Fri
Aug 19 2011 2:15pm

Writing Dystopian Noir Fiction

As a writer of “dystopian noir” or what my friend Martin calls “noir-wellian” novels, I was excited to see that this week is noir week at tor.com. You see, my second novel, Scorch City, will be out on August 30 and this provides me with the excuse to talk about creating a noir-tinged dystopia.

What is noir fiction, exactly? Most people, I think, have a sense of the basic elements: tough, cynical protagonists, bleak settings, femme fatales, an atmosphere suffused with threat and violence, and so on. Another critical element that is often overlooked in the haze of the atmospherics is the sense that the protagonist is in over his head against forces that are bigger than he/she is and indifferent, if not actually hostile. To say there’s an existentialist streak in noir fiction is probably understating it. In other words, to begin with, noir fiction is not that far removed from a type of dystopia.

Good dystopian fiction allows an author to explore some theme by creating a society in which certain societal qualities or traits are exaggerated. The classic example, of course, is Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia in 1984. Because dystopias are so dependent on “world building,” they tend to be set at some point in the future, allowing the author more-or-less free reign in their creation. But the past can be seen, to me at least, as equally fertile ground.

When I wrote my first book, The Vaults, there were certain themes that I wanted to write about — first and foremost, how information is organized and preserved and the perils of government-sanctioned truth — and spent some time trying to figure out the most compelling setting for the story. For reasons of history and technology, I settled on the 1930s and then went about creating a dystopian city (called the City) that would allow me to explore these themes. The Vaults of the title are the repository of the City’s criminal records run by a series of obsessive Archivists who oversee a complicated and arcane organizational system. The City itself is distinctly dystopian with huge abandoned neighborhoods, old warehouses where the myriad homeless seek shelter, oppressive political corruption, and an atmosphere of decay and hopeless struggle.

I am not the first, of course, to combine elements of dystopian and noir fiction. Philip K. Dick, for instance, spent a fair amount of his writing career working with this blend, though his best-known work (at least what I have read of it) is generally set in the future. Indeed, for a cinematic example of dystopian noir I don’t think you can beat Blade Runner, adapted from one of Dick’s novellas.

Scorch City, the soon-to-be released sequel to The Vaults is also set in the City, but with some changes to keep the setting fresh. We follow Frank Frings, the protagonist of The Vaults, as he becomes enveloped in the fight over a utopian shantytown called the Uhuru Community run by the messianic Father Wome. The bleak atmosphere of the City remains, but the dangers have changed as political, religious, and racial conflict threatens to spill over into violence in the heat of the summer. The introduction of a utopian society — the Uhuru Community — in the dystopian City creates a dynamic where men and women try to resist the seemingly unstoppable force of urban entropy. Most dystopian novels feature a person or people who successfully or unsuccessfully defy society in search of a better or truer life. In Scorch City, it is an entire community that rebels and its fate is a test of whether any endeavor of this kind can survive in the indifferent City, whether hope can defeat despair.


Toby Ball is the author of Scorch City and The Vaults. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children.

This article is part of Noir Week on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1 comment
Caleb J. Ross
4. Caleb J. Ross
Scortch City sounds great. I haven't heard the term dystopian noir used very much, and I'm not sure I've read too much of it, but it seems right up my alley. My books would be called domestic grotesque, but noir elements definitely seep into it sometimes. Dystopian settings seem perfect for noir. I might have to try my hand at this.

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