Lately I’ve been on a film noir kick. It all started with a Time Life collectors’ issue I saw on a newsrack at the supermarket and decided to add some titles to my Netflix DVD queue. So far I’ve seen: Shadow of a Doubt, Laura, The Maltese Falcon, The Woman in the Window, The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Gilda.
Now some of you may be thinking that as a reader the next logical step in my journey through film noir land is to read the detective mysteries that influenced these films, particularly works by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and one day I will. But as usual, I wanted to read sci-fi books by the authors who were influenced by this cinematic art form. The subgenre is called many names: future noir, tech noir, mystery sci-fi or hardboiled sci-fi. It combines all the familiar trappings of film noir -tough, wise-cracking detectives solving cases, gangsters with guns and femme fatales – with the out-of-this-world-trappings of science fiction: the setting is the future or an alternate timeline. Robots, aliens and mutants are involved, etc. And the first novel that came to mind was Jonathan Lethem’s 1994 novel Gun, With Occasional Music.
Watch out – Spoilers about!
Welcome to Oakland of the future. A future where asking questions is a social faux pas. Where everyone carries “karma points” on cards which could be added or subtracted if you’re not careful. Where criminals are placed in freezers instead of prisons. Where most of the adult population is addicted to assorted government provided cocaine. Where animals and children undergo a procedure called “evolution therapy” which gives them the intelligence of (adult) humans. Where men and women can switch sexual nerve endings. Where news comes in the form of music to warn listeners.
What’s so effective about Gun, With Occasional Music is that Lethem makes this society sound believable – and scary. You’ve heard the saying: “it’s a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.” Well this is a place you wouldn’t want to visit or live in.
Private eye Conrad Metcalf’s job is to ask questions. So you know he’s not the most liked man in Oakland. It doesn’t stop murder suspect Orton Angwine from hiring him to investigate the murder of Dr. Maynard Stanhunt, for whom he’s been wrongfully accused. It doesn’t help that Metcalf is up against a Mob boss and his evolved kangaroo henchman, Stanhunt’s former medical partner Dr. Testafer, Stanhunt’s estranged wife Celeste, her friend Patsy and members of the Inquisitor’s Office, who just took all of Angwine’s karma points and want to toss the poor guy into the freezer.
So besides thinking that this futuristic noirish society is not a nice place to visit, what other thoughts went through my mind as I read Gun, With Occasional Music? Here are 5 of them:
1. Evolution Therapy Is a Very, Very Bad Idea
As I said before, animals and children can go through this procedure (the book never describes how it’s done) and come out with advanced brains – but not bodies. While animals can now talk and walk on two legs (and wear clothes) nothing much is said about how the animals change physically. Some, like an evolved goat that Conrad buys a newspaper from, work low-paying jobs, but how can they pick things up if they have hoofs or paws? How do they dress themselves? How do they write? What is the life of an evolved animal like in GWOM? If Lethem decides to write a sequel he should write one from the perspective of an evolved animal.
Yet evolved animals seem to have it easier than the babyheads, children whose brains have been accelerated so that they think and feel like adults – while still in the bodies of children. Because of evolution therapy these people have cynical, bitter attitudes and live most of their lives as alcoholics and drug addicts. Ironically it’s tough, wise guy, Conrad who comments on the lack of children in this society and wishes that there were ordinary children playing in the streets (this makes me wonder how Conrad’s generation avoided the procedure).
And then there’s that male/female erogenous zone switcherooni procedure that Conrad chose to experiment in with his ex-girlfriend and she’s run off with his sex nerve endings while he’s stuck with hers. It means that Conrad can have the sexual responses of a woman but can’t get an erection (once again the book doesn’t go into too much detail). Have I mentioned that he’s also a drug addict like everyone else? No surprise there.
2. I Can’t Help But Feel Some Pity For Joey Castle
Do you think the idea of a talking, gun-toting, suit-wearing kangaroo sounds funny? Reminds you of a certain movie about a kangaroo that came out a decade ago? Think again. Joey Castle (how ironic) is no laughing matter. He’s a hitman hired by Phoneblum to stalk, harass and possibly kill our hero. Except Joey’s always having his bu – uh, tail, handed to him by Conrad. Remember what I said about evolved animals having the brains of humans but the same animal bodies? As long as Joey acts like a human he will fail at being a human because he’s not human (and it’s not like he had a choice when it came to undergoing evolution therapy). Yet in one scene where an Inquisitor crosses paths with Joey (who’s still trailing Metcalf), Joey uses his marsupial heritage to his advantage and attacks the man with his enormous feet. And you don’t want to come into contact with a kangaroo’s feet. It’s a shame that Joey never uses his natural-born weapons again – especially when Conrad finally kills him.
3. There’s No Femme Fatales In This Story
But then, that depends on your definition of femme fatale.
According to Wikipedia, a femme fatale is “a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous and deadly situations.” However after watching many of the aforementioned films, I’ve learned that the femme fatale is not as easily defined as we think. She can be sympathetic. She can be tough. She can be vulnerable. She can have a good side. She can switch sides. Depending on who you ask, she can be a sexist or feminist.
Of the three important women of the story, only two pursue a relationship with Conrad: Celeste Stanhunt and Catherine Teleprompter, the receptionist who works at the Inquisitor’s Office. Both display traits associated with the femme fatale but face radically different outcomes.
In one scene, Celeste enters Metcalf’s office and tries to hire – and seduce – him. Because of his “condition” and her dubious role in her husband’s murder, he rejects her. She’s later found dead.
Then there’s Catherine Teleprompter, whom, despite his “condition”, Metcalf eventually sleeps with (fortunately the sex scene is brief and not graphic). But it’s after this tryst, Conrad’s karma points are depleted and he’s put in the freezer for six years. Six years later, Catherine is head of the Office and (on a newly thawed Conrad’s advice) lets Orton Angwine out of the freezer.
4. This Would Make a Great Animated Film
Because no one would take a live action film with CGI talking animals seriously. But as I was reading the book, I kept picturing the setting, characters and mood as a hand-drawn film with no music (except the kind that come out the radio and gun) in the spirit of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, Martin Rosen’s Watership Down, or Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. No I’m not saying the film is supposed to be an anime styled film, it just has to avoid the “cutesified” route. This story is not for kids.
5. It Makes Me Want to Read Other Future Noir Works
After this book I read the novella “Identity Theft” by Robert J. Sawyer (which is part of his 2013 novel Red Planet Blues. Then after typing “hard-boiled sci-fi” in the search engine, I found articles listing seminal works in the genre. Some of these works are: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Who Censored Roger Rabbit by Gary Wolfe. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan.
Those are my 5 thoughts on Gun, With Occasional Music. What’re yours?