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Noir by KW Jeter
(US edition: Bantam Spectra, $6.99, 512 pages, paperback; published August 1999. UK edition: Orion Millennium, 6.99, 383 pages, paperback; published 21 January 1999)

This book is a dam breaking, a flood of ideas pouring over after they've been held back for years. I'm prone to assuming a lot of things about books and the writers and what things mean when cover scanthey don't necessarily mean a thing. It's part of the enjoyment, small as it may be. Perhaps one should only pay attention to the book when writing a review, but I find it inseparable from the reality outside, or at least my perception of it. Thus what I write here is a reaction to what I read and how I perceived various things rather than a review per se. If you wish to know the plot, read the book.

KW Jeter hasn't published an original novel since 1992's Wolf Flow, yet he has published eight books. This is not to say he has written unoriginal novels in the meantime, merely that these books have been based on another's work. The few I've read have varied from competent to good, and yet there has been a seeming restraint when compared to his earlier, original work. While drawing on tradition, Noir expands on it without inhibitions.

"...That's why I sold out to DZ, joined up with them so hard it'd take a titanium crowbar to pry me loose. Me and the rest of the ones like me, plus everybody at the Snake Medicine(tm) franchise headquarters -- we could see the handwriting on the wall...You've been weighed in the balance and we've found you worthwhile enough to buy, so you can either sell out now or go back to selling rubber vibrators at strip-mall discount outlets." (Noir, page 302)

The word "noir" is full of history and implications. This is a world where betrayal is expected, death accepted. But John McNihil has a new set of eyes showing him only the world he wants (or once wanted): the world of film noir. He sees reality through a filter, turning the grim future he had hoped to escape into Touch of Evil and Double Indemnity. McNihil is an easy man to hate, and it took me a while to get past a queasy feeling after encountering him in his work: hunting, torturing and, for all practical purposes, executing copyright violators in gruesome detail. Perhaps his reality filter, a device that is left somewhat unexplored after the initial idea, allows him to see his vocation as less cruel than it really is. But you shouldn't make the same mistake I did upon starting the book. I took it far too seriously missing the humour inside. Not the kind that relieves the tension, but rather a knowing, sly humour found lurking in between the lines.

" some senses, suspense fiction is really at its most interesting when it's anxiety fiction -- when the people are having a hard time because they have problems [...] Most of them would just be fucking grateful if they could live out their lives going to some dumb job, going home in the evening, having their wives cook them dinner... They don't want to fuck around with the bad stuff, but something happens and they have to deal with it." -- KW Jeter in an interview, 1987

This is almost a quote from one of the characters, an old bastard of a writer called Turbiner. I'm sure it's not the only thing the author has in common with him, and the chapter where McNihil meets with Turbiner is one of the best sequences in the book. There is a relaxed atmosphere full of implied thought, a familiar place with understanding that Jeter obviously has enjoyed creating. The dialogue sparkles, and the text has a truly noirish sense of fatality that is faced with a false smile.

There is considerably more to be gleaned from the book, ideas that aren't mere window-dressing but explored through the experiences of the individuals. The most promoted theme of Noir is its concern over intellectual property, and while I found these parts thought-provoking, the core of the book is in its cast of characters. Jeter understands and is capable of conveying to the reader the darker side of human nature, the blurring line between human and inhuman. This is familiar territory to those of you reading Phil Dick's work (and if you aren't, you should be!), and it should be familiar to anyone who has read Jeter's earlier work. Interwoven with the strange and the unusual are shadows of present-day concerns and psychological insights expressed with subtle precision.

"You see," continued Harrisch, "it's important to concern ourselves with what's real. What's really real. Who was the wise man who said that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, it's still there?" (Noir, page 110)

The novel isn't perfect. Some of the new language sounds forced, and the overall impact falls a bit short of expectations. But besides being a terrific read on its own, the book wonderfully combines a lot of Jeter's earlier fiction and evolves into a beautiful hybrid. This is what the Blade Runner books should have been. This is the true successor to both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott's interpretation of it. What Scott did then, Jeter does now: he bends the rules to create something new without forgetting what was left behind. More importantly this is a synthesis of Jeter's own earlier work, blending science and suspense fiction into a larger whole. It stands well on its own, but as a piece in a body of work, it makes even more sense. Not only does Noir contain some fascinating concepts, Jeter also creates perfectly precise and beautifully captured moments that make it excitingly original. Science fiction is often more of the past and the present than it is of the future. Noir embraces it all.

Review by JT Lindroos.

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© JT Lindroos 21 April 2001