in Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. Chandler’s haunting LA noir novels—gave me a sense of “nostalgia for the present” as Jameson coins the phrase. Chandler evoked something like the feeling I had watching “Forbidden Planet” (1956)—the story of an advanced lost Altair 4 civilization whose doomed future was already embedded in an ancient past.

The same with Mickey Spillane’s “Kiss Me, Deadly” (1952)—with its already futuristic sci-fi ending made even more sci-fi noir with the film version. The filmic nightmare version of “Kiss Me, Dead” (1955)—under the direction of Robert Aldrich and the scriptwriter A.I. Bezzerides. The jump from the novel’s somewhat naïve Cold War Pandora’s Box—to the film’s upscale Apocalyptic bombshell version of the evil Pandora’s Box endings seemed to me to be the classic sci-fi noir scenario.

As an example of Jameson’s “nostalgia for the present,” I remember in 1957 sitting in the junior high cafeteria of my hometown reading Heinlein’s novel “Time for the Stars”—surrounded by the charming, somewhat dated, but nevertheless nostalgic WPA murals on the walls that still decorated the basement cafeteria back then.

At the time both the junior high and high school buildings still existed—stately brick Temples of Learning with Roman columns gracing the entrances and each three-story monolithic edifice taking up a whole city block. I was walking back in time then—along the same hallways my mother had walked to classes in back in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.

I had even had classes with some of the same teachers she had—and the classrooms really hadn’t changed that much. The ancient desks were immovable—screwed down to the hardwood floors with old almost Egyptianesque hieroglyphs carved into the graffiti-strewn desktops.

It was like doing a nostalgic re-run of what she lived through; there were even photos of Mary White the daughter of publisher William Allen White standing in front of the high school holding a bunch of books in 1924.

But suddenly, right in the middle of reading Heinlein’s “Time for the Stars” during lunch in 1957—I experienced the Twin Paradox. I had this precog sort of “nostalgia for the present” feeling—a flashback-flashforward kind of experience during lunch. It was actually more of a cerebral mind-fuck sort of thing—something that made sense and yet didn’t make sense. Isn’t that called—cognitive dissonance?

It seemed to me that if telepathy were instantaneous and that the twins Tom and Pat Bartlett could communicate with each other even on distant stars and planets—then there was something wrong with my Zeitgeist. Something like the Twin Paradox…

All this rush of physics, chemistry and calculus that was coming down on me and my generation with the advent of Sputnik and Kennedy’s race to the moon agenda—surely it was all secondary compared with the “twin paradox” and possible psychic breakthrough proposed by Heinlein.

It was like this amazing paradigm shift inside my head—as the old ‘30s Depession Era WPA murals on the walls of the cafeteria wavered, shimmered and seem to fade away. Exposing a depth beyond the murals and time, beyond the brick walls and the city limit—beyond all that Space itself became “instantaneous.”

Space itself became engorged and glutted—with all the timeless power and temporal terror of Van Vogt’s “organic id.” Telepathy through this “organic id”—became a sudden paradigm for an “instantaneous ideologeme.” Everything became “synoptically” available to me—like a series of short stories undergoing an impromptu “fixup” along the lines of Chandler, Van Vogt and Spillane.

It didn’t matter how many light years—separated me and my telepathic twin Other. Communication like in “Time for the Stars”—was immediate. I felt some kind of Twin Paradox—knocking at the door. That somewhere in the future—I was looking back at myself now. And that this Other—was my twin brother. My double—my doppelganger other self. Not just my twin brother—but myself looking back in time.

I dropped the book on the lunch table—and closed my eyes. Surely, I said to myself, this kind of futuristic communication would be a lot more important and easier than—than all the clunky outdated mechanical and electronic gizmos and MIT high-tech shennanigans that were slowly coming out of the Sputnik Era?

Couldn’t time itself—be retrofitted and back-engineered to the present so that technology could be seen like a Chagall readymade? A magic tablet or iPad screen—saving a lot of time with a futuristic “fixup”? The more I thought about—the more paradoxical the Twin Paradox got…

I felt simultaneously disillusioned and yet exhilerated by the “pulp fiction” Twin Paradox proposition of Heinlein’s Time for the Stars novel. And from then on I devoured the complete Winston series of juvenile sci-fi novels in the library—as well as tons of Ace paperback double-novels and issues of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine from the local drugstore and college library.

From then on—there was plenty of “Time For the Stars” for me. Many of my friends went on to MIT and became embedded in the POMO zeitgeist of the late capitalist era. I shrugged my shoulders—and delved deeper into Pulp Fiction and Ace paperback novels.

Damon Knight’s “In Search of Wonder” and the idea of sci-fi lit crit became very interesting to me. The only thing I lacked was a telepathic twin brother—but that would happen later on in the future. As my Mickey Spellane young male hormones kicked in—and I started writing and publishing in the ’70 and ‘80s. Under the guise of gay utopias, straight dystopias—and other science fictions.

Looking back on all that now—it’s not the nostalgic recovery or bitter-sweet resurrection of that universe of juvie sci-fi that’s the object of my desire and wish-fulfillment now. But rather it’s more like I’ve got this “nostalgia for the present” concept I’m dealing with. Something that Jameson says can only be achieved when the present is transformed into a distant past by a future perspective. The true function and reason for the existence of such a paradigm shift—would be to shift “tense perspectives” through various techniques of what’s called “parasurrealism.”

It’s easier for me to see future history now—in terms of the pulp fiction present. The dismal neo-noir pulp fiction present of Chandler and Spillane—its dark troubling shallowness, its film noir hollowness and what Malarmé calls its “absence of contemporaneity” which is now the noir sci-fi genre I’m interested in.

It seems to me that Van Vogt, Chandler, Spillane and to a certain extent Heinlein and PKD—were all surrealist writers or what I’m calling sci-fi noir “parasurrealism” now.

“To varying degrees both surrealist and textual poetries are examples of writings from inside language and are indicative of Barthes’ writer of the future, whose text is open-ended and dispersed throughout the body rather than schematized and centered in the mind. This form of parasurrealist/textual writing is…based on diversion, digression, interruption, reverberation, grammatical dislocations and dream.”—Charles Borkhuis, “Writing from Inside Language: Late Surrealism and Textual Poetry” in the anthology Telling It Slant—Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s, edited by Mark Wallace and Steven Marks (2002).

The rationale being that surrealism’s return in later textual poetry (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry) has been prepared in part by structuralist and poststructuralist theory and that the germ of the structuralist revolution was already in surrealist writings.

“The emergence of a parasurrealist tendency in today’s textual poetry may be assign that language writing is still too narrowly rooted in cognitive processes and that what postlanguage poetries are seeking is a more contemporary, scientific model of intelligence, one that is more widely dispersed throughout the entire sensorium.”

Van Vogt describes his methods in his autobiography, Reflections of A.E. Van Vogt (1975) along similar parasurrealist lines:

“I dream my story ideas in my sleep. I don’t say that I get all my ideas by dreaming, but it is how I get aspects of them. I’m writing a story, for example, and I suddenly realize I don’t know what comes next… So I sleep on it and keep waking up thinking, “Well, now, I need a lift here of some kind.” Then, I fall asleep, you see, even as I put that thought into my mind. Then I wake up again and repeat that, just run through the thought. Generally, either in a dream or about ten o’clock in the morning—bang!—an idea comes and it will be something in a sense non-sequitur, yet a growth from the story. I’ve gotten my most original stories that way; these ideas made the story different every ten pages.”

What would a non-sequitur sci-fi noir episode be like? Could one, for example, develop an episode about “nostalgia for the present” with a one-liner non-sequitur like "Ah, nostalgia ain't what it used to be..." This one-liner is an English proverb that is sometimes used to mock another's reactionary opinion.

A non-sequitur neo-noir episode might be written using something like this Rodney Dangerfield one-liner: "If it wasn't for pickpockets, I'd have no sex life at all."

Other possible one-liner non-sequiturs come to mind like: "I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception." (Groucho Marx) or "The worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades." (Demetri Martin)

It’s this kind of unmanageable, irrational, fantastic, unexpected, stunning—as well as unliterate, illitererate and disliterate literary operation that gets rid of our privileged forms of censorship and resistance to the pulp conventions of writers like Mickey Spillane. While other writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashell Hammett and James M. Cain are worshipped for their more mainstream literary language and accomplshments.

How else can one explain the controversy caused by Mickey Spillane’s classic sci-fi noir pulp fiction thriller Kiss Me, Deadly (1952)—made even more sci-fi by the Aldrich and Bezzerides collaborative “atomic” film version of Spillane’s novel? Resistance to pulp fiction conventions and language is very much like the resistance to the often strange and fascinating Grade-B monster and sci-fi teenage exploitation drive-in flicks of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

One can see perhaps why Breton’s early surrealist movement flopped—it killed the very thing it worshipped. Instead of cultivating it—Breton’s clique censored it.

Promotion for profit—and big bucks from affluent middle class young Americans with money and cars. That’s one thing that drive-in sexploitation movies did—to promote cinematic surrealism. It promoted every imaginable outer space beast, creature and menace immaginable. Plus resurrecting some rather nostagic items as well—such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Monster of Piedras Blancas, Caltiki the Immortal Monster, Tarantula, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and various other cinematic science fictions.

Van Vogt and Phillip K. Dick are similar to Mickey Spillane—in that all three are contemporaries of the Chandler detective story tradition and they all share a film noir aesthetic with run-down urban spaces and threatening cityscapes such as:

“I knew where I was. Once you put in time on Second Avenue you never forget it. The store front I came out of was dirty and deserted. At one time it had been a lunch counter, but now all that was left was the grease stains and the FOR RENT sign in the window. The gin mill on the corner was just closing up, the last of the human rubble that inhabited the place drifting across the street until he dissolved into the mist.”—Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me, Deadly (1952)

And this Van Vogt cityscape:

“Then he was on a vacant lot, beyond which towered a long series of blackened brick and concrete buildings, the beginning of the wholesale and factory district… He scrambled up some steps into an open doorway, into a great, dark-lit warehouse… a dull light-world of looming box shapes, and floors that stretched into the remote semi-darkness… He paused and peered out of the door. He was staring into a street vastly different from Capitol Avenue. It was a dingy street of cracked pavement, the opposite side lined with houses that had been built of plastic a hundred or more years before. Made of virtually unbreakable materials, their imperishable colors basically as fresh and bright as on the day of construction, they nevertheless showed the marks of time. Dust and soot had fastened leechlike upon the glistening stuff. Lawns were ill-tended and piles of debris lay around.”—Slan (1982)

There are differences between the Spillane street and the Van Vogt street. According to Jameson, there’s a range of different sub-genres and media productions in the film noir tradition which runs from the years immediately proceeding WWII to the beginnings of the Cold War.

For example, it may be worthwhile to compare the above Van Vogt room—with this Mickey Spillane room in Kiss Me, Deadly:

“It was a room. It had one window high off the floor and you could see pinpoints that were stars through he film of dirt on the glass. I was spread-eagled on the bed with my hands and legs pulled tight to the frame and when I tried to twist the ropes bit into my skin and burned like acid. The muscles in my side had knotted in pain over ribs that were torturous hands gripping my chest… The room took shape, a square empty thing with a musty odor of disuse filling it. I could see the single chair in one corner, the door in the wall and the foot of the bed. I tried to move, but there wasn’t an inch of play in the ropes and the knots that tied them only seemed to get tighter.”—Kiss Me, Deadly (1952)

No containment strategy can work with this mobster interrogation room. It emerges with all of the horrible forces of the underworld—beyond all the scandalousness of some virtually “realistic” form of containment.

First the mobster’s henchmen loosen Hammer up with billies—snapping them down with a blur of motion and smashing his ribs. Two sadistic bastards work him over—trying to kill him inch by inch. The pain turns his body into a mass of broken nerve ends that shriek in his brain. He passes out. Then the mobster boss comes in—savoring Hammer’s pain with a twisted smile. He leans a little closer.

“One of the boys is a knife man. He likes to do thing with a knife. Maybe you can remember what he did to Berga Torn.” I could see the smile on his face get ugly. “That isn’t even a little bit of what he’ll do to you.”

The side of Evello’s hand traces horrible gestures across Hammer’s body, meaningful, cutting gestures with the nastiest implications imaginable in them. Then the gestures end as the side of Evello’s palm sliced into Hammer’s groin for emphasis and the yell that started in Hammer’s throat chokes off in a welter of pain…”

Spillane’s room is perhaps more noir and murderous than Van Vogt’s rooms. The ones in Slan, The Purpose or The Weapon Shops. The room in Kiss Me, Deadly expands with pain and suffering—while the room in The Purpose disappears:

“Dizzy, she turned to look at the door through which she had come. She expected to see a building, but there wasn’t any. Undergrowth spread in a thick tangle all around where the building should have been. Even the open door was half-hidden by lichens that intertwined cunningly all over the exposed metal face of the door.”—“The Purpose,” The Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt (1974)

Spillane’s room is actually two rooms joined together in a special syntactical relationship—a spatial syntax. The passage between the two rooms isn’t through a door—it’s through an S/M act, an unspeakable, unthinkable act of torture which sets the limits of what articulated language can do or say.

What’s sci-fi noir about this room of Spillane’s in Kiss Me, Deadly isn’t particularly the room itself—or how the room is used for containment and then torture. The three mobsters which torture Hammer don’t act like human beings—they’re actually very “alien” and otherworldly in their devotion to pain and torture.

Jack Lambert, Jack Elam and Paul Stewart are famous film noir character actors. They’ve appeared in countless murder mysteries and gangland mobster melodramas. Aldrich chose well to include these three classic bad guys in Kiss Me, Deadly—because that’s what they’re good at: being bad guys.

But in Kiss Me, Deadly—Lambert, Elam and Stewart get even more “realistic” than the usual realism of film noir flicks. They seem to exist in a malevolent alien underground world—shedding all recognizable human consciousness and identity. They seem to embody an alien ideologeme—a specific narrative unit that can be found at work in other genres and media during the same general period.

Lambert, Elam and Steward could just as well be found in alien monster movies around the same time—such as The Thing, Them, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Monster of Piedras Blancas.

The alien or monster ideologeme isn’t that much different than the mobster ideologeme in film noir movies. The mobsters undergo identity transformations—like Carmen Sternwood in Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Her monsterous ideologeme is closeted by the Sternwood family until the very end of the novel when she ends up the narcotic murderer of Rusty Regan—having shot him and dumped his body down into the depths of an old oil well.

Spillane describes with disgusting dialog—how the mobster-alien ideologeme is triggered by Hammer’s tough guy behavior and what Hammer had done to a couple of them when they tried to kidnap him in his office.

“Tough guy. You were hard to take, mister. You know what you did? You pulled the eyes right out of Foreman. He screamed so loud my friend here had to tap him one and he tapped too hard and now Foreman’s lying in a Jersey swamp dead. They don’t come like Foreman any more. You know something else? You ruptured duke, you bastard. You fixed him good, you did.”

So that the mobster-alien ideologeme—can be rather articulate and revengeful about things. And smart too—much smarter than your regular run-of-the-mill pod-person.

In fact, this episode is very much like the two-alien situation that Jameson mentions in Van Vogt’s seminal story “Dark Destroyer”—with the monster Coeurl superimposed on the traces and archaelogical remains of a previous alien civilization. Similar to the two-alien narrative of Redley Scott’s Alien—with the alien spaceship piloted by an alien done in by the very monsters that do in the human visitors.

Actually what happens with the mobster-aliens of Kiss Me, Deadly is the same thing that happens with the two-alien narrative in The Forbidden Planet (1956)—in which Morbius, thanks to the ancient Krell civilization and a mind-boost that he undergoes with their technology, unleashes the Monster of the Id within his own mind. This Monster of the Id is not a Krell being—those beings died long ago. But what the Krell mind-boost does—is create an alien monster out of the mind of Morbius—much like the alien lizard monsters of Alien.

So that, what the mobster-alien ideologeme is and does in Kiss Me, Deadly—is actually the mirror reflection of Mike Hammer himself and what he did and does to Lambert, Elam and Steward. It transforms them—into the Mobsters-Aliens of the Id that they become.

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